In honor of the Academy Awards, it’s high time we remind ourselves of the greater good that the awards have contributed to. Sure, the broadcasts are too long and the winners receive equal parts praise and scrutiny, but that doesn’t mean the awards matter any less than they used to.
The Oscars have made marquee decisions both forgotten and remembered. Lord knows “The Greatest Show on Earth” was an awful film. But for every noted landmark like “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “It Happened One Night,” there’s an equally wonderful film that goes by the wayside in the popular consciousness.
“Grand Hotel” was the fifth film to win Best Picture, and it’s one of the unfortunately ignored ones.
A cavalcade of Hollywood’s earliest super celebrities, simple studio filmmaking and all-around entertaining drama, it’s a truly great film, and a benchmark for the Academy’s history. Oh, and best of all, it’s easier to watch than you might think.
“Grand Hotel” is a series of connected stories at the eponymous Berlin Inn, where a ballerina (Greta Garbo, “Ninotchka”), a baron (John Barrymore, “Dinner At Eight”), an ill clerk (Lionel Barrymore, “Isn’t Life Wonderful”), a wicked stenographer (Joan Crawford, “The Best of Everything”) and an unscrupulous tycoon (Wallace Beery, “The Champ”). Don’t worry if the performers sound archaic; they were huge in 1932. Their paths cross in a superbly linked series of incidents: romantic trysts, big business deals, personal journeys and life-changing incidents.
Now, if that sounds like a typical melodrama, then that’s because it is. The movie has a super cast, which more than makes up for its broad stories. “Grand Hotel” was like the original “Ocean’s Eleven” for its star power and like “Gosford Park” for its dense structure and stories.
Most importantly, the film holds up better today than it should. With a general reluctance among younger audiences to watch anything pre-1970, it’s scary to think that maybe only the Library of Congress watches old movies. How many of students have honestly sat through “Gone With the Wind”?
Well, “Grand Hotel” would be a good place to start connecting with old-fashioned Hollywood. Made in 1932, the pacing is quick, the acting is eloquent and the stories are actually interesting. It’s pure theatricality. But “Hotel” lasted thanks to its simplicity, and the star power doesn’t hurt either. This is grand, old Hollywood captured on film.
The film won Best Picture at the Oscars for the 1931/1932 awards ceremony (it wasn’t on a rigid schedule back then), and oddly enough it was competing against seven other films. It was the only award “Hotel” won, but it was much deserved. At the time, only 12 awards were given (“Titanic” alone won 11 and was nominated for 14 in 1998) and most categories had only three nominees. Yes, the Oscars were still trying to find their identity. But that doesn’t make this any less valid of a film.
See it for its old studio marksmanship and clean craft. See it to understand what Oscar-baiting looked like in the beginning. See it to hear Greta Garbo utter her famous line: “I vant to be alone!” See “Grand Hotel” because it is just a great movie.