“Wait! You can’t discharge me. I am my own master for the first time in my life. You can’t discharge me. I’m sick. I’m going to die, you understand? I’m going to die, and nobady can do anything to me anymore. Nothing can happen to me anymore. Before I can be discharged, I’ll be dead!”–Otto Kringelein
“Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy cupcakes, and that’s kind of the same thing,” reads a sign hanging in front of the bakery. It resonates, not just because it’s cute, but because it undermines a familiar platitude. No, money can’t literally buy happiness nor overcome all obstacles, but it can buy things that make life more pleasant, such as cupcakes, and, more importantly, it can buy independence, without which happiness is significantly more difficult to obtain. This theme has perhaps never been more adroitly explored than it is in The Grand Hotel.
Produced in 1932, The Grand Hotel had one of the (if not the) first all-star cast. Greta Garbo plays Grusinskaya, the dancer. John Barrymore is the baron. Lionel Barrymore is Mr. Kringelein. Wallace Beery plays General Director Preysing, or, as Mr. Kringelein more aptly calls him, Mr. Industrialist Business Man. And a ravishing looking Joan Crawford plays Flaemmchen, the stenographer. There are other characters in the film, but these five form the core, and the plot, insofar as there is one, is derived from the crossing of their paths.
Garbo’s performance as Grusinskaya isn’t exactly understated, and if there’s a weak link in the cast, it’s her. But, hey, it’s Garbo; she’s still fun to watch. Although rich and famous, Grunsinskaya, nevertheless is lonely and miserable. As she suffers, so do her performances until one night the Baron emerges, literally, from the shadows to rescue her. It is love at first sight, and this newfound love quickly restores her to her former glory. Were The Grand Hotel simply Gruinskaya’s story, it might have ended there, happily ever after. Unfortunately, it is not. Grunsinkaya is not directly affected by the absence of money, but for the baron, Mr. Kringelein, and Flaemmchen it is an inescapable deterministic force in their lives. The baron has ties to the underworld and resorts to gambling and cat burglary in an attempt to free himself. Flaemmchen, for her part, prostitutes herself to Preysing, whom she dislikes. “Why?” asks Kringelein. “For money,” she responds. “Do you understand?” “Yes,” replies Kringelein, without a hint of condescension. Kringelein is an ordinary person thrust into an extraordinary environment, and through his eyes we see Flaemmchen and the baron as essentially good people who have compromised their values to avoid life as wage slaves, an existence Kringelein is all to familiar with. Ultimately, such compromises also have their costs, and therein lies the sadness in the film.
Mae West is one star who isn’t in The Grand Hotel. However, the following quote from her would have served the film as a suitable epigraph: “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and rich is better.”
Grand Hotel has an 85% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s too low. Well worth a watch.