Grand Hotel (1932)

(On Cable TV, March 2018)  The thirties were a decade when Hollywood perfected the grammar and sales pitch of cinema, with Grand Hotel earning a minor place in history for two innovations: on an artistic level, pioneering the use of a 360-degree lobby set that allowed the camera to be pointed in any direction, and commercially for bringing together as many movie stars as the (comparatively large) budget would allow. It netted Grand Hotel a Best Picture Oscar back in 1933, but today the result has visibly aged. While the script still holds some interest by bringing together a bunch of vignettes that sometimes interact, much of the film is shot as a theatre piece, the lobby sequences being an exception that highlight the more traditional nature of the rest of the film. As far as star power is concerned, modern viewers can still enjoy the presences of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford as well as Lionel and John Barrymore—even as reminders of why they were or became superstars. While the Berlin setting of the film may strike some as odd considering Hollywood’s insularity and the whole World War II unpleasantness a few years later, it’s worth noting that at the time, Hollywood was filled with German expats, that Berlin was a world-class city and the best-selling source novel spoke for itself. Also: this was the depression, and a bit of gentle European exoticism couldn’t hurt the movie-watching masses. Grand Hotel will forever live on as a Best Picture winner, and as a representative of the Hollywood machine as it was revving up in the early thirties, it’s a master class in itself.

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