Sunday, April 12, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Grand Hotel" (1932)

Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Grand Hotel
Release Date: April 2, 1932
Director: Edmund Goulding
Written By: Vicki Baum, William A. Drake (play, adaptation), Bela Belazs
Starring: Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford
Genre: Drama, Romance
Running Time: 112 minutes

Oscar Wins: 1
- Best Picture

Other Best Picture Nominees

- Arrowsmith
- Bad Girl
- The Champ
- Five Star Final
- One Hour with You
- Shanghai Express
- The Smiling Lieutenant

And the winner is...

There is always a fascinating way to look at the first few years of any institutional piece of pop culture. There is a strong chance that very little of it actually has stayed the same as the years have progressed and it has adapted to meet the norms of the changing society. In the case of the Academy Awards, it is fascinating to look at the first 15 years of the award to fully understand why we love the award so much. In some cases, it doesn't make much sense when considering that the politically charged films didn't get a hold of the moniker until World War II influenced Hollywood to make "important" movies that raised morale and got people to support the troops. This isn't to say that war films haven't always been popular. The first winner Wings opens with a scrawl about patriotism. However, if one was to judge the consistency, it would be fascinating because five years into the Best Picture's very existence, things looked like they could have went in a different direction with Grand Hotel.

It may sound like a line out of Seinfeld, but the film's main conceit is that nothing happens there. It is just this quiet hotel where people come and go without any real conflict. Depending on how you interpret it by today's standards, not a lot actually happens. In fact, while the film labels itself as a drama, it feels more like a mixture of genres including a comedic moment in which a man drunkenly stumbles around his bedroom. Of course, the headliners were John Barrymore and Greta Garbo; the latter of whom became infamous for saying "I just want to be alone" in the film. Those words would go on to define her, especially since she became a notorious recluse later on in life. But for Grand Hotel, there isn't really much to say about the plot since it is multiple stories intertwining and not really resolving in a unified fashion. Events feel like they simply end.

This isn't to discredit the film's overall charm. It is one of the first big ensemble casts that captures the spectacle that the Academy was likely going for. It had big names having moments to shine and make the most of the lush settings. The interior settings were in particularly innovative for the time as it was the first film of note to have realistic settings with 360 degree desks and other various props. It felt real and allowed audiences to perceive the exploits from any possible angle of the film. Producer Irving Thalberg had turned the Vicki Baum's novel "Menschen im Hotel" into a successful Broadway play before turning it into the film. It would later go on to be a musical in 1989 and also created the term "Grand Hotel theme" to describe ensemble casts doing various plots in a singular location. 

It all had to start somewhere, and Grand Hotel was it. It was an innovative mixture of style and substance that may have not told the most complex of stories, but told one in engaging ways. Later films like Crash and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King would evolve to include social commentary and groundbreaking visual effects on top of the big cast. Still, for a film that set an odd precedent for the Oscars and ensemble films in general, it seems very odd to note that it is the only film in the Academy Awards' history to have only been nominated for and won a single Oscar. It wasn't a type-o. Despite memorable performances and excellent set pieces, it was all that there was for this film. There was nothing for the memorable Greta Garbo (who had been nominated twice two years prior) and John Barrymore never got an Oscar nomination in his career. 

For a film that inspired an entire genre of film, it seems odd that it ended up with such a dismal payoff. While Grand Hotel is in some ways a little dated and the appeal of certain performers depends on your fascination with 30's culture, it isn't that awful of a film. Considering that The Broadway Melody (co-written by Edmund Goulding) of 1929 had won three years prior and was a stocky musical spectacle, it was interesting to see how cinema had grown in such a short period. It is especially odd because even ensemble maestro Robert Altman (Nashville, Gosford Park) ended up with seven Oscar nominations despite his hefty casts. It is hard to understand why Grand Hotel has such a poor track record. It could just be that they brought it on themselves by saying that nothing happens there. Even then, their nothing is better than some people's something.

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