The Best Picture Winners: Grand Hotel (1931-32)

| September 17, 2017

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

With some very rare exceptions, I have generally found these early Best Picture winners to be repellent.  Most are dated, underwhelming and, for good reason, have all but faded from public knowledge save for the honor they so wildly didn’t deserve.  One exception was Grand Hotel which I saw as a teenager during my personal mission to see every Best Picture winner and hated with raging intensity but on my return visit just a year ago I found that I liked it quite a bit.

It is easy to dismiss.  Grand Hotel has long been accused of being the first Best Picture winner that skated by on star power alone.  Some of that is true.  Based on Vickie Baum’s trashy German novel “Menschen im Hotel”, the film is a soup-to-nuts star vehicle, a movable feast of various personality types who converge on one Berlin hotel with their various underlying problems, sex scandals and immoral backroom shenanigans.  The film is suppose to be a peek-a-boo that exposes the kinds of scandalous good-for-nothings that keep the tabloids in business and it is fun to look behind the curtain.

I like the film.  It’s a nice trashy bit of early 30s cheese featuring some of the most famous faces of the day.  Today, however, Grand Hotel is mostly remembered for Garbo in the role of a fading Russian ballerina who laments “I just vont to be alone.”  Yet, the much better part goes to Joan Crawford as Fläemmchen, a stenographer and aspiring model who gets wrapped up in a nasty love triangle.  That character has more depth, more personality and more to do plot-wise.

I like the film, but . . . Best Picture?  I don’t know.  It’s fun in a nostalgic sense, but it’s adult-oriented spice seems to have diluted long ago.  The peeking-through-the-keyhole draw that the film once promised has been washed away in an era that favors reality-TV, tabloid shamelessness and celebrities behaving badly.  Grand Hotel was a box office smash and no small part of its popularity came from the presence of stars like Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Jean Hersholt, Lewis Stone, Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery.  It’s a fun circus, watching the shenanigans of some of Hollywood’s most entertaining performers.  Not the best out of a year that gave us Scarface, Dracula, FreaksHorse Feathers and Red-Headed Woman, but I enjoy it.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.