81 Days With Oscar And Me

Every Academy Award-Winning Movie, Back to Back, Starting With the First

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Grand Hotel

August 24th, 2009 · No Comments · 1931-1932, Absinthe, Adaptation, Black and White, Drama, Grand Hotel, Greta Garbo, Louisiana Flip, M-G-M Studios, Mordaunt Hall, Smoking, The Barrymores

Grand Hotel I wander around in book stores a lot. (My wife tells me I wander around in them too much, although it’s not the wandering that alarms her; it’s the buying.) I found a used book at our local Barnes & Noble called The New York Times Film Reviews: A One-Volume Selection, by George Amberg. It’s a fascinating little volume, musty with age (it was published in 1971), and chock-full of reviews of movies from the date on which they first appeared in print.

I can think of no better introduction to Grand Hotel than to enlist the aid of one Mordaunt Hall (November 1878 – 2 July 1973), the first regularly assigned motion picture critic for The New York Times, from October 1924 to September 1934, according to the entry for Mordaunt on Wikipedia, which goes on to report that his writing style was described in his New York Times obituary as “chatty, irreverent, and not particularly analytical.… The interest of other critics in analyzing cinematographic techniques was not for him.”

Mordaunt gives the following account of the opening night of the star-studded movie in his review, dated April 13, 1932:

For the first showing last night of the film of Vicki Baum’s stage work, “Grand Hotel,” those worshipers of the stars of the Hollywood firmament choked the sidewalk outside the Astor and also the theatre lobby while policemen afoot and on horse urged the throng to keep moving. And from across Broadway blinding beams of light added to the general excitement.

Inside the theatre it was for a time difficult to move but very slowly, for many of those who had tickets pressed into the aisles and behind the orchestra seats with the evident hope of catching a glimpse of one or another cinema celebrity. But once microphone music came from the stage the spectators hastened to their places and soon the introductory scene of the much talked of motion picture was emblazoned on the screen. It was that of the telephone operators in the Grand Hotel and then the pushing and shouting was a thing of the past.

It is a production thoroughly worthy of all the talk it has created and the several motion-picture luminaries deserve to feel very proud of their performances, particularly Greta Garbo and Lionel Barrymore…

It is indubitably a capital subject to bring to the screen, for it benefits by the sweeping scope of the camera and in swaying from room to room and from the lobby to the telephone switchboard…

Miss Garbo, of course, impersonates the dancer Grusinaskaya, played on stage by Eugenie Leontovich…She is stunning in her early scenes and charming in the love scene with Baron Gaigern, portrayed by John Barrymore with his usual savoir faire.

Through Mr. Barrymore’s skillful interpretation one gleans the satisfaction of this obsequious human adding machine has hobnobbing with people of the world and in living in the corner suite of the Grand Hotel. Mr. Barrymore is superb when he as Kringelein finds himself tipsy, tipsy but elated. If ever an actor got under the skin of a character Mr. Barrymore does here.

Mordaunt continues for a few more paragraphs, again fawning over Garbo, Lionel and John Barrymore, giving a bit of a slam to Wallace Beery’s performance, and then wraps up his review by recalling a statement made at the beginning of the movie by a world-weary, bored doctor who bemoans nothing ever happens at the Grand Hotel:

And the audience has seen manslaughter, gambling, a baron bent on stealing pearls, love affairs, a business deal and various other doings. And “nothing ever happens!”

Here are the particulars from the opening credits:

Greta Garbo
…the dancer
John Barrymore
The Baron
Joan Crawford
…the stenographer
Wallace Beery
General Director
Lionel Barrymore
Otto Kringelein
Lewis Stone
Doctor Otternschlag
Jean Hersholt
Senf, the Porter
Vicki Baum
Directed by
Edmund Goulding
112 Minutes

Another musty three- or four-decades-old book I found in the used book section at B&N is The Films of Greta Garbo, compiled by Michael Conway, Dion McGregor, and Mark Ricci, with an introductory essay, “The Garbo Image,” by Parker Tyler. In his essay, Tyler writes,

Garbo. This will not be a drooling piece about her. But just to speak her name, or write it, is to evoke what I would call, after much brooding on the subject, a presence in Madame Tussaud’s of the imagination. The world we live in, where fame is a white heat perpetuated by a labyrinth of mirrors, engenders that sort of imagination in all of us…”

Sounds kind of drooly to me, Mr. Tyler.

The House of BarrymoreFinally, the last old book I’ll trot out for you (whomever “you” are) is The House of Barrymore, by Margot Peters. In the chapter titled “1932-1934,” Peters writes,

Now Garbo was cast opposite John [Barrymore] in Grand Hotel, and suddenly it was the meeting of the gods…Jack [John Barrymore] repaid Garbo with the greatest gift an actor can bestow: he supported rather than competed with her, speaking with controlled emotion when he tells her he loves her, for example, and turning his face from the camera. For such courtesies as well as whispered assurances like “You are the most entrancing woman in the world,” Garbo repaid him by impulsively embracing and kissing him. “You have no idea what it means to me to play opposite so perfect an artist!”

The movie opens in a rush of scenes, overheard conversations on telephones, people moving from one place at the front desk to the other, people entering and leaving the hotel lobby, smoking like chimneys – a flurry of activity. It’s a brisk pace, in sharp contrast to the statement wearily uttered by Doctor Otternschlag, “Nothing ever happens.” A lot happens.

Lionel Barrymore’s performance as Kringelein was riveting, absolutely stunning. He looked and acted nothing like the character of Mr. Potter in the 1947 movie It’s a Wonderful Life. John Barrymore played Baron Gaigern with such depth. He was a scoundrel. But one with his heart in the right place.

A few of the scenes seemed long. But the movie clipped along at breakneck speed because of the power of the actors. All in all, a superb movie. NOTE: Grand Hotel is the third Oscar-winning movie to be based on a novel (which means it’s an adaptation).

Two last comments on Grand Hotel:

1. In one scene, Kringelein (Barrymore) and Flaemmchen – the Stenographer (Crawford) are in the bar. Kringelein asks her what she’ll have to drink. He repeatedly tells the bartender to give her a “Louisiana Flip.” She chooses absinthe instead. But Kringelein was so insistent on getting his “Louisiana Flip” that I searched the Internet to find out what it was. Lo! and Behold! Here’s the recipe for a “Louisiana Flip”:

Louisiana Flip
In a shaker with half filled of ice pour:
7/10 of white rum
1/10 of triple
2/10 of orange juice
Splash of grenadine
1 egg yolk.
Shake well and and pour in a flute.

2. Lionel Barrymore’s character, giddy after drinking and winning at gambling, bubbles over with these lines:

…for the first time in my life, I’ve tasted life! Life is wonderful, but it’s very dangerous. If you have the courage to live it, it’s marvelous. You’re healthy and happy. But l, believe me…if a man doesn’t know death, he doesn’t know life.

With Kringelein’s wise, joyful words still ringing in my ears, I bid you good night.


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