Director: Edmund Goulding
Cast: Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone
Other Nominees: Arrowsmith, Bad Girl, The Champ, Five Star Final, One Hour With You, Shanghai Express, The Smiling Lieutenant
I love to look through the American Film Institute’s top 100 movie quotes of all time. There are some great, great quotes found on that list and Grand Hotel makes an appearance at number 30. Greta Garbo stars as a depressed ballet star who despairs that she “wants to be left alone” and it is this anguished cry that makes the list.
But I thought there was an even better quote to be found in this film and it comes from a minor character, Dr. Otternschlag. The doctor may not have a lot of lines but when he did speak I found he had the more interesting things to say. The quote I am referring to appears at both the beginning and the end of the film when he observes “people coming, people going … nothing ever happens”.
The irony here is that while things appear non-eventful the truth is a lot happens behind the closed doors of the guest rooms. In fact the five guests who make up the ensemble cast experience a stay at the Grand Hotel that changes all of their lives.
The five characters in question include a wealthy baron with a secret, a depressed Russian ballerina struggling with suicidal tendencies, a hyper stressed businessman anxious to make a deal, a dying man living his last days on Earth in luxury, and a penniless stenographer desperate for money. With the star studded cast being spread across these roles this is the first movie to use the technique of telling separate stories that blend together to create a tapestry of a film. Think of Grand Hotel as the early days Crash (Oscar winner 2006). It is a story telling technique that is to be seen again and again throughout the Hollywood decades.
The doctor has another observation about half way through the film, this one on the nature of hotels in general. He comments that “no one knows anything about the person next to them. And when you leave, someone occupies your room, lies in your bed, and that's the end.”
As each character’s stay comes to and end and they check out we see exactly what the doctor was talking about. Someone else arrives and occupies the room, lie in the same bed, and life goes on. One of my favorite scenes in the film comes right at the end when new batches of guests arrive. A recently married couple can barely contain their excitement at having entered the Grand Hotel and as the camera begins to pan away from them I wondered what the events of their stay will end up being. What will their story be?
This movie does not go out of its way to be creepy, it is not a horror film, but it certainly does make me think about the nature of hotels and about what it means to stay at one. After all, the doctor is right… In the time that we are guests we know nothing about your neighbors, about the people who have stayed there before us or about the people who will stay after us. And all around us stories could be unfolding that we are completely unaware of. Stories have happened in our very room that we are unaware of. I cannot help but be a little creeped out by that thought!
Next Up: Cavalcade
AFI Top 100 Movie Quotes: http://connect.afi.com/site/DocServer/quotes100.pdf?docID=242