It's another day at Berlin's Grand Hotel, and among the guests is the famed ballerina Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo), who despite having a host of fans is convinced her career is over and it is necessary for her staff to persuade her every night that she should go on and dance. Also present is someone who will become very precious to her, the Baron (John Barrymore), who is broke and desperately needs money to pay off gambling debts, and Mr Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), who has mere months to live and is determined to spend all his money on high living...
And they are not the only stars in Grand Hotel, for this Oscar-winner for Best Picture was one of the first all-star extravaganzas, if you can call something with such a dejected plot an extravaganza. Based on the play by Vicki Baum, it additionally featured along for the ride Wallace Beery as a brusque and conniving industrialist and Joan Crawford as his newly hired stenographer who wishes to make it in showbusiness. Although these five never share the screen together, their wattage carries the film through what is a somewhat mournful sequence of events.
What this movie is best known for now, and how this has endured, is the line of Garbo's "I want to be alone!", spoken in character by her suffering ballerina but seen as very apt for the reclusive personality she became and therefore adding yet more lustre to her legend. In truth, she's better at suggesting the abyss of sorrow that Grusinskaya carries with her than later on when she is meant to be full of the joys of romance, and she can be pretty stagey compared to the more naturalistic style that took over later on, but that iconic charisma is still there even all these decades after the fact. You can see why she commanded such fascination.
The real find of this to modern eyes is, perhaps surprisingly with a scene stealer lilke John Barrymore in the cast, Joan Crawford, whose Flaemmchen is an immensely appealing character and the most purely likeable role that she ever secured. Everyone in the film, all the main players at any rate, are full of longing, and Flaemmchen almost equals the dancer (who she never meets) for this, even if she carries it lightly until the final tragedy. In fact, the Baron is the one man who they all look up to, and he has the chance to spread a little happiness in spite of not being able to make himself content, one of many ironies here.
If there's a villain, then it's Beery's Preysing, a bullish boor (or a boorish bull) of a man who has got himself in over his head with the business deal he is attending the hotel to work out, and the way he treats Lionel Barrymore's ailing accountant, one of cinema's most memorable losers, serves to make the company boss all the more despicable. The romantic element comes when the Baron sneaks into the ballerina's room to steal her jewellery and is trapped there, only to overhear her when she thinks she's, yes, alone wishing to commit suicide. He talks her out of it and in a true only-in-the-movies twist, they fall in love over the course of the night, and even when he reveals what he was doing there she forgives him, making the conclusion more poignant. Where gathering a cast of stars in the future would mean an action-packed disaster movie, here it optimistically intended to speak of the human condition in more profound terms, and if it didn't really succeed, it held the attention nevertheless.