09 Dec THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘Grand Hotel’ (1932)
In 1932, the fifth Academy Awards ceremony was held at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between August 1, 1931 and July 31, 1932, the awards took place on November 18. This was the first Oscars ceremony to include an award for Best Short Subject Cartoon (now known as Animated Short), which was naturally won by Walt Disney for the short film Flowers and Trees – the first of Disney’s 22 competitive Oscar wins. Disney even created an animated short film specifically for the event, entitled Parade of the Award Nominees.
The ceremony also featured the first (and last) tie for Best Actor, with Frederic March (Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde) and Wallace Beery (The Champ) both taking home the award. 1932 was also the first and only time the film that won Best Picture received no additional nominations in any other categories. This also made it the first time a film won the award without a Best Director nomination – a feat not repeated until Driving Miss Daisy in 1989 and Argo in 2012.
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Based on Vicki Baum’s 1929 novel Menschen im Hotel, Grand Hotel takes place at the titular lavish hotel in Berlin, Germany. A place where “nothing ever happens,” the hotel quickly becomes the setting for numerous guests whose lives will unexpectedly interweave over the course of one turbulent day. Baron Felix von Geigern (John Barrymore) is flat broke, and looking for a hotel guest to steal from to pay off a looming debt. Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), a terminally-ill accountant, has decided to spend his remaining days and dollars on an extended stay at the hotel. Meanwhile, his former employer, tycoon General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery), is at the hotel to finalise an important business deal.
To assist with the deal, he hires stenographer Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford), an aspiring actress who sees this as an opportunity to advance her career, through whatever means necessary. And finally, there’s temperamental Russian ballerina Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo), whose once-impressive dancing career is quickly coming to an end. But with a room full of jewels and a desperation for someone to rescue her, the Baron quickly sets his sights on wooing the fading beauty for his own gain. Things are about to get mighty interesting at the Grand Hotel.
Why did it win?
A shining example of an ensemble film Grand Hotel was the first example of this kind of filmmaking. As such, filling a film’s cast with a whole slew of major acting talent was an entirely revolutionary idea, and unlike anything Hollywood had seen before. While the idea of a major ensemble cast is common-place in modern-day cinema, it was unheard of at the time. In this era, the most famous of actors demanded to be billed on a movie’s poster alone, or, at the very least, shared with one other major actor. The idea of numerous big names in the one picture, all sharing equal billing, did not sit well with fame-hungry actors like Greta Garbo or Joan Crawford.
As such, it took the masterwork of infamous producer Irvin Thalberg to convince the actors to appear in his picture. Most of them initially turned him down, particularly Garbo who feared Barrymore’s involvement would completely outshine her. But Thalberg’s vision for a new kind of ensemble cinema that would ultimately dazzle an audience eventually convinced them it was in their best interest to be a part of something so innovative. The end result speaks for itself. Even today, its hard not to be impressed by the film’s impeccable cast and their stellar performances. Based on the star-power alone, you can see why the Academy fell for this film and awarded it Best Picture.
Garbo, a screen legend these days, is captivating as the down-trodden ballerina. Her fears of being outshone by the other major actors prove to be completely unfounded. This ultimately is her film, and she steals it entirely. It’s impossible to take your eyes off her. It’s here she utters the infamous line “I want to be alone” that would soon become her mantra. Both Barrymore brothers are stellar, particularly Lionel as the sympathetic and lovable Otto. The ensemble cast have phenomenal chemistry, and it creates a remarkable piece of cinema that is one of the truest examples of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Director Edmund Goulding, who should have been nominated for Best Director for purely successfully managing the unmitigated egos of his famous cast, keeps his direction rather simple, but takes full advantage of the film’s lavish set. The film’s impressive lobby is captured in full 360° style, and is rather glorious to behold. As the characters interact and mingle, there are some amazing one-shot marvels here, as the camera seamlessly follows from one to the next. It’s a stunning achievement for any director to achieve, but particularly impressive for one of this era.
The film’s complicated and interconnected storyline was also completely revolutionary. Never before had a film involved the activities of various characters and how they ultimately cross and overlap with each other, despite previously having no connection to each other whatsoever. Again, this is a narrative technique we consistently see in cinema today, but before Grand Hotel, it had never existed. It makes for a truly entertaining and engaging cinematic experience, and, again, another reason for why it was awarded Best Picture.
Did it deserve to win?
While it is strange to see a film awarded Best Picture without a single additional nomination in any other category, especially given it’s a bizarre Oscar record that still stands to this day, all one needs to do is view this film to see why it was indeed deserving of the top prize. It may not have the “film classic” tag many other films of this era have been labelled with (I’ll admit I’d never sat down to watch it before today), but it’s still a damn fine piece of cinema, and one that kept me engaged from start to finish.
On face-value alone, it serves as a glorious showcase for some of this era’s finest acting talents. The cast is overflowing with names we still talk about today, and to see them all working alongside each other is a true treat for a film buff. One can only imagine what an experience this would have been for the audience of the early 1930s, particularly given the stark reality many were facing during the Great Depression. The chance to see so many big names in one picture must have been something of a dream come true. For this engaging and entertaining experience it delivered to an audience, you can’t deny its right to Best Picture.
The film represents a terrific example of complicated storytelling, and it’s crafted in such a way that slowly unravels over its running time, and keeps you guessing at every turn. That style of impressive narrative filmmaking is genuinely rare for this era, and the film is a total game-changer in the history of cinema. It’s impact can still be seen today, as one could even argue 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel takes great inspiration from this film, especially its epic cast and interweaving plot. It’s hard to know if writer-director Wes Anderson was directly inspired by Grand Hotel, but I’d fathom a strong guess he was.
As with so many other Best Picture winners of this time, the film deserves to win by being something completely original and new. You can’t deride the Academy for awarding something by this rationale. They’re still essentially living by this rule to this day…well…sometimes. Is it a masterpiece? Perhaps not, but not every Best Picture winner is. Sometimes it’s just a great film that you can’t help but love, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.