Grand Hotel

Gasser

Grand Hotel (1932)

Grand Hotel (1932)

Grand Hotel has the distinction of being the only movie to win the Best Picture Oscar and be nominated for nothing else. The fact that it drew no acting nominations is notable given the star-studded cast, but it is true that none of the actors really stands out. Perhaps they were all too evenly matched.

Grand Hotel endeavors to be a story about the comings and goings in a high-end Berlin hotel, but it belies its own motto –”Grand Hotel… always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.”– in the events depicted for us. We are first introduced to the handful of characters the story follows via a series of edits between their respective phone calls in the hotel lobby. We learn Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) has only a few weeks to live and is blowing his life savings enjoying them in an expensive hotel. The Baron (John Barrymore) telephones an accomplice explaining a need for more funds and referencing a theft he intends to commit. General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery) is working to close a merger that will be lucrative for him by relies on his company’s partnership with a French firm. And famed Russian dancer Grusinskaya’s maid telephones to say the ballerina is ill.

The hotel acts as a catalyst to allow the overlapping of these various lives, who infinitely influence one another but then part as they do the hotel. Also entering into the scene is Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford), a stenographer sent for by Preysing. Before he is ready for her to begin working on the merger documents, however, Flemm waits in the hall where she is approached by the Baron with amorous intent. They agree to meet the following evening for dinner and dancing. The Baron has previously met Kringelein and decided him a fine chap, creating a fast friendship. Kringelein approaches the couple in the hall and makes friends of Flemm as well. Also caught by Flemm’s looks is Preysing, once he’s ready for her to begin work.

Before the Baron can meet up with Flemm for a romantic evening, however, he will enter the room of dancer Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo) to abscond with her pearls. He sneaks in through a balcony window –two rooms down from his– but finds himself trapped when the depressed ballerina abruptly returns. In the dark room he sees her contemplating suicide and opts to intervene. In the ensuing hours, the two fall in love.

Flemm has by this time fallen in love with the Baron and finds herself disappointed in his new mood. Grusinskaya is leaving for Italy in a day and in order to accompany her, he must come up with money for train fare, a subject making him rather depressed. Flemm occupies herself in looking after the ailing Kringelein and in resisting the advances of Preysing. This businessman happens to own the factory in which Kringelein once worked and proves himself a royal ass by mistreating him in the hotel. Flemm will nevertheless consider leaving town on the arm of Preysing, but ultimately walks out the doors of the Grand Hotel with another man.

Grand Hotel, which was based on a play, is a great film from a technical standpoint as well as the somewhat esoteric relevance of its story. To the average viewer, the movie comes off as rather boring with seemingly no moral or sense of satisfaction at the close. But the point of the plot is about the random meeting of people and the indelible effect they have on one another. Flemm enters the hotel a stenographer and leaves as a mistress of sorts. Grusinskaya enters horribly depressed with her career faltering and leaves on cloud nine after a fantastic performence the night before. Preysing enters on the verge of a profitable deal and leaves in worse than ruin. Only Kringelein enters and exits with equal levels of joy; although, he departs with more money and company than he arrived. If there is any moral center to the story, it is Kringelein.

As I mentioned, the acting is fine, but you could have guessed that by the cast. This is often thought of as a great Garbo movie, but she does not appear in at least half of the action. Her line “I want to be alone” is well remembered, but not particularly meaningful. Garbo was a big star at this point, but audiences were taking a liking to Crawford by this time as well. The two never appear on screen together and had little to do with each other on set especially since Garbo’s scenes were shot on a separate soundstage closed to visitors. Director Edmund Goulding once described the movie as two stories, both centered around women in crisis –Garbo’s depressed dancer and Crawford’s stenographer trying to scrape her way to a better life– with the Baron to connect the plots. I’m not sure I see the movie in that way because I do not view Flemm as a woman in crisis but as a distinctly different type of person bouncing among our main characters.

  • Grand Hotel is set for 9:45 p.m. ET Feb. 15 on TCM.

Dinner at Eight

Ring a Ding Ding

Dinner at Eight (1934)

     I did not know going into Dinner at Eight just how depressing it was going to be. The presence of Jean Harlow and Billie Burke in particular among the all-star cast had me expecting a comedy, as it seems dinner-centered movies are apt to be. But the meal in this flick does not materialize until after the picture’s close, so the story instead follows the events that lead up to it.

     Besides Burke’s character of Mrs. Millicent Jordan, who is the dinner’s hostess, none of the characters’ stories have anything to do with the affair, other than that they are all set to attend it. Set in the heart of the depression, we watch sadly as all suffer their personal disasters. Millicent’s husband Oliver, played by Lionel Barrymore, owns a shipping company that will cancel its first voyage because it carries too little cargo to be worthwhile. He has solicited the help of the prosperous Larry Packard (Wallace Beery) and asks him to hold some company stock until a loan can be repaid. Also in town from England is the down-and-out stage actress Carlotta (Marie Dressler), with whom Oliver was once in love and still admires. She holds some of the company stock and wants to unload it because of her own financial troubles, but Oliver begs her not to for fear of losing control of the firm.

     Millicent has meanwhile invited Packard and his floozy wife Kitty (Harlow) to the dinner at her husband’s request and in needing to fill some empty seats. Kitty pounces on the opportunity to schmooze with classy people, while Packard only agrees because the dinner is being thrown for an influential English couple. Kitty is having an affair with a Dr. Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe) whose wife, we discover, knows of his indiscretions. The couple are also attending the meal. Lastly, the Jordan’s daughter Paula (Madge Evans) will be joined by her fiancée at the occasion but is secretly in love with an actor more than twice her age: John Barrymore‘s Larry Renault. This drunkard is trying to make a go at stage performing because the advent of sound has made him undesirable in Hollywood. He learns, however, that his career is essentially ended.

