Thursday, April 03, 2008

Grand Hotel

James Wolcott, a leftist with a stinging style, makes some acute observations about the movie Grand Hotel:

Watching Grand Hotel on TCM, it occurred to me, not for the first time, that the world was never more beautiful than it was in classic Hollywood black and white. Certainly women never were. Black and white gave their eyes and skin a glisten, their hair a backlit aurora, that now seems to belong to some now-gone mechanical age of the gods. Grand Hotel seems all ink and ivory, with little intermittent gray. The image of Garbo's ballerina, crumpled on the floor, her tutu a luminous tissue paper white, intercut with John Barrymore's profile as he tenderly spies on her, his presence shielded in shadow--it makes you wish the movie could dispense with the Old World weariness of the dialogue and just keep on contemplating itself. (Dinner at Eight, so much more fun.) In Joan Crawford's scenes with Wallace Beery, you can see each eyebrow, mouth corner, pupil, and shapely ankle individually doing its dramatic bit to create a composite portrait of a secretary to a tycoon type leveraging her assets while maintaining a cool deposit of pride and reserve.

I have long thought the first hour of Grand Hotel is the pinnacle of romantic movie acting. Garbo and Barrymore are more than human; they are gods. They are so beautiful and noble that the soul soars when watching them. If the world can produce such people, then anything is possible.

All this glamour and heroism is disastrously contradicted and undermined by Grand Hotel's theme: money is the root of all evil. (The movie is a product of Hollywood's "red decade," the 1930's.) The plot deteriorates into sordid naturalism in the last half of the movie, with Wallace Beery's character -- a communist's caricature of a capitalist -- brutally beating someone to death with a telephone.

As always with evil, the theme of the movie is a parasite on that which it condemns. Hollywood built the best sets money could buy, hired the best actors money could buy and filmed a story about glamorous rich people, all to get an audience and make a profit -- and then the Hollywood Reds told that audience that money and capitalism were bad. The hypocrisy of the commies would be laughable if communism in practice were not an unspeakable enormity.

Let us be grateful to the Reds for providing a place for the gods to dance before us. Nothing else matters. The anti-capitalist theme seems dated today -- perhaps a indication that the West is already better due to the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Watch Grand Hotel for those gloriously romantic scenes with Barrymore and Garbo, despite the malevolence and tragedy of the plot and theme. (And enjoy a hot young Joan Crawford before she became that creature with the eyebrows in her later career.)

The old saying, "They don't make 'em like that anymore," is true about '30s movies. The growth of naturalism in our culture has destroyed Hollywood's ability to make a movie like Grand Hotel. Today's filmmakers would not know where to begin. We watch such a movie and marvel, as travelers in the Dark Ages looking at Roman ruins must have done. "How did they do it," those wanderers in the Dark Ages must have asked. "How did they achieve such greatness?"


Mike N said...

Thanks for the review Myrhaf. You have convinced me not to see the movie if ever that chance arises. The wife and I spent a weekend there some years ago and I have the finest memories of it. Everything was indeed elegantly grand. We were treated like royalty but without any gaudy pomp. Perhaps I'll post on it someday. But I don't think I could stand watching that movie if it attacked or spoiled my great memories.

Myrhaf said...

The movie is about a fictional hotel in Germany, I believe.

Jim May said...

Your comment to the effect that today's Hollywood could never make a movie like that anymore reminds me of an essay I wrote about why today's leftist auteurs can't do good science fiction anymore; science fiction is IMO the one genre that lives and dies with an Enlightenment/Romantic worldview.

It is by definition concerned with "what could be", which unavoidably splits into two answers: what one fears might happen, and what one hopes will happen or believes ought to happen. The latter is pure Romanticism; the former eventually must degenerate into cheap horror flicks. And what do you know -- nearly everything done as "sci-fi" these days is exactly that! It's no wonder that Lord of the Rings was such a huge hit; fantasy is explicitly "escapist" are, and is now the only refuge of romantic work.

That is why Star Trek had to die in Rick Berman's hands; where Gene Roddenberry was an "old guard" liberal with strong elements of an Enlightenment viewpoint, Berman is a modern leftist to whom such views are incomprehensibly alien. He tried to parrot Roddenberry without understanding him, and failed.

Myrhaf said...

Up to the 1950's there were SF stories that imagined flying cars by the year 2000. The New Wave, which brought naturalism to SF in the '60s put an end to all that.

Mike N said...

Myrhaf: Sorry bout that. I thought it was about the GH on Macinac Island. Shows how wrong one can be.

Myrhaf said...

My boss is from Michigan and she speaks glowingly of Mackinac Island (the final c is silent; pronounced as mackinaw). It sounds like a fabulous place to visit in the summer.

Wikipedia informs us that the Grand Hotel on Mackinic goes back to the 19th century, so the filmmakers might have gotten the name from it.

C. August said...

I have to disagree with Mike N, in that your review made me curious enough to want to see the movie. I love the old B&Ws -- His Girl Friday, Philadelphia Story, etc. -- though I probably would have avoided Grand Hotel when I learned of its overall theme.

Now I know what to expect going in and can appreciate the good parts, and then not let the rest of it ruin it for me.

So thanks, Myrhaf. And if you have any other good movie recommendations, I'd love to hear them. (or if they're already in your blog over the years, just tell me to "read the effing manual!" so to speak)

Anonymous said...

Science fiction is dead at the box office largely as a result of naturalism and nihilism. Even such movies as the Matrix or Star Wars while nominally sci-fi really are fantasy movies with super cool light shows. Look at the blockbusters of the last 10 years: Lord of The Rings, Matrix Trilogy, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Spider-man, Pirates of the Caribbean, Narnia, Transformers, etc; they are all escapist fantasy movies that whatever their philosophic flaws (and there are many) all have essential romantic elements to them. IMO naturalism really isn't the stuff of box office success, and nihilism sure isn't.

As for today's sci-fi, it all revolves around the "Singularity". The Matrix, the Terminator, Battle-Star Galactica, etc.. As Jim says "what one fears might happen."

John Kim