While the star studded, block busting ensemble film is about as rare as a comic book adaptation in today’s cinematic world, at one point in time, it was not only a new idea, but one that blew the minds of much of the populace. As a film like Movie 43 proves, stars don’t mean much in today’s filmic landscape, but with a film like Grand Hotel, one is reminded that during the earlier days of Hollywood, stars meant more to a picture than just about anything. And as the saying goes, this film had “more stars than there is in heaven.”
Just take a look at this cast. Grand Hotel features a story that plays like a distant relative to the following collection of multiple-but-intertwining-narrative pictures that are now a dime a dozen, finding the likes of Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Berry, Lionel Barrymore and Jean Hersholt as residents within the Berlin-set Grand Hotel.
You have the Baron, Felix von Geigernn (John Barrymore) who becomes friends with a dying accountant (Lionel Barrymore), a ballerina who after having her jewels stolen by him, ultimately falls for the Baron (she, played by Greta Garbo) and even a director and a stenographer, the latter being willing to do just about anything to get her face on the big screen (played by Berry and Crawford respectively). This twisty narrative never becomes sloppy, instead playing out to a perfect blend of drama and comedy, ultimately culminating in a charming achievement from early ‘30s Hollywood.
Often times compared to a film like Ocean’s 11, one can’t help but see this film’s influence even more so on the films of Robert Altman. Basically a hotel-set picture akin to the theater-set A Prairie Home Companion, Grand Hotel comes to us from director Edmund Goulding, and while it’s not the most visually striking film from this era, it features one of the greatest collections of performances.
Everyone brings their A-game. Garbo is particularly amazing here as the Russian ballerina, and her chemistry with Barrymore’s Baron is completely and utterly vibrant. Crawford is top notch as well, as is her main foil, Wallace Berry as Preysing. As with a film like Companion, the film thrives when these icons mix and match their talents together, making for a thrillingly cohesive narrative with equal parts drama and comedy.
Visually, the film is rather standard. Best known for films like Dark Victory, Of Human Bondage and a few scenes of the seminal Marx Brothers comedy A Night At The Opera, Goulding’s career was wide and varied, but while this film may be his most iconic work, it certainly isn’t because of his direction. A serviceable production, the film is lively, but wisely allows the performances to become the percussive beat that drives this movie forward. The script from writers William A. Drake (from whose play this is based) and Bela Balazs is the real star here, blending these multiple narratives into a film that is so potently moving that it becomes something truly and utterly special. Also, William H. Daniels’ photography is stellar, making the hotel itself seemingly a different world into which we all now have the pleasure of looking.
At the time one of the most star studded pieces of cinema ever created, this big and gaudy Hollywood melodrama may not be the most cinematically expansive feature film ever made, but there are few greater joys on this planet than watching what may very well be one of the greatest casts ever assembled act circles around one another. This release is also just damn special. The transfer here is top notch, looking clean but not leaning too far over that edge as a recent Blu-ray of the great horror film White Zombie arguably did. Also, the supplements are great. Jeffrey Vance makes Criterion nerds happy by showing up here in a commentary with Mark Vieira, and special video pieces look at the film’s creation and premiere, with everything rounded out by trailers and even theater announcements. It’s a superbly deep release, and one that should be bought by just about any and every classic film fan around.