It’s been years since I watched GRAND HOTEL, the movie based on the play based on the book that was so successful its narrative structure came to bear its name. That structure, multiple stories and characters, some intertwining, others not, became known as the “Grand Hotel Theme.” It is also notable as the only movie to win Best Picture without receiving a single nomination in any other category, which is somewhat insane considering the talent involved. Granted, there weren’t a lot of competitive categories at the 5th Academy Awards but they had acting, directing, writing, cinematography, and art direction categories, all of which GRAND HOTEL had a shot at winning. Particular the art direction by Cedric Gibbons and the cinematography by William Daniels.
Gibbons, for his part, designed one hell of an interior for the lobby and though they didn’t nominated visual effects yet, the matte work done for the top down shots of the lobby from the ceiling, showing a dozen or more floors winding around in circles, is exceptional. And Daniels is given the always impossible task of photographing nothing but interiors yet makes the movie far more visually interesting than any play adaptation has a right to be. He takes shots like John Barrymore hiding in a closet and gives us a POV filled with shadow, upward angles, and visual tension. And the last shot through the revolving doors to the bus with the Grand Hotel’s name on the side is a beautiful closer for the film.
Alas, the story itself is rather run of the mill soap opera with little compelling to watch. The actors do all the heavy lifting to make up for a series of rather predictable, mundane stories. It is here where the movie fails to take flight and become more than a standard exposition/conflict/resolution story. But still…
The sets! The shots! The actors! Hey, it may not be perfect but in the end, it’s pretty goddamned grand after all.