Garbo says it about a third of the way through the picture. Her famous line: “I want to be alone.”
By the time she says it, you believe she means it, and yet the person she’s saying it to is John Barrymore. He convinces her otherwise. After a night of passion, the high-strung ballerina is back on the stage in fine form, and Barrymore’s character, a dissolute baron, is ready to turn over a new leaf. Ah, love!
If only life were so simple. The baron can’t escape his past, you see, and he can’t help but involve himself in the lives of the people he meets at the hotel. There’s Kringelein (played by Barrymore’s brother Lionel), the little accountant who’s been diagnosed with a terminal illness and is determined to live out his last days in luxury. “That’s my creed, Kringelein: A short life and a gay one,” the baron tells him.
And there’s Joan Crawford’s stenographer, who scrapes by on one meal a day. “But I always thought little stenographers made little pennies,” the baron says. “Very little,” she retorts. “Did you ever see a stenographer with a decent frock on? One she’d bought herself?” Crawford’s character is working for an unscrupulous business magnate, who happens to be Kringelein’s employer. She’s ready to let him buy her a frock, in return for accompanying him on a business trip to Manchester, but he’s such a lout she changes her mind.
Watching such fine actors play off one another is pure pleasure, but what’s most remarkable about this film is the way it ends. Not happily-ever-after, but without the heavy-handed moralizing that would soon prevail in Hollywood. “Grand Hotel” offers a glimpse of a vanished era. Style, sophistication, intelligence and ambiguity. Not to mention Garbo at her prime.