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On occasion, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' Board of Governors will give an Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. It's the only award that isn't the traditional Oscar and is not given out every year any longer. In fact, in the last decade, it has only been handed out twice. John Calley (2009) and Francis Ford Coppola (2010) are the last two recipients. Even today – 76 years after his tragic death from pneumonia at age 37 – Hollywood owes a lot to Thalberg. He was dubbed the “boy genius” in town during his time at Universal and MGM, where he made his greatest productions. He oversaw three Best Picture winners at MGM, including the all-star Grant Hotel, directed by Edmund Goulding. It was Thalberg's idea to put every major star in the studio's stable in 1932 in the film. Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery and both John and Lionel Barrymore all had parts to play here.
Grand Hotel is based on William A. Drake's 1930 play and Vicki Baum's 1929 German novel Menschen im Hotel. (Thalberg actually commissioned Drake to write the play just so he could turn it into a movie.) The plot is rather thin for what it is. It's just a string of visitors meeting at a Berlin hotel after World War I. “People come. People go. Nothing ever happens,” Doctor Otternschlag (Lewis Stone) famously says at the start and finale of the film. But of course, if nothing really did happen in between, the audience would be in store for a really boring 112 minutes.
Baron Felix von Gaigern (John Barrymore) visits the hotel to pull off his latest theft after losing his wealth, while Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) is hoping to live his last days in luxury. Then we meet General Director Preysing (Beery), a one-track minded businessman, and his assistant, the flapper stenographer Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford). Of course, the most famous character in the film – and really the only reason why anyone cares about this film 80 years later – is Greta Garbo's Russian ballerina Grusinskaya. The character is flamboyant, detached from reality, but falls in love with the Baron, even as he tries to steal from her.
Of the main stars in the film, the one that really grabs your attention isn't Garbo, though. It's Joan Crawford. At the time, MGM even knew that she overshadowed Garbo in the film and reduced her role. But what remains is really a star-making turn for her. The Crawford that moviegoers would grow to love from Mildred Pierce all the way to Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? was born here. That tough-woman persona she carried resonates with audiences today and her very presence in the film feels anachronistic in a way. While Garbo is posing before the screen and saying, “I want to be alone,” Crawford seems in control of talkie techniques.
Grand Hotel was directed by Edmond Goulding, who would go on to direct the fine Betty Davis vehicle Dark Victory at Warner Bros. However, Grand Hotel is not a director's film. It's Thalberg's baby. Anyone at MGM could have directed it and it would have turned out how Thalberg wanted it. I'm not downplaying his contributions, though. Goulding had to be one strong character to keep all these personalities working day-to-day, but there is a reason why Grand Hotel remains one of the few films to win Best Picture without a Best Director nod (although, it should be noted that there were only three nominees that year).
Grand Hotel is really a museum piece, a shrine to the Hollywood studio system of the early 1930s. That it was the only movie to win Best Picture without a single other nomination is a testament to that. However, I will say that Grand Hotel is still entertaining, since the writing is witty and Crawford's performance is fantastic. Thalberg would live to see another film of his - Mutiny on the Bounty - win the Best Picture Oscar, but Grand Hotel remains a perfect example of what a great producer could do with great talent.
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