Thursday, March 8, 2012

Jordyn Does the Best Picture Winners: Grand Hotel (1931-32)

Famously, Grand Hotel is the only Best Picture winner in the history of the Academy Awards to be nominated in just one category...Best Picture. Think about that for a minute. Nothing about this film, not the acting, directing, editing, art direction, cinematography, or even screenplay was good enough to be honored with a nomination. So I ask the obvious: how exactly can it be the best?

Easy answer: it's probably not. In 1932, the Academy beefed up its number of BP nominees from 5 to 8. I'm no mathematician but even I know increasing the nominees makes winning far more difficult. It's quite possible two better films split the votes betwixt them and Grand Hotel by chance was #3.

Or maybe the Academy decided to vote for the film they enjoyed the most, technical goodness aside. As we see time and time again, the highest grossing film of the year (i.e. the most popular with Joe Sixpack) is usually only nominated in categories like Visual Effects or Make-Up*.

...or maybe Louis B. Mayer bribed the Academy members.

...or maybe Grand Hotel really was the best movie that year. I haven't seen the other nominees and people seem to really like this one. I, myself, am a bit conflicted about it.

Grand Hotel is based on a play of the same name by William A. Drake which was adapted from the 1929 novel Menschen im Hotel by Vicki Baum. It tells the story of five guests at the grandiest of grand hotels, the Grand Hotel in Berlin. First there is Baron Felix von Geigern (John Barrymore) a self proclaimed "black sheep" who makes his living as a gambler and occasional petty thief. He befriends Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) who is dying of some unmentioned disease and decides to live it up in the lap of luxury until he bites it. Meanwhile, business "General Director" Presying (Wallace Beery) is working on a merger and hires a plucky but jaded stenographer named Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford) to assist him. The Baron flirts with and makes a date with Flaemmchen but eventually falls in love with Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo), a manic depressive Russian ballerina.

Grand Hotel is a character study. There is no plot other than "five people interconnect over a period of two days at a hotel." For me, the likability of this film is directly proportional to the likability of its characters. As all good characters are, each one is flawed: The Baron is a thief. Grusinskaya you can't help but pity for her "fading star" predicament, but she is also MELODRAMATIC AS FUCK. Preysing just wants to do his job but finds himself in opportunity with Flaemmchen that he just can't resist. Flaemmchen is charming but a gold digger when it comes right down to it. And Kringelein, the most sympathetic character, gets pretty annoying with his "Do you really like me? Really? Oh, I'm so grateful!" thing.

The character that I most wanted to like in this thing was Flaemmchen. (I like to identify with the females, don't cha know.) She interested me far more than Grusinskaya. Flaemmchen also has aspirations to be a star but is too weak to throw herself into it all the way. In the end, SPOILERS! SPOILERS! she runs off with Kringelein because he has money to support her and she can't be with the one she really wants. He doesn't seem to mind because he's dying and hey, why not spend the time with some hot chick?

I was also drawn to Wallace Beery because I'm apparently attracted to big, sleazy German businessmen now.

What seems to be a classic Hollywood picture with Golden Age stars turns out to be surprisingly dark. Love doesn't conquer all. The almighty dollar does. The Baron tries through the whole movie to get enough money to survive and then to accompany his beloved ballerina to Vienna (By the way, after just one night he's in love? Puh-lease!). Preysing is completely focused on business, and then Flaemmchen's figure which he assumes he can buy. Kringelein needs money to die happily...You get it? So, if anything, Grand Hotel is a film about the necessity of money.

Still, it's sort of nice to see a film about people existing and interacting with one another without war, politics, disaster, or prejudice effecting them. We'll get a few of these in the future, but not many. The formatting is interesting and, I'm assuming, new for the time. I wasn't ever bored, also something I can't really say about some future winners. I'm looking at you, Around the World in 80 Days. But overall, Grand Hotel left a bad taste in my mouth. I wanted Morals and Goodness to triumph but Realism does.

Impressions circa 2004
Middling. I was underwhelmed as I recall.

Other Nominations and Wins
(bold represents win)

1931-32 Best Picture Nominees
(bold represents films I have seen)
  • Arrowsmith 
  • Bad Girl 
  • The Champ 
  • Five Star Final 
  • One Hour With You 
  • Shanghai Express 
  • The Smiling Lieutenant 

What I Learned From...Grand Hotel
Money makes the world go 'round.

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