Maybe I’m just too accustomed to modern cinematic storytelling, but watching Grand Hotel for the first time (it was recently issued on Blu-ray) I half expected an earthquake or a massive storm to strike. Director Edmund Goulding sets things up much like the disaster movies that came into vogue in the ‘70s. We meet the bitter Dr. Ottersnschlag (Lewis Stone), scarred from old war wounds like Mel Gibson in The Man Without a Face.There’s a despondent ballerina, Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo), who has lost her will to live. Businessman Preysing (Wallace Beery), working on a major deal, begins a questionable relationship with stenographer (and aspiring actress) Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford). Most poignant is the terminally ill accountant, Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), and his friendship with the broke Baron Felix von Gaigern (John Barrymore).
That doesn’t even cover all the various entanglements in this soap opera-ish melodrama. But despite the setup, there is no disaster to unify all the related and unrelated characters. The film’s rhythms take some getting used to, and even then it moves along at a relatively slow pace. Still, it all comes together more subtly and ultimately more movingly than many of its modern-day equivalents (more accurate than disaster pics would be all-star schlock like Gary Marshall’s New Year’s Eve).
Of the major stars, Crawford steals the movie with her realistic, emotional portrayal of a woman torn between the success Preysing might be able to help her achieve and her true feelings for the Baron. Lionel Barrymore displays a light touch, displaying the accountant’s desire to embrace life in spite of impending death. These characters intersect in a surprising way, providing the film with an emotional core.
Warner Bros. presents Grand Hotel on Blu-ray with a superb 1080p transfer. The film is 81 years old, yet the black-and-white cinematography (by William H. Daniels) holds up beautifully in high definition. If there’s an issue, it’s the overall lack of sharpness. But I don’t think this is related to any shortcomings in the transfer itself. It looks like an old movie, but a very cleanly restored old movie. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 soundtrack is also quite clean. That’s the most remarkable aspect of the audio—it’s largely free of the distortion, clicks, and pops we might expect from a film of this age.
Most of the supplemental material has been ported over from previous DVD releases. The only new extra is also the best extra, a tremendously informative commentary track by film historians Jeffrey Vance and Mark A. Vieira. Between the two of them, they elaborate on every aspect of the film. For those without the time for a feature-length commentary, “Checking Out: Grand Hotel” plays like a 12-minute highlight reel, packing in a good amount of info. There’s also newsreel footage of the premiere, a brief “Word of Warning” that played in theaters (letting audiences know Grand Hotel would only be shown for a limited time), and a 19-minute spoof called Nothing Ever Happens (from 1933).
It might not win over large numbers of younger viewers, due in large part to the inevitably dated feel a film accumulates over eight decades. For those willing to go in with an open mind, Grand Hotel is an important piece of Hollywood history and remains well worth seeing.