The Year: 1932
What the Nominees Were: (For the first but not the last time, the Academy decided to experiment with expanding the number of nominees) Arrowsmith, Bad Girl, The Champ, Five Star Final, Grand Hotel, One Hour With You, Shanghai Express, The Smiling Lieutenant
Other Movies That Should Have Been Considered: Love Me Tonight, Red Dust, Trouble in Paradise, Scarface, Freaks
What Should’ve Won and Did Win: Grand Hotel
How Hard Was the Decision: Very tough, I explained before that Love Me Tonight is one of my favorite movies. To be honest, it’s possible that I only chose this one because I’d already written up the other movie.
Writers: William A. Drake and Vicki Baum, based on his American play, which was based on her German play
Stars: Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Jean Hersholt (He of the humanitarian award)
The Story: In the first ever “all-star” ensemble movie, we see how the lives of several people interact at a luxurious Berlin hotel, including a manic-depressive ballet star, a faded Baron turned jewel thief, a small town middle manager in town for a cure, an industrialist in crisis, and a stenographer on the verge of become that kind of steno…
Any Other Nominations or Wins: Fun fact—This is the only movie ever to win best picture despite getting no other nominations.
How it Won: For once, the stars aligned: the grandest studio, the biggest stars and the best reviews all lined up for one picture, making the Academy’s choice easy.
Why It’s Great:
- To a certain extent, this was the “Nanny Diaries” of its day: Baum had been a chambermaid in two of Berlin’s finest hotels and this was her tell-all. Nevertheless, as the depression raged, nothing could be easier than condemning those who frittered away their fortunes in opulent hotels, yet Baum and her collaborators choose instead to exercise a supreme act of empathy. Each guest assumes that the others have it all, not knowing that everyone else is also on the verge of disaster. Only we in the audience understand how cruelly misunderstood everyone is.
- Joan Crawford would go on to be one of the saddest stars in Hollywood, overacting more and more, refusing to age gracefully, and mistreating everybody, but it’s a revelation to see her here in her prime, almost stealing the movie from Garbo, giving a marvelously nuanced performance as the steno. Her huge eyes tell the whole story, whether batting seductively, shooting daggers, or averting her gaze in shame…
- This was John Barrymore’s first major film and he’s utterly heartbreaking as a penniless baron who has lost his morality but not his dignity. His downfall prefigures the death of the German soul: “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.”
- But Barrymore’s brother Lionel is equally wonderful. Those of us used to his devilish roles in It’s a Wonderful Life and Duel in the Sun finally get a chance to see just how achingly sympathetic he can be (though it is ironic that in one of the last able-bodied performances he plays a dying man)
How Available Is It?: It’s got a nice DVD with a short documentary and various ephemera, such as an 18-minute musical parody from the time made on the same sets.