Directed by Edmund Golding, Grand Hotel is a pre-code drama with an all-star cast of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery and John & Lionel Barrymore. It follows the inhabitants of the eponymous Grand Hotel as their lives unexpectedly overlap and unravel.
The story of Grand Hotel has its origins in Vicki Baum’s novel Menschen im Hotel, which was published in 1929. MGM wunderkind Irving Thalberg financed the theatrical adaptation, which opened on Broadway in November 1930 to great success. Thalberg decided to adapt it for the screen – with MGM’s support of the stage run allowing them to option the screen rights for just $35,000 – and brought William A. Drake (who had written the stage version) and Béla Balázs on board to write the script.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the film industry was still in its infancy, and Thalberg had been experimenting with the relatively new concept of a multi-star cast. He had previously produced The Hollywood Revue of 1929, which featured top MGM stars including Joan Crawford, Marie Dressler and Norma Shearer. In the early sound era, revue films – in which a host of stars would appear in short comedic and musical skits – were very popular amongst audiences and studios alike. Warner Brother’s The Show of Shows (1929), Universal’s King of Jazz (1930) and Paramount on Parade (1930) were all released around the same time to box office triumph. Thalberg also created on-screen pairings of the studio’s biggest stars – rather than shooting pictures featuring only one, as was often the norm – in order to tempt moviegoers who were spending less on films in Depression-hit America. Audiences flocked to see stars like Jean Harlow and Clark Gable together on screen.
Satisfied with his experiments in dynamic duos and ensemble revues, Thalberg decided to cast five of MGM’s most popular stars in one film. However, this was not to be a collection of skits, but a serious dramatic picture, and each actor would feature in a significant role. A contemporary review of Grand Hotel in Variety said that “this group of stars make the play something of a screen epic in a season of mediocre celluloid footage”, suggesting that Thalberg achieved his desired effect.
At the time of Grand Hotel’s release, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo were two of the biggest movie stars in the world. Both had enjoyed immense success since the advent of the talkies – Garbo in spite of her thick Swedish accent – and were a huge box office draw, although they do not appear together on screen during the film. Garbo had arrived in Hollywood in 1925 – fluent only in her native Swedish – at the request of Louis B. Mayer, but it was Thalberg who would take charge of shaping her star persona over the next decade, crafting the image of the sophisticated, world-weary woman in films like The Temptress (1926) and A Woman of Affairs (1928). Despite concerns about her speaking voice (a distinctive drawl which, as it turned out, only bolstered her stardom further) Garbo experienced a relatively painless transition from silent to talkies, receiving her first Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her sound debut in Anna Christie (1930).
The Hollywood Revue of 1929 was one of MGM’s first ‘all-talking’ films, and Crawford appears in the first act to sing ‘Got A Feeling For You’. She had begun her time at MGM as Norma Shearer’s body double in Lady Of The Night (1925), before working her way up to become one of Hollywood’s most in-demand actresses by the end of the decade. Like Garbo, her image was one of sophistication and intensity, but with a distinctly homegrown quality which contrasted with Garbo’s persona of imported glamour. Crawford was experiencing a particular high point in her career, having appeared in five films for MGM in 1931, including her first three pairings with Clark Gable in Dance, Fools, Dance (1931), Laughing Sinners (1931) and Possessed (1931), all of which had been warmly received by critics and audiences alike.
Lionel Barrymore had just won an Oscar for his performance in A Free Soul (1931), but his brother John was experiencing something of a career slump, having been dropped by Warner Brothers the same year; his appearance in Grand Hotel would see his prospects improve significantly. Both brothers were seasoned actors by this point, having appeared extensively on both the stage and in silent pictures, continuing their on-screen careers into the sound era. Lionel, having worked with Louis B. Mayer since the days of Metro Pictures, signed with MGM in 1926; John did not join him at the studio until 1931, when Warner Brothers decided not to renew his contract. It has since been said that the opportunity to star in a picture with Garbo was a major draw for John when it came to signing with MGM; indeed, he is reported to be one of the few co-stars in her career with whom the enigmatic Garbo chose to spend time with outside of filming.
Irving Thalberg had signed Wallace Beery to a contract with MGM in 1930, and Beery immediately got their working relationship off to a good start by appearing in hits like Billy The Kid (1930) and Min and Bill (1931), in which he appeared opposite Marie Dressler. Beery had been in the industry since its earliest days, starting out with Essanay Studios in Chicago in 1913, before establishing his star power as a villain in films like The Love Burglar (1919) with Wallace Reid, and The Mollycoddle (1920) with Douglas Fairbanks. Prior to signing with MGM he spent four years under contract at Paramount, where he progressed from supporting to starring roles, such as Professor Challenger in The Lost World (1925) and the eponymous Casey in Casey At The Bat (1927).
The beautiful Art Deco sets – designed by art director Cedric Gibbons – absolutely exude glamour, and the 360 degree hotel desk in the midst of a checkerboard floor has become an enduring image of the film. Gibbons had begun his career in motion pictures in the same role at Edison Studios all the way back in 1915, and had been with MGM since its founding in 1924, having previously worked under Samuel Goldwyn at Goldwyn Studios. In 1927 he became one of the founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and actually designed the Oscar statuette itself; by the end of his career, he had received eleven.
All five of Grand Hotel’s leads had begun their careers in the silent era – most as major stars, and several as former co-stars – before successfully transitioning to sound. They were part of only a handful of their contemporaries who had managed to do the same; it is a testament to the star power of Crawford, Garbo, Beery and the Barrymore brothers that their careers not only survived the monumental shift to sound, but positively thrived. The release of Grand Hotel on April 12 1932 was a further high point for each star; the film was MGM’s biggest success of the year, with the third largest box office takings overall. It would also go on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and remains to this day the only picture to have done so without being nominated in any of the other categories – a dubious distinction, but a distinction nonetheless.
The immense talent and vision of those who worked on Grand Hotel, both on and off-camera, ensured its place as an icon of 1930s cinema, a reputation which has endured the almost ninety years since its release. However, its impact cannot only be measured in the popularity of the picture itself. Myriad aspects of the production of Grand Hotel would have lasting impact on the film industry, most significantly in the way Hollywood studios thought about casting and set design. It offers a fascinating glimpse into how early Hollywood thought about stars and their power, through the lens of MGM’s biggest players in a hotel where “people come…people go…nothing ever happens”.