The 1931-32 Best Picture’s most famous line—“Nothing ever happens”—is repeated twice, like bookends by Dr. Otternschlag (stoically done by Lewis Stone) who bravely sports a severe facial burn: the survivor of a global calamity likely cheated death many years ago.
As the guests whirl their way through Berlin’s Grand Hotel’s revolving doors (most effectively in the first glimpse of Joan Crawford as Flaemmchen—the stenographer who takes dictation and is prepared to work under the sheets as well as type them—if the money is right), a covey of interlinking storylines is put into play. Thanks to director Edmound Golding’s equally grand vision and the expert camera work of William Daniels, the various threads are creatively launched utilizing a pool of telephone operators and one-ended conversations from the principals. Updating that marvellous narrative-web to cellphones in 2013 just wouldn’t cut it.
Much of the music in this dance of life (porter Senf—Jean Hersholt anxiously awaits news of an expected child) and death (packing a terminal illness in his baggage, Lionel Barrymore just manages to deliver the part of luckless Otto Kringelein with very few drops of maudlin sentimentality) is either direct from the Waltz King or the handiwork of composer Charles Maxwell. Taking centre stage is the talented if perennially insecure Russian ballet star, Grusinskaya—none better than the ever-alluring Greta Garbo to lead the parade of bouquets and sudden love.
Stealing her heart while, in fact, after her pearls, John Barrymore is at the top of his game with his portrayal of a penniless “Baron” who has a heart of gold and undying attention of Adolphous, the sausage dog. The real villain of the piece is the industrial magnate, Preysing. Wallace Barrymore does his best with the unenviable task of going from honest dealer, to liar, to adulterer then murderer with astonishing speed.
Without a doubt, it is the overall style and grandeur of the MGM production that brought about the accolades. The star-studded cast is a joy to look at (save and except the drunk scenes that just seem silly in 2013), but the fly in the ointment—albeit intentional with the current guests walking off the “set” just as new ones sign the register—is the lack of any sense of closure, causing the film to merely stop, rather than end. Of course, if “nothing ever happened” that wouldn’t have mattered at all. JWR