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Warner Home Video presents
Grand Hotel (1932)

"I want to be alone."
- Mlle. Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo—who else?)

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: February 25, 2004

Stars: Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore
Director: Edmund Goulding

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:52m:34s
Release Date: February 03, 2004
UPC: 012569508422
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B-B-C B-

DVD Review

Back in the day, MGM billed itself as having more stars than there are in the heavens, and Grand Hotel could be the first constellation in that peculiar Hollywood astronomy. It's not a movie of the highest caliber, and it didn't forge much new cinematic ground, but it did bring together some of the greatest stars in the early days of talkies—we also probably have movies like this to blame for eighth-rate ripoffs like Love Boat and Fantasy Island—take a bunch of known actors, throw them together, and sometimes magic happens. (Then again, sometimes it doesn't.) The closest we might come to something like this these days is the star power in the Ocean's Eleven remake; even all these decades later, Grand Hotel makes for a grand entertainment.

The lodging of the title is Berlin's finest, in the early 1930s; we're between the two world wars, and the specter of the Depression and the coming of the Third Reich had no place on the MGM backlot. Other than the characters' surnames (and Wallace Beery's Teutonic accent), there isn't anything especially German about the movie, but for a few dollops of visual style (with moody lighting reminiscent of early von Sternberg) and many Strauss waltzes on the soundtrack. More important than where we are is who we're with, starting with the incandescent Greta Garbo—this is the movie in which she utters the line with which she would ever be associated. (See the pull quote at the top of this review.) She plays Grusinskaya, a Russian ballerina camped out at the hotel—every night is an opening night, and the drama in her suite is likely as entertaining as the performances she gives. She's every bit the diva, and while this isn't even close to Garbo's best performance (she isn't given much to do), it's easy to see why she was such a revered icon in her time.

Playing opposite her is The Great Profile, John Barrymore, as a baron who has a tuxedo to die for, and not a mark in his pockets—he's there to lift Grusinskaya's pearls, but wouldn't you know it, the two of them fall in love. Barrymore truly is something of another era—you can see him barnstorming theaters across the country in melodramas or the classics, or ripping it up in early silent pictures—but unlike some other casualties of the coming of sound, his panache translates terrifically well to the talkies. (Seeing him here is a reminder that what's probably his best and most legendary screen performance, in Twentieth Century, isn't yet available on DVD. Maybe the upcoming Broadway revival, with Alec Baldwin in the same role, will light a fire under someone, he wrote hopefully.) Joining John onscreen is brother Lionel, as Kringelein, a midlevel bureaucrat who knows he hasn't many days left, and is using up his savings to see how the other half lives. Among that other half is his boss, Preysing, played by Beery in a fiercely stiff performance—occasionally the movie lurches into a labor-versus-management debate, rather unfortunately, and must have seemed a little silly (if not downright patronizing) to 1930s audiences contending with the worst of the Depression.

Much better is when all the actors are making googoo eyes at one another. Garbo can't get all the boys, so also on hand is Joan Crawford, as a stenographer who seems to make other services available to her clientele—she's pretty much prepared to whore herself out to whoever's got the biggest billfold. Her scenes with Beery are pretty racy for the time—she more or less contracts to be his kept woman, to travel with him from Berlin to London—but the romance and the unspoken sex are a little undone by her character's name. Crawford plays Flaemmchen, routinely referred to by just the first syllable of that, so it sounds as if they're calling her Miss Phlegm. (This romantic interlude brought to you by Robitussin.) The movie is full of romance, money, sex and violence—all the stuff we love in our stories; but more important, it's a bunch of big movie stars having a great time being big movie stars. Grand Hotel has the unusual distinction of having been nominated for only one Academy Award—for Best Picture—and winning in that category, an anomaly now that bushels of nominations and sweeps are S.O.P. So this isn't one of the great films of all time, but it is a good example of what Hollywood did best way back when; and any time spent with either or both of the Barrymore brothers, to say nothing of Garbo, is always time well spent.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Some scratches and fading are evident throughout, and financially, a full-boat restoration of this movie probably couldn't have been justified. So the transfer doesn't sparkle, but it is perfectly presentable, especially given the age of the movie.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Frenchyes

Audio Transfer Review: The waltzes drown out some of the room tone, but many of the scenes have no musical scoring, making the limits of the mono track starkly obvious. You'll hear a lot of hiss and some oddly unbalanced scenes, depending on the actors' distance from the camera; but there's not much you'll miss, in terms of comprehensibility.

Audio Transfer Grade: C


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
11 Other Trailer(s) featuring Week-End at the Waldorf
1 TV Spots/Teasers
2 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Snapper
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. musical short (see below)
Extras Review: A few smartly chosen extras make you feel like you've snuck a few of those huge, plush bath towels into your luggage. Checking Out: Grand Hotel (12m:17s) is a brief overview of the making of the picture—Irving Thalberg wanted it as stacked as possible with stars, and in some old interview footage, Maureen O'Sullivan rhapsodizes about Garbo's beauty and talent. Even more fun is the Hollywood Premiere (09m:32s) at Grauman's Chinese Theater, at which the lobby desk from the film was set up, and the "guests" were asked to "register." Along with the cast members and studio brass are such luminaries as Edward G. Robinson, Walter Huston, Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow, and an up-and-comer who goes by the name of Clark Gable. Everybody on camera is very elegant, but the surging, crazed crowds on Hollywood Boulevard are like something out of The Day of the Locust.

A teaser trailer (called Just a Word of Warning) tells us that the top ticket goes for a pricey $1.50, and along with an original trailer is one for Week-End at the Waldorf, which looks like a tepid 1945 remake, starring Ginger Rogers, Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon, and Van Johnson. Finally, there's the very odd Nothing Ever Happens (18m:39s), a 1933 short that's a musical remake of sorts of Grand Hotel. But there are a couple of problems—like there's no star wattage at all, and those in the cast here, despite it being a musical, can't really sing. They're reduced to reciting the lyrics, which sound like cheap Dr. Seuss ("For a man with your gloom, I'll give you my room"), and at times it seems like a parody, but it's not especially funny, either. It does have a line of chorus girls done up as tapdancing bellhops, though, and you can't really ever have enough of that.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

This isn't high art, but a perfectly stylish popcorn movie decked out with suave screen icons putting the material through its paces, and there's nothing wrong with that.


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