Sunday, June 29, 2014

Grand Hotel (2013)

Grand HotelThe Best Picture of 1931-2 "Grand Hotel" deserved it's Oscar and deserves it's place in history as a forerunner of star-studded films to come. The cast alone is worth watching the film for. But the film stands on it's own as well and is smoothly done considering the intertwining stories of various people whose paths (and fates) cross in that posh Berlin establishment. Greta Garbo as a depressed ballerina is one reason to see this but there's John and Lionel Barrymore in great roles, Joan Crawford as an ambitious stenographer with moral issues, Wallace Beery and other recognizable actors in character roles. Warner Bros. has done a good job with the DVD print so this is definitely a collector's item. There are some amazing interior shots inside the hotel with a wonderful art deco look to them. This hotel where "nothing ever happens" is a must for vintage classic film lovers. It's a rare treasure that's been wonderfully preserved for future film lovers to enjoy. See it for a classic look at what going to the movies in the 30's used to be about.

"Grand Hotel" concerns guests staying at Berlin's Grand Hotel. There's the high strung, tempermental ballerina (Greta Garbo), the sassy vamp-like stenographer (Joan Crawford), the boorish industrialist (Wallace Beery), the stricken labourer (Lionel Barrymore)and the devilishly handsome baron (John Barrymore). These seemingly separate lives cross over some happily so, others with tragic circumstances all thoroughly absorbing and brilliantly performed. At the time of its release "Grand Hotel" was the first movie to feature more than one star above the title credits.

TRANSFER: After years of looking as though the camera negative had been fed through a meat grinder, this DVD digital remastering is a considerable improvement. Having said that, a lot of work is still needed to get this one looking up to par. Solid blacks are about the best thing on this DVD. Contrast levels appear too low in many of the scenes. There are a considerable number of age related artifacts and quite a bit of film grain present on this 70 plus year old classic. The audio has been extensively cleaned up but continues to exhibit considerable hiss. Truly, if this is a special edition it's one of the poorest I've seen.

EXTRAS: Some featurettes that round out the history if too briefly, of this classic film.

BOTTOM LINE: "Grand Hotel" is undeniably engrossing and a brilliant Oscar winner that is sure to enthrall for decades to come! For the film and NOT the transfer, this is an absolute must for your film library!!!

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Although the whole cast deserves accolades, it is the work of Lionel Barrymore that I find compelling. He plays Otto Kringelin, the regular working man who finds himself incurably ill. He decides to spend his last days in luxury at the beautiful Grand Hotel. He makes the acquaintance of a baron (his brother, John), acquires a girlfriend (Joan Crawford), and gets a chance to tell off his boss (Wallace Beery). He achieves the dream that many people have, but never realize. His acting throughout is honest and you find yourself cheering for him.

The casting of this movie shows absolute genius. Garbo is beautiful and engimatic as Grusenskaya the dancer, John Barrymore is the suave but impovrished baron masquerading as a jewel thief, Joan Crawford as Flamchen never looked more beautiful (although she appears in yet another of her stenographer roles), and Wallace Beery comes off well as the ruthless businessman. All of the personalities blend together to make this a memorable film.

The quote "Grand Hotel...people come, people go, nothing ever happens" is the opening and closing line of the movie, but don't let that fool you! A lot happens and this movie is well worth the time it takes you to see it.

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I have a particular affinity for films from the pre-code era, and "Grand Hotel" is by far my favorite of this genre. After numerous viewings, I began to understand this wonderful film as a portrayal of the tremendous struggle life must have been for Germans of the Weimar period, even for the entrepreneurial and aristocratic classes, especially in this critical year before power was handed over to Hitler. In this movie, everyone is broke except the mousy little clerk played by Lionel Barrymore, and every character is trying in his or her own way to achieve or hold on to the dream-world lifestyle they remembered from the days before the Great War. The hotel decor is very trendy (the bar seats its patrons practically above the heads of standees) and the rooms are large, plush and satiny.

The high point of "Grand Hotel", for me, is the central love scene between John Barrymore and Greta Garbo, which is probably the most gorgeous ever filmed -enchanted, poignant and steeped in doom. The actors were also demonstrably attracted to each other, adding depth and authenticity.

