After years of watching homages to the genre it helped name & pioneer, I thought I knew what to expect from the ensemble-cast Old Hollywood spectacle Grand Hotel. Grand hotel-set screwball throwbacks to its interweaving-characters story structure (such as What’s Up Doc?, Big Business, and The Grand Budapest Hotel) set me up to expect a straight-up farcical comedy. I gasped, then, when Grand Hotel took a shocking tragic turn seemingly out of nowhere in its third act, a tonal shift that only caught me off-guard because of the expectations set by its much goofier spiritual descendants. I guess I should have been tipped off by the film’s Best Picture Oscar, given the Academy’s long-running aversion to recognizing comedies as a legitimate artform, but I was shocked all the same. Grand Hotel acts like a standard star-packed Old Hollywood screwball comedy for most of its runtime, then floods the screen with last-minute melodrama to pump itself up with an air of prestige. I don’t know that I preferred the dramatic conclusion to the comedic build-up, but it is kinda cool that a studio picture from nine decades ago managed to surprise me in its basic story structure.
Set at “the most expensive hotel in Berlin”, Grand Hotel chronicles the overlapping lives of unlikely acquaintances who could only cross paths because they’re staying at the same hotel: a prima donna ballerina, a down-on-his-luck factory worker, a blustering business executive, a suave cat burglar, etc. It’s the kind of early Hollywood production that feels more like a filmed stage play than it does cinematic poetry, but it’s packed with enough big-name stars from the era (dressed in exquisite gowns by the always-on-point couturier Adrian) that the limited creativity in its editing & camerawork doesn’t especially detract from its prestige. The most notable starpower is a generational changing of the guard, miraculously featuring both Greta Garbo & Joan Crawford in one movie even though they feel like they belong to entirely different eras. That crossover isn’t especially highlighted onscreen; the two actors somehow never share a scene even though they’re fighting for the romantic attentions of the same man. Still, Garbo’s depressive diva ballerina & Crawford’s hot-to-trot nude model/”stenographess” offer a fascinating contrast in morals & class, echoed in the social divides of the various characters that drift through each other’s lives.
Grand Hotel is purposefully, subversively funny when it wants to be. There are a lot jaunty class-divide jabs at capitalist pigs and Hays Code-era sex jokes like (to Crawford’s sultry stenographess) “Why don’t you take a little dictation from me sometime?” that keep the mood light & celebratory for most of the runtime. As a result, when the tragedy that concludes this interwoven, ensemble-cast story stops that line of humor dead, I reflexively shouted “Oh shit!” at the screen, totally unprepared for the last-minute tonal shift. I guess that’s the kind of genre-skewing shenanigans necessary to land a Best Picture Oscar for a Comedy (which this movie won despite being nominated in no other category), but it is a little jarring if you’re more familiar with the film’s descendants than you are with its own original reputation. I expected to enjoy a light yuck-em-up with my old pals Crawford & Garbo while they modeled pretty dresses & ran around a massive studio lot set. It turns out Grand Hotel‘s teeth are a little sharper than that.