Doctor Otternschlag (Lewis Stone), a disfigured veteran of World War I and a permanent resident of the Grand Hotel in Berlin, wryly observes, “People coming, going. Nothing ever happens”, after which a great deal transpires. Baron Felix von Geigern (John Barrymore), who squandered his fortune and supports himself as a card player and occasional jewel thief, befriends Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), a meek accountant who, having discovered he is dying, has decided to spend his remaining days in the lap of luxury. Kringelein’s former employer, industrialist General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery), is at the hotel to close an important deal, and he hires stenographer Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford) to assist him. She aspires to be an actress and shows Preysing some magazine photos for which she posed, implying she is willing to offer him more than typing if he is willing to help advance her career.
Another guest is Russian ballerina Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo), whose career is on the wane. She is high strung and seemingly on the verge of a breakdown. When the Baron is in her room to steal her jewelry and she returns from the theatre, he hides in her room and overhears her as she talks to herself in despair about wanting to end it all, holding a vial of medication in her hand. He comes out of hiding and engages her in conversation, and Grusinskaya finds herself attracted to him.
The following morning, a repentant Baron returns Grusinskaya’s jewels, and she is able to forgive his crime. Instead, she invites him to accompany her to Vienna, an offer he accepts.
The Baron joins Kringelein and Flaemmchen at the hotel bar, and she cajoles the ailing man into dancing with her. Preysing interrupts them and imperiously demands she join him. Irritated by his former employer’s coarse behavior, Kringelein – who is aware of Preysing’s many swindles – tells him what he thinks of him. Surprised by his uncharacteristic audacity, Preysing attacks Kringelein and the two men must be separated. The Baron is desperate for money to pay his way out of the criminal group he had been working with. He and Kringelein decide to get a card game going, and Kringelein wins everything, and then becomes intoxicated.
When he drops his wallet, the Baron locates and quietly stashes it in his jacket pocket, intending to keep the winnings for himself. However, after Kringelein begins to frantically search for his lost belongings, the Baron – who desperately needs the money but has become very fond of Kringelein – pretends to have suddenly discovered the wallet and returns it to him. As part of a current desperate merger plan, Preysing must travel to London, and he asks Flaemmchen to accompany him. Later, when the two are in her room, which opens on to his, Preysing sees the shadow of the Baron rifling through his belongings. He confronts the Baron; the two struggle, and Preysing bludgeons the Baron with the telephone, killing him. Flaemmchen comes in and sees what happened and tells Kringelein, who confronts Preysing. He insists he acted in self-defense, but Kringelein, whom always hated Preysing’s guts, summons the police and Preysing is arrested.
Grusinskaya departs for the train station, fully expecting to find the Baron waiting for her there. Meanwhile, Kringelein offers to take care of Flaemmchen, who suggests they go to Paris and seek a cure for his illness. As they leave the hotel, Doctor Otternschlag once again observes, “Grand Hotel. Always the same. People come. People go. Nothing ever happens.”
The Last Days of Weimar
It’s interesting that the Best Picture of the year before Hitler came to power in Germany, set in Germany, made no mention of the political situation in the country at the time. There was mention of the Depression Germany and the rest of the world was in and all five of the principal players were affected by it, one way or another. John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Greta Garbo, Wallace Beery, and Joan Crawford all check into the Grand Hotel one day and their lives are never the same.
Greta Garbo is the temperamental Russian ballerina Grusinskaya and her artistic tantrums are getting less and less tolerable in many ways because of the Depression. John Barrymore is the aristocrat now living in genteel poverty. His world ended with World War I, but the Depression reduced him to being a sneak thief. Lionel Barrymore is the terminally ill bookkeeper who now just wants to spend his last days living it up. He’s just going to ignore the Depression.
Wallace Beery is the Prussian industrialist who’s used to high living having married the boss’s daughter, but his firm as so many others is about to go under unless he can pull off a merger. Lionel Barrymore is one of hundreds who work for him and know what an extremely little man he is, that Beery is really lacking in any real ability for business. Finally there’s Joan Crawford who’s a working class girl, hired as a stenographer by Beery who has other things on his mind for Crawford.
Whether in Germany or America Joan Crawford is the eternal shop girl. To her credit she does not attempt any kind of a Teutonic accent and her performance rings true. This is in complete contrast to Susan and God where she was consciously trying to imitate Gertrude Lawrence from the stage. This was the Depression in America too and many could identify with her.
No one epitomized class and old world elegance like John Barrymore, he was not better on film than here in Grand Hotel. He hates the life that poverty has reduced him to. Using his old world charm as a facade for being a thief tears him inside. Meeting Greta Garbo gives him a last chance at redeeming his life.
Garbo’s performance is one of her best as well. I’m not sure any other actress could have made you sympathize with the temperamental ballerina. In the hands of anyone less skilled, the audience would have sympathized with the management of her ballet company who want to can her. When John Barrymore enters her life he’s like the audience she entertained over the years rolled up in one person who still cares about her the individual. It’s a last chance for happiness for her as well.
Wallace Beery had a funny thing not happened to him in Grand Hotel which I won’t reveal might have been quite comfortable with the regime to come in Germany. Beery is the only one in the film to attempt any kind of Germanic speech and he does succeed in his portrayal of the hateful industrialist Preysing.
My favorite in Grand Hotel has always been Lionel Barrymore. Lionel may very well have been the most talented in the Barrymore family. Playing the gentle, terminally ill Kringelein is light years different from Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life or Captain Disko Troup in Captains Courageous. Three very different roles yet Lionel Barrymore imprints his personality on every one. A meek little man, he’s got courage enough now, courage that comes when you have absolutely nothing to lose.
Grand Hotel is now 75 years old. The style of acting you see here is old fashioned indeed, no one could remake Grand Hotel today in the same style. It’s melodramatic, but it works. It’s a fascinating look into the last days of the Weimar Republic as seen from the balcony of a suite at the Grand Hotel in Berlin.