Spotlight: Sexy Pre-Code Crawford Meets Sexy Pre-Code Garbo

Welcome to another Film Friday! As I have mentioned in previous weeks, I’m not much for modern cinema; I’ve only seen two new movies in the past year — THE GREAT GATSBY (a mediocre Luhrmann special) and OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (a film completely lacking in humanity). I suppose I am a bit of a film snob. But I have to be honest with you: my preferences have always been television and theatre. Movies are a definite third. Most of my love for film stems from an appreciation for the wonderful actors and personalities that have shaped American cinema, and on a larger scale, the American culture.

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Today’s post is not only the third in a series that highlights films from Joan Crawford’s Pre-Code talkie years (1929-1934), but this is also a SPECIAL EDITION entry that sees Miss Crawford collaborating for the first, last, and only time with the DIVINE GARBO. While clips from three of Garbo’s silent films have graced a previous Film Friday post, we’ve recently covered four Pre-Code Crawford films: Possessed (1931), Letty Lynton (1932), Dancing Lady (1933), and Sadie McKee (1934). But none of those films hold a candle to today’s film. That’s right. I’m talking about Grand Hotel (1932).

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Grand Hotel (1932)

Leonard Maltin sums it up best: “Vicki Baum’s novel and play of plush Berlin hotel where ‘nothing ever happens.’ Stars prove the contrary: Garbo as lonely ballerina, John B. her jewel-thief lover, Lionel B. a dying man, Crawford an ambitious stenographer, Beery a hardened businessman, Stone the observer.”

Starring Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, and Jean Hersholt. Written by Vicki Baum. Based on the play by William A. Drake. Directed by Edmund Goulding.

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This wonderful film, which rightfully won Best Picture, featured the first “all-star” cast assembled for a legitimate dramatic picture. The results are magnificent. But I must confess something: the title of this post is misleading. Yes, Garbo and Crawford both star in Grand Hotel, but their characters don’t even share a scene. In fact, the aloof Garbo rarely interacted with Crawford all throughout the making of the picture, save for a brief moment when they bumped into each other coming to and from the set. (“I am glad we are working in the same picture. How are you getting along?” the Swede reportedly asked.) The truth is: Grand Hotel is practically two films rolled into one. There’s the film with Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, and Lionel Barrymore — the real world.  And then there’s the film with Greta Garbo — the fantasy world. John Barrymore is the bridge between both worlds.

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The setting is ripe for story — diverse characters staying at a fancy Berlin hotel. There’s Lionel Barrymore as a dying bookkeeper who has checked into the hotel to spend the end of his life in luxury. There’s Wallace Beery as his smarmy and domineering boss, in town for a business deal. And there’s Joan Crawford as Beery’s secretary, a frank stenographer with a past. Meanwhile, Garbo plays a suicidal past-her-prime ballerina, uttering her famous catchphrase: “I want to be alone.” With John Barrymore (Lionel’s actual younger brother) as a penniless baron who has resorted to hotel thievery. It is he who ignites the action in both stories.

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After meeting and arranging a date with Crawford, Barrymore sneaks into Garbo’s room to steal her pearls. Before he can leave with them, Garbo returns. She was unable to perform that evening, and after learning that nobody missed her, decides to kill herself. Barrymore stops her and the two spend the entire night talking. They fall in love and make plans to depart for Vienna the next evening. Barrymore, in dire need of money to settle his hotel debts, tries all sorts of schemes to come up with the cash. He’s unsuccessful at poker, and can’t bring himself to rob from the dying Lionel.

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Meanwhile, Crawford, who has been brushed off by the baron, succumbs to the advances of Beery (despite his cruelty to Lionel) and agrees to travel with him as a “personal secretary.” But when Barrymore tries to steal Beery’s wallet, Beery accidentally kills him. Crawford and Lionel turn Beery into the police and the two decide to spend the rest of his remaining days together in Paris. Meanwhile, the staff decides not to tell Garbo of Barrymore’s death, allowing her to believe that she will meet him on the train for Vienna. As all the guests depart, the hotel doctor repeats his iconic line from the beginning of the film: “Grand Hotel… always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.”

There are so many outstanding moments in this film. Crawford is PERFECT for her role as Flaemmchen, and the maturity she displays in her scenes with the lascivious Beery make for some of the film’s most captivating moments. Meanwhile, Lionel Barrymore gains sympathy by serving as the emotional epicenter of the film, with his impending death (that never actually comes) largely contributing to the picture’s overwhelming sense of tragedy. His brother, John, has the picture’s hardest job — fusing their world of real foreboding tragedy with Garbo’s world of heightened romantic tragedy. He succeeds admirably. His initial scene with Crawford is sharp, and delightful. (I wish the two were paired in another picture together.) And his scenes with Garbo are… breathtaking.

Garbo is indescribable. Her beauty, especially in Grand Hotel, is out-of-this-world. She’s such a wondrously strange creature, that her acting sometimes revolts modern viewers. Certainly her scenes in this picture are dripping with melodrama. And her performance? It’s larger than life. But not only is she 100% committed to every movement, every word — she’s entirely believable. And her affect on this film is tremendous. Garbo’s presence elevates Grand Hotel from great film to magical film. Her scenes with Barrymore are unforgettable, certainly a highlight.

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And yet, the stuff with Crawford and Beery is a breath of fresh air — gritty and witty, with an invigorating lack of romance. Crawford’s affect on this film is also tremendous. In fact, my favorite moment from the entire film occurs between Flaemmchen and the Baron. It’s the moment where the stories fuse, and it’s the closest Crawford comes to the Divine Garbo.

Barrymore tells Crawford: “I fell in love last night. The real thing.”

She responds, “There’s no real thing. It just doesn’t exist.”

“Oh, I thought that too. But now I know that it does…”

The line perfectly capsules the dichotomously concurrent energies fueling Grand Hotel. This is a brilliant, star-studded film. I adore it. I enthusiastically recommend it to movie lovers of all ages. Force yourself to watch it. You might just be as blown away as I was.

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Tune in next Friday as Crawford laughs in two Post-Code comedies! And remember to return on Monday for a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment! 

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3 thoughts on “Spotlight: Sexy Pre-Code Crawford Meets Sexy Pre-Code Garbo

  1. I got to this blog through your link on the IMDB message board for “Grand Hotel” and enjoyed reading your comments about the picture. It’s nice to see a younger person praising Garbo’s performance after reading all these people on IMDB insulting it. I think you’ve come up with a very good explanation of why people are so harsh towards that performance.

    I especially appreciate the way you described the Barrymore and Garbo scenes and how he bridges the fantasy and real worlds of the film. The last time I watched “Grand Hotel”, I had a similar idea. I really felt like Barrymore and Garbo create their own little intensely romantic and passionate world together, and that’s part of why their scenes were so powerful to me. Of course, it’s also because I’m so crazy about that actress. =)

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