In 1932, the Academy followed up All Quiet on the Western Front and Cimarron with the star-studded Grand Hotel. The film was a big budget, heavily promoted all-star showcase. For Greta Garbo, the Barrymore brothers—John and Lionel, Wallace Beery, future humanitarian Jean Hersholt, and up-and-coming star Joan Crawford to all appear in the same film was unheard of. But they did and it worked. From the opening telephone booth scene and the glorious bird’s eye view matte shot (above) through the rags to riches ending for (Lionel) Barrymore’s ailing accountant and Crawford’s struggling stenographer, the film attempts and succeeds at pulling together multiple storylines.
While Cimarron followed one family’s story over several decades, Grand Hotel follows several characters’ stories over a period of a few days: the aforementioned accountant and stenographer, as well as a ballet star battling depression (Garbo), a broke Baron turned thief (John Barrymore), a corrupt industrialist (Beery), and a hotel porter about to become a father (Hersholt). The only reason we are seeing this diverse group of people is because of location. They all happen to be in the same luxury hotel in Berlin at the same time. Paths cross and stories intersect, but in a much more organic way than often happens in films of this type.
The luscious sets, the brilliant acting, and the crisp cinematography make this film a delight. Unfortunately, the film is often overlooked, forgotten, or outright disparaged. The reason for the latter is the fact that Grand Hotel is the only Best Picture winner to have not been nominated for any other awards. Detractors point to this bit of trivia to argue that the film must not really have been that good. What these critics are failing to consider is that the awards were still in their early years and kinks were still being worked out. For example, for the first three years of the Oscars, acting awards were given out for multiple roles portrayed during the year, not for an individual performance. That rule changed during the 1930-1931 awards season. But people and their habits often don’t change as quickly as the rules. So, when Wallace Beery won for The Champ (tying with Frederic March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), voters were probably also awarding him for his performance in Grand Hotel.
Another change that occurred during the 1931-1932 season was the number of nominees allowed in each category. The Academy was a long way from its “top five” in every category standard. So, in 1932 there were eight Best Picture nominees, but only three in Directing, Writing (Adaptation), Cinematography, Art Direction, and the two Acting categories. To give a better indication of how in flux the categories were, the following year a new category was introduced for Best Assistant Director. There were eighteen nominees and seven winners. So for Grand Hotel to receive only one nomination is more an indication of the fluid nature of the Awards’ early years than a comment on the film itself.
All in all, the film holds up. The dialogue is sharp and memorable: “When I was a little boy, I was taught to ride and be a gentleman. And then at school, to pray and lie. And then in the war, to kill and hide. That’s all.”, “Grand Hotel. People coming, going. Nothing ever happens.”, and of course no one can forget Garbo’s “I want to be alone.” The film’s influence can still be seen today in the similarly all-star cast thrown into the same location The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) to direct homages like Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). It’s a classic and deserved its award.
The Academy followed up the multiple narrative Grand Hotel and returned to the “one family’s saga over several years” template with Cavalcade. Billed as the “Picture of the Generation,” the sets are gorgeous, the acting solid, but the film dull and forgettable. Cavalcade follows an upper-class British family, the Marryots, from New Year’s Eve 1899 through New Year’s Day 1933. With the Marryots, the audience witnesses, among other events, the death of Queen Victoria, the Titanic, and the Great War (not yet World War I). Throughout the film, scenes are broken up with a newsreel-style “The Cavalcade of History Marches On” montage. The film should be grand and epic, but it’s mediocre and sentimental. In fact, the only memorable scene in the film revolves around the daughter of the Marryot’s former house servants, Alfred and Ellen Bridges. Following the war, Alfred returns and opens a pub. To the chagrin of his wife, he slowly becomes an alcoholic, squanders their money, and abuses their daughter Fanny. One night, Fanny runs from him and into a street carnival. Unaware that an accident has befallen her father, Fanny dances away the night in a beautiful, surreal scene (check it out at 6:05 in the clip below). It is by far the best moment in an otherwise unmemorable film.
It is worth noting that Diana Wynyard was nominated for her role as Jane Marryot, but lost to twenty-six year old Katharine Hepburn in her first of four wins for Best Actress. Also, the Academy decided to stop the dual year nominees altogether. For the sixth ceremony, films released in the eighteen month period from August 1, 1932 to December 31, 1933 were eligible. The following year, only films from a single year would be considered, a tradition that still holds today.
Next time, Frank Capra makes Academy Award history.