A History of Bad, Bad Movies.
Grand Hotel is many things, but most important among them is that it’s an historic film. Please note that this is different from an important film. An important film says something that needs saying, changes minds, or sparks revolutions both cultural, artistic, or, in the unfortunate case of Jud Süß, the old-fashioned, blood-in-the-streets, mud-races-in-the-gas chambers type deal. Please also note that this is different from a good film. Historic films tend to either pave the way for better films by blazing a trail and going up in smoke in the process, or go down in history for either shocking racism or killing a couple of Asian child actors. The historic importance of Grand Hotel is two fold. Firstly, it was one of the first films to cause critics to invoke the phrase ‘star-studded cast’, an overused term that usually heralds the arrival of a film in which horrifically over-paid actors count lines and mug for camera time, desperately trying to upstage each other while plastering on a Joker-like smile for press junkets in which they froth about their co-stars. Secondly, as the fifth Oscar winner for Best Picture, Grand Hotel marked the last time that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was right about anything. Prior to 1932, the Oscar had been finding its legs, occasionally stumbling onto a good choice, such as All Quiet on the Western Front. But after Grand Hotel, said legs took a wrong step while running to catch a matinee of 42nd Street, broke an ankle, and ended up voting for Fox’s abysmal Cavalcade the next year because they couldn’t leave the hospital to see anything else. The legs quickly grew infected and gangrenous, and the Academy had to be put down, leaving the voting for the next 70 years up to an old punch card computer program that recognized only length and decibel level of lead performances in its criteria for film awards.*
A false idol, fed by filthy lucre and saccharine.
Grand Hotel plays out as a series of vignettes, showing a remarkable maturity for a film made during the medium’s infancy. Focusing around the lives of the rich and idle in the titular hotel, the film stars Greta Garbo, Joan Collins, and both John and Lionel from the famous Barrymore acting dynasty, a family that was like the Baldwins but less pudgy with cocaine fat. But though its intertwining stories would presage films like Short Cuts and Pulp Fiction, the film still feels dated. This is mostly because the movie structures its romantic subplots around the ‘whirlwind romance’ phenomena that characterized film well into the sixties, when logic took over. Everybody in old movies always falls in love instantly, and generally a marriage proposal is made before the formal introductions are complete. It took me three seasons to decided I didn’t like Star Trek: Enterprise, and these people make life altering decisions in the time it takes to boil an egg. Ah, well. Fortune favours the bold, I suppose, which explains why I live in poverty. Aside from that complaint, the film is entirely watchable, if only to see Greta Garbo’s barely contained contempt for her co-stars. She might fall in love in ten seconds flat, but she sure seems like she could hold a grudge for eternity, and that’s certainly worth seeing.
A rare actress possessed of two, fully functioning 'stink eyes'.
*Best Picture winners up to Grand Hotel
1927/28 Wings: A silent film about a poor man and a rich man who fall in love with the same woman and join the army. Back in the days before My Lai, joining the army was considered a viable way to impress a woman, even if she wasn’t a Kansas trailer park dimwit whose only education consisted of being home-schooled to the point where she could fill out a beauty pageant application.
1928/1929 Broadway Melody: So, the first thing Hollywood does when they discover how to synch sound and film is to load up on crappy musicals about chorus girls. There’s like, eight movies called Broadway Melody, and they all stink. That’s kind of like inventing the phonograph only to spend the better part of a century recording yourself belching the alphabet.
1929/1930 All Quiet On The Western Front: Possibly the best war film ever made, this early classic is remarkably violent, and remarkably critical of a war still fresh in the minds of the public. Of course, the plot lacks anyone codenamed ‘Ice’ or ‘Animal Mother’, and at no point does poison gas create zombies of any kind, so I can’t in good conscience recommend this film to modern audiences.
1930/1931 Cimarron. An astoundingly boring western, even in the days when westerns consisted of a guy in a white hat fighting a guy in a black hat over a girl tied in front of a speeding train. The one upside is that it contains one of those coloured houseboys who says “gosh, massa” and stares at the camera with saucer eyes a lot. It’s nice to look back at the days when Hollywood’s stereotypes of black people didn’t involve Tech 9s and what looks like gold hubcaps mounted on necklaces made from silver bike chains.