Grand Hotel follows the footsteps of Going my Way and Terms of Endearment as Best Picture winners that aren’t bad in any way but simple too unremarkable to compete for a higher position. Yes, the ensemble of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Lionel and John Barrymore and Wallace Berry has not lost its fascination – back then and today it’s exciting to watch these stars engage in betrayal, love, crime and romance in Berlin’s best hotel. But while I enjoy watching these stars from Hollywood’s golden area I always think that I only enjoy it because of who they are – and not because of who they play or what they do.
The doorman of the Grand Hotel exclaims that nothing ever happens but, of course, Grand Hotel wants to make it clear that there is actually a lot happening – if you get to look behind the closed doors. And while I can imagine that it was gripping to look behind the closed doors of Greta Garbo and John Barrymore, the whole movie simply has lost a lot of its luster and once you look past the concept of the star ensemble, there isn’t much remaining.
Greta Garbo’s often too artificial portrayal prevents her to really connect with the audience at the beginning but she improves vastly during her conversations with John Barrymore and their scenes find an innocent and captivating core of two lost, aimless souls who find their lives improved by their unexpected encounter.
Wallace Berry does the best with this thin material but his character always remains underdeveloped and he lacks the presence and the personality to raise his storyline. Lionel Barrymore, bless his heart, certainly gives Kringelein a lot of heart but his constant wondering, awing and complaining makes him very annoying very soon. Joan Crawford easily takes the acting crown in this ensemble but very often even her performance cannot save her character’s lack of depth and interest.
Overall, Grand Hotel doesn’t always know to balance and handle its various story lines in a way that could constantly keep the audience’s attention but instead feels to have constructional defects too often.
Grand Hotel gets most of its benefit from the personality of its actors and some of the performances while the story lines range from dreary to almost engaging. It’s a completely logical choice for the top prize given the time and the newness of star ensembles like this but 80 years later, life is mostly gone from Grand Hotel.