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Grand Hotel

The best picture of 1932 takes place nowhere near Mackinac Island, despite being called Grand Hotel, which is horrible false advertising. It actually takes place in Berlin and features an all-star cast that manages to pack in Wallace Beery, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and both Barrymore brothers.

The plot is quite complex, so try to keep up. Lionel Barrymore plays Otto Kringelein, a middle aged man recently told he doesn't have long to live, so he moves into the Grand Hotel to blow the rest of his money in style. While he's there he befriends a Baron, played by John Barrymore, who is at the hotel to steal a string of pearls belonging to a famous Russian dancer named Grusinskaya, played by Garbo. She feels her career is at an end and is contemplating suicide, telling her entourage that she "just wants to be alone." Meanwhile Beery's character, a textile mill owner named Preysing, is trying to nail down a profitable merger and at one point needs the services of a stenographer, played by Crawford.

Things become complicated when the stenographer flirts with the Baron, but the Baron falls in love with the dancer. The Baron tries to get the stenographer to dance with Mr. Kringelein instead, but Preysing has fallen for her and tries to cut in, as Kringelein tells her off. With the Baron having feelings for the dancer, which the dancer reciprocates, he feels guilty about the plot to rob her, but he also has befriended Kringelein, and when a chance to take his money pops up, he briefly considers it, but decides he cannot do that to such a genuinely good man. He instead tried to rob Preysing, but is caught in the act and Preysing savagely beats him to death. Preysing insists he was just trying to stop the robbery, but his offers to buy Kringelein off to keep him quiet fail because he did not help Kringelein when Kringelein needed help.

Preysing is taken off by police. The dancer is taken off by her handlers, never knowing what happened to her Baron. The mourning Kringelein and stenographer head off to Paris, Kringelein promising to take care of her.

There is so much more that could have been done here. The set up reads like a comedy, but other than a handful of lighthearted moments it really isn't a comedy. It's hardly a drama either, since we aren't with any one storyline enough to get a sense of really caring about what happens one way or another. The scene of Preysing begging Kringelein for help serves as every beleaguered employees dream, but the set up isn't executed well enough and the payoff isn't executed much better. There is a nice cinematic technique of Kringelein looking smaller during an early confrontation between the two when Preysing has the upper hand, and looking taller later in the movie when he has the upper hand, but that isn't enough to save the entire movie.

Garbo's famous line was voted the 30th all-time greatest movie line by AFI, but it seems like little more than a throwaway line. She delivers it before she meets the Baron, and it perfectly displays her emotional state at the time, but the role really isn't that big, certainly not as big as Crawford's, and up to that point we haven't seen enough of her to really care how she feels. It's also curious that the writers chose to have her never find out about the murder. It does make sense that Kringelein and the stenographer don't tell her, since the Baron hasn't told either of them about the relationship (he does tell the stenographer he has fallen in love, but he doesn't elaborate and it seems she believes he is talking about her). However it seems cruel and somewhat tragic that no one tells the dancer, and that doesn't fit the tone of the rest of the movie.

Of the other nominees, the only two you might have heard of (and I doubt it) are Arrowsmith, based on a Sinclair Lewis novel, and The Champ, which made Beery the first actor to win an Oscar for playing a professional boxer, a distinction he later shared with Robert de Niro and Hilary Swank. Not nominated were Horse Feathers, where the Marx brother discover college football and hilarity ensues, the very overrated Freaks, and Paul Muni in the original Scarface. Horse Feathers is not as good as later Marx brothers fare, and Scarface isn't as good as other gangster movies of the era, especially Little Caesar, but both are better than Grand Hotel. Scarface is the best of the bunch, far, far better than the more famous remake starring Al Pacino, and certainly better than Grand Hotel, which has good acting certainly (especially by Lionel Barrymore, though he is essentially playing the same role he played a few years later in You Can't Take it with You), but is too inconsistent to really recomend.


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