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?"