Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Grand Hotel

Greta Garbo had so much charisma that even in a movie generally considered to feature the first all-star cast in Hollywood history, she cannot come on screen until after all the other characters have had enough time to establish themselves in our minds. For Garbo dominates “Grand Hotel,” a movie which tries hard to resist domination.

What stays with us after it’s over? Garbo, head held high – several inches higher, in fact, than virtually every other member of the cast – and striding purposefully across the lobby of the hotel. Garbo, wearing that impossibly over-sized tutu, shrinking down into a ball on the floor. Garbo, beaming with post-coital glow, dancing around her hotel room in love with everything that could happen next. It’s Garbo’s movie, and everything else that’s great about it – which is to say, everything else that’s in it – is greater because she is there.

In 1932, all the major players in “Grand Hotel” were big stars. Lionel and John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, and Joan Crawford, along with Garbo, were all guaranteed box office attractions. Today, however, we are less familiar with them. It’s not as though we don’t recognize them, but they seem little more than character actors to us now. Well, character actors and drag queen progenitor/mommie dearest. It’s funny to see how sexy Joan Crawford was before she transmuted into a caricature of womanhood.

But Garbo transcends her roles. She acts, to be sure, but she is always Garbo at the same time, a quality she shares with the biggest stars of all time. She is regal, commanding the attention of the camera, daring it to come closer and closer, to contain her body, her smile, her movements in the frame. It ain’t easy, folks, because she wins every one of those dares. Garbo may over-act from time to time, but even when she’s being subtle, she’s bigger than whatever action she’s performing.

Five years after sound was introduced, yet only two years after Garbo deigned to speak on screen, “Grand Hotel” was populated by a roster of actors who had learned their craft without using their voices. Thus, we modern viewers are astounded at the incredible range of emotions revealed through facial expressions, body language, and simple movements through space. Just to pull one example out of dozens, the look on Crawford’s face when John Barrymore asks her to dance with Lionel can crush you. We’ve known for half an hour that she would be disappointed, since John is in love with Garbo, but we didn’t know how far and how fast her face would fall, or how quickly she could put on a smile to fool him into thinking she’d never thought he meant anything to her. Another example? Every single moment Lionel Barrymore is onscreen.

Five characters revolve around each other in the enormous, luxurious Grand Hotel of Berlin, approximately one year before Adolph Hitler will take over as Chancellor of Germany. This latter fact adds a level of unexpected irony to the tale; none of them know how soon their world will irrevocably change.

I said they revolve around each other, but mostly, the revolve around Baron Felix von Geigern, played by John Barrymore. Von Geigern has fallen on hard times, and become a thief. His goal, to pay his gambling debts, is to steal a pearl necklace from the fading Russian star ballerina, Grusinskya (Garbo, duh! And at the age of 26!). While casing the hotel where she is staying, he befriends Otto Kringelein (his brother, only four years older in real life, yet playing at least 30 years older), a dying accountant who has decided to go out in high style by spending all the money he’s saved his whole life. Kringelein worked for the giant corporation owned by Preysing (Berry), who is in Berlin to attempt a last-ditch effort at salvaging his company through merger talks with another. Preysing has hired a stenographer, Flaemmchen (Crawford), who is flirted with by von Geigern and befriended by Kringelein.

None of these characters are perfect, though Kringelein, so full of joy at the littlest new discovery of the pleasures available in life, is the most sympathetic. Give that man a Louisiana Flip, please. He has held himself down all these years, thinking that playing by the rules, scrimping and saving cash along the way, would lead to a reward at the end of his life. Now, he’s there, and he’s learning that the only rewards he’ll ever get are the ones he pays for, and his past methods have left him enough cash to pay for whatever he wants. In the end, he gets a girl, Flaemmchen, though as much for the money she wants as the fact that she likes him.

Preysing has adhered to his own moral code his whole life, as well. He has been honest in all things, business as well as in his marriage. Oh, sure, he’s been blissfully unaware how he has made his fortune by paying as little as possible to people like Kringelein, and taking advantage of whatever he can get out of labor and suppliers. But, he has never lied to anyone, merely been ignorant of effects. Now, in order to save his business, he is forced to lie, and finding that the world didn’t end, he decides he might as well hire a woman to sleep with him while he’s away from home.

Really, though, with ankles like Crawford’s, sitting there in front of a typewriter pounding away the words he dictates, how can he resist temptation? Especially when she shows him an art magazine with life pictures of her presumably nude body? When Flaemmchen decides she likes von Geigern, she slides her finger across his chin and says, “You’re nice!” The discovery is palpable, because it’s clear she’s never thought men could be nice. Their flirtation is both touching and a neat red herring, because it leads us to think theirs will be a romance, not the one we actually get. Anyway, Flaemmchen is a survivor who will do anything, all the way up to prostitution, for money. In between performing acts of kindness with Kringelein, she sells herself to Preysing. Of course, in the course of the movie, she never quite consummates the deal because Preysing kills the Baron.

Von Geigern, as I said, has to get money fast, and he sees his chance when he notices Grusinskya leaving for her performance without her necklace. In a feat of derring do that Harold Lloyd would have turned into farce, he crawls along the building ledge several floors up, and sneaks into her room from the balcony. Of course, Grusinskya returns early, and the two fall in love. He talks her out of killing herself, and even gives her back the necklace before a convenient fade to black which later finds them lying on the bed talking about breakfast.

As it turns out, von Geigern is the worst thief in the world simply because he really is nice. He really does love Grusinskya, when everybody else merely wants to keep feeding off her career. Her handlers routinely lie to her just to keep her performing, and thus keep their money flowing in. And, this being 1932, he refuses to take her money so they can leave Berlin together and live happily ever after. Nope, he’s the man, and he’ll find somebody to steal it from.

But, he can’t. First of all, he has to spend a lot of hours thinking about it. Then, he has to keep his date with Flaemmchen so a lot of powerful interactions between all the characters save Garbo’s can take place. Hitting upon a brilliant idea, he gets Kringelein to seed him a small amount of money and to start a game of baccarat, only to find he’s made his friend even richer. When Kringelein falls ill from drinking too much, von Geigern even tries to steal the old man’s pocket book, but he can’t bring himself to keep it when he sees how much it means to him. Finally, while attempting to rob Preysing’s hotel room, his shadow is observed and the businessman winds up killing him with his bare hands.

All of this has gone on, and Grusinskya knows nothing but bliss. She had been ready to retire, because the crowds were smaller and smaller, the applause less and less. But now, thrilled with love, she sees nothing but beauty everywhere. And, her managers conspire with all the hotel employees to make sure she learns nothing of her lovers fate. How they think they’re going to deal with her when they get to Austria and he’s still not there is beyond me! I’m too busy dealing with the lump in my throat and the knot in my stomach when I see her face looking around for him, trying to ask where he is, and yet confident that she is loved and in love.

“Grand Hotel,” says Lewis Stone as the war-wounded Dr. Ottenschlag. “People come and people go, but nothing ever happens.” Nothing, I guess, but one of the greatest movies ever made.

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