Long ago, movie studios used to have long-term contracts with actors like baseball players.
If old-Hollywood was like baseball, “Grand Hotel” was the 1932 all-star game. MGM had the bright idea of making an ensemble movie to showcase all its biggest stars.
Pretty greedy. But the experiment was a rousing success. “Grand Hotel” was a hit and won the Oscar for Best Picture. Above all, it gave Joan Crawford the opportunity to prove that she is the most talented actress and the most dynamic star.
The film takes place entirely in Berlin’s poshest hotel. John Barrymore (Drew’s grandfather) is charming as The Baron: a broke German nobleman who has turned to thievery to make ends meet.
The Baron has a couple of rich targets. Greta Garbo hams it up as a diva ballerina who keeps coming up with excuses not to perform. Wallace Beery plays General Director Preysing: a sleezy business executive looking to finalize a corporate merger.
I won’t waste your time with the plot. There hardly is any. “Grand Hotel” is a showcase for the set designers at MGM – who built a spectacular Art Deco hotel in Los Angeles. And a showcase for the actors.
“Grand Hotel” would be little more than a museum piece – an historical document – if not for Joan Crawford’s commanding performance. Through sheer force of will, Ms. Crawford reaches out from 90 years ago and demands that you admire her.
Crawford plays Ms. Flaemmchen, a freelance stenographer who’s at the hotel typing documents for Preysing.
When we meet her, Flaemmchen calmly reports that she only eats one meal a day because that’s all she can afford. She isn’t complaining and she isn’t begging. It’s no secret that she needs money from men to survive. But Flaemmchen uses her superior intelligence to make sure she gets what she wants on her own terms.
There’s a delightful little scene where a kindly but wasted old man is buying Flaemmchen a drink at the hotel bar. He loudly proclaims that she’s going to drink a “Louisiana Flip” – a cocktail he just discovered. Flaemmchen chuckles at the situation, subtly and respectfully, and then confidently orders the drink that she actually wants.
Disgusting Preysing is so impressed with Flaemmchen’s work – and other attributes – that he invites her to go on a business trip to England for 1000 Marks.
Though neither says it explicitly, Flaemmchen knows that Preysing is expecting them to have sex as part of the bargain. The savvy young woman agrees, but she immediately begins using her wits to get the money without having to consummate the deal.
In my years of watching classic movies, I can’t think of a more impressive actor than Joan Crawford. She had been a silent movie star. And now she was exploring the full potential of talkies. Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman could have saved the money they spent on Method Acting classes and just studied Joan Crawford films.
“Grand Hotel” is a pretty decent movie. It is worth watching because of the amazing Joan Crawford. In the all-star game of old Hollywood, Crawford was Shohei Ohtani: a unique talent.