I have to disagree with another reviewer here: I find John Barrymore's performance quite restrained, even staid at times, and Garbo's very mannered (and -listen carefully -she says "I ouant to be alone", not "I vant..."). Barrymore did plenty of "over the top" performances, but this isn't one of them. Compare "Twentieth Century", "Midnight", or his last film, "Playmates". (Actually, "Playmates", an embarrassing stinker made the year before his death, is valuable for an amazing 30-second jewel in its center -a tearful impromptu rendering of as much of the Hamlet "To Be" soliloquy as the poor man can remember, in which he seems to grieve the own slings and arrows of his own life and to beg for release.)

Lionel is absolutely priceless, as skillful a comic actor as he is a dramatic one (it is said that comedy is much more difficult). Young Joan Crawford is breezy and delightful, with no evidence of the harridan she was to become later in her career. Wallace Beery is, as expected, wonderfully gross and heavy-handed, but the director forgot to tell him to lose the thick accent, since his character is supposed to be a native German speaker like everyone else (except, perhaps, Jean Hersholt's).

People say that this movie is dated. Of course it is! So are "It's a Wonderful Life", "Casablanca" and "The Wizard of Oz". Every movie, even a classic, carries the style and ambience -as well as the limited technology -of the era in which it was made. A film's date should not be a criticism but an invitation to a treat for latter-day viewers: time-travel into a universe their own older loved ones may have inhabited.

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MGM's 1932 all-star extravaganza, GRAND HOTEL, was the first of its kind to include several major box-office names in one production. The film utilized a wide range of filming techniques overhead crane shots, moving camera, cross cutting, artistic lighting and long takes to infuse emotion and drama into its premise which takes place entirely at a posh Berlin hotel while overlapping the individual crises of its patrons. It was a novel idea and proved extremely successful, spawning many similarly structured films such as DINNER AT EIGHT (MGM,1933), WEEKEND AT THE WALDORF (MGM,1945), THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (Warner Brothers,1954), and THE V.I.P.S (MGM, 1963), to name a few.

Based on a novel and play by Vicki Baum, GRAND HOTEL was directed by Edmund Goulding and stars Greta Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford and Wallace Beery all in roles of equal importance, and each shines in what counts among their best performances. The luminous Garbo is perfect as a tired of life ballerina, her stylized acting captures just the right note of eccentricity. This is the film in which she utters her signature line, "I want (not "vant") to be alone". Crawford is radiant, chic and sensitive as a stenographer assigned to work for boorish business magnate Beery, who, despite his villainous character, manages to generate our sympathy. Beery is the only one to affect a German accent which serves to underscore his menace and alienates him from the other characters. John Barrymore displays his celebrated profile and gives a touching and ultimately tragic portrayal as a thief forced into his trade out of dire need, and Lionel Barrymore is a likeable old fellow who believes he's dying and decides to live it up during his stay at the Grand Hotel.

The hotel itself figures as one of the main characters, and its elaborate art-deco design is showcased to great advantage, consisting of a circular construction and checkered floor tiles, topped off by the main lobby desk and telephone switchboard. Everything was given top-notch treatment, resulting in a film that epitomizes the Hollywood studio system at its very finest. Quality and dignity represented the order of the day in that classical period of filmmaking, and GRAND HOTEL met every expectation both critically and publically, going on to win Best Picture of 1932. To this day it's still regarded as one of the greatest films of its decade, and has been selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant".

The newest Blu-ray release of GRAND HOTEL from Warners is quite grand to be sure, with a clarity and density that outdoes the previous DVD. The grain configuration is tantamount to 35mm film, and details in clothing and background elements are readily apparent. This pristine presentation of an 81 year old film makes one appreciate even more the exceptional skill of the cinematographers of that time. Of course, they also had movie stars with the kinds of fabulous faces that the camera could adore. The audio on this release is clear and crisp, with voices registering at a pleasing pitch without any distortion. All in all, it makes viewing this vintage classic a very enjoyable experience.

The extras are all taken from the DVD: "Checking Out" a making-of documentary, the Grauman's Chinese Theater premiere newsreel, "Just a Word of Warning" Theater Announcement, the Vitaphone spoof "Nothing Ever Happens", and trailers for GRAND HOTEL and WEEKEND AT THE WALDORF a 1945 semi remake. The only new feature is a well researched commentary by Jeffrey Vance and Mark Vieira which adds insight and is particularly helplful to viewers who are challenged by older movies.

Highly recommended.

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