Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

An early Best Picture winner plays like the Magnolia of the 1930s

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Before checking into Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, check out these other films set entirely or predominately at hotels.

Grand Hotel (1932)

Best remembered as the winner of Best Picture in 1932 (at a time when the Oscars took place in November, honoring films released between August 1st and July 31st in two separate years), Grand Hotel is more notable today as an early example of the genre that tosses a bunch of unrelated characters into a single location and then stirs ‘em up. (See: half of Robert Altman’s filmography.) The guests at the Grand Hotel in Berlin—where “nothing ever happens,” as a permanent resident wryly notes at the movie’s beginning and end—include a destitute baron (John Barrymore) moonlighting as a petty thief; a neurotic Russian ballerina (Greta Garbo) suffering from acute stage fright; a captain of industry (Wallace Beery) who’s in town to negotiate a deal that would save his company; a terminally ill accountant (Lionel Barrymore) seeking to spend his final days living like a king; and a wisecracking stenographer (Joan Crawford) who wants to be an actress and isn’t necessarily averse to making a few moral compromises en route.


Adapted from the play by William A. Drake (who also co-wrote the screenplay), which had in turn been adapted from a novel by Vicki Baum, Grand Hotel is as creaky and stage bound as most Hollywood films of the early sound era, serving mostly as a delivery device for its energetic performances. But the play itself, which initially seems the height of bubbly sophistication, takes several surprisingly grim turns, serving as a potent reminder that the Hays Code hadn’t yet been instituted in 1932. Garbo’s ballerina becomes romantically involved with Barrymore’s Baron, but the union doesn’t exactly find them living happily ever after—indeed, projecting the movie forward just a day or two beyond the point where it ends require imagining a complete nervous breakdown at best and a suicide at worst. Even ostensibly happy endings, like that of Crawford’s ambitious steno, are tinged with compromise and seem vaguely sordid. For all its effervescence, Grand Hotel is the quietly despairing template for the sprawling ensemble piece—a film that has much more in common with successors like Nashville and Magnolia than one might imagine.

Availability: Grand Hotel is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can obtained from Netflix and to rent or purchase through the major digital services.

Share This Story