     Although some of the characters’ affairs overlap, all their plights are separate. Despite a love for Larry being Paula’s trouble in the face of a forthcoming wedding, Larry’s problems are totally absent the girl. Possibly the only person not facing doom is Harlow as Kitty. She merely sees the dinner as a social step-ladder and she has not yet learned the doctor is returning his devotion to his wife. Kitty quarrels and physically fights with her husband but is confident that a cushy future awaits her.

     Dinner at Eight did lend itself to three particular comedic moments. Just after Millicent learns the important English dinner guests will not be attending, daughter Paula tries to confess her decision to break the engagement for her actor lover and husband Oscar says he is not feeling well (he is dying) and wishes to rest as the others go to the theater. Millicent flies into a frenzy as she shouts about how no ones troubles are as bad as hers, given the aspic has been destroyed, one servant in jail the other in the hospital, and the guest list is now two people short of a traditional party. The other two laughs come from Harlow. Once at the party, the guests awkwardly speak about their like or dislike for Florida. Kitty says she cannot lay out in the sun because of sensitive skin and never exposes that skin then turns away from the camera displaying a totally bare back. Just prior to the film’s close, we get this exchange:

Kitty: I was reading a book the other day.
Carlotta: (Shocked, stopping in her steps) Reading a book??
Kitty: Yes. It’s all about civilization or something. A nutty kind of a book. Do you know that the guy says that machinery is going to take the place of every profession?
Carlotta: Oh, my dear. That’s something you need never worry about.

Carlotta’s suggestion is pretty blatant, and serves to end the movie on a positive note as all individuals funnel into the dining hall, laughing and in good spirits.

     Dinner at Eight, based on George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s play, is such a tragic collection of stories that portray the various impacts of the Great Depression. Particularly, this story highlights the fall of successful and wealthy individuals who have never known dire straits. Although it is not a pick-me-up, Dinner at Eight offers fantastic performances by all involved. Of particular note are both Barrymores: Lionel as a gaunt, dying man and John as an arrogant alcoholic. Burke also lends occasional comedic relief as the energetic party planner and is most endearing.

  • Dinner at Eight is set for 6 p.m. ET Nov. 9 on TCM.

The Secret Six

Gasser

The Secret Six (1931)

     Gobs of movies during what we consider the classic eras had titles that had little or nothing to do with the plot of the film. Many took their names from popular songs of the day and others went through numerous changes before a title that suited the studio was selected. With The Secret Six the name is nearly irrelevant. The title refers to a body of men who wear masks (and pretty lame ones) and collect information on bootleggers and other criminals, delivering their findings to the district attorney. That body of men is only twice referenced in the movie and the first does not occur until more than half way through the action.

     Also not appearing until probably a third into the plot are Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, who appeared together for the first time in this Wallace Beery vehicle. Beery was a big deal at that time, but in a few years time his name would get billed under the other two as their stars quickly climbed (see China Seas). Beery could be quite the heel and liked to flex his star power, and Harlow, whom MGM borrowed from Howard Hughes who had her on a contract, found particular distaste with the star.

     In The Secret Six, Beery is laborer “Slaugherhouse” who takes up with some bootlegger friends of his upon learning about the great living they earn. When he and his pal Johnny Franks, among others, start to muscle in on a rival bootlegging operation, a shoot out ensues and the rival boss, Colimo (John Miljan) finds his kid brother killed. Franks pins the rap on Slaughterhouse, but when Colimo’s gang goes after him, they only wound the brute. Getting his revenge, Slaughterhouse shoots Franks and takes over his restaurant. He has now become essentially the boss of the operation. Enter reporter Carl (Gable) who with another reporter Hank (John Mack Brown) are trying to get the scoop on the murder while also flirting with Anne (Harlow), a moll of what is now Slaughterhouse’s gang, who is also now arriving out of no where.

     Although Anne selects Hank as her beau, both reporters hang around the gang, trying to get scoops on all the goings on. Slaughterhouse, who now is going by Louis Scorpio, has also bribed them for giving him favorable light in the papers. The mobster has managed to elect a new mayor, which will keep the cops off his back to an extent. Carl and Hank are separately helping the police and the Secret Six by spilling information on the bootleggers. Hank has a theory that the same gun was used to kill Franks and Colimo, who has by now been knocked off. So he’s in search of it in the Scorpio home, which has the boss wise to his disloyalty. Anne tries to warn her man, but he is gunned down on the subway.

     The case goes to court and Anne and Carl testify against Scorpio, but because the jury is fixed, the man gets off. He is now obviously out to kill the two snitches and is nearly successful.

     The Secret Six was released before the Production Code was in full swing, so it managed to get by with some considerable violence. Some theaters refused to air it because of that concern. Unlike some other pre-code gems, however, in this flick the bad guy does not get away with his crimes. He is also horribly unlikable, so no one is really rooting for that approach.

     The movie was a great move for Gable and Harlow. MGM exec Irving Thalberg had scenes added to bolster Gable’s character and the actor was hired to a contract with the company thereafter. Harlow too would soon join the MGM ranks. Both of those actors are enjoyable to watch but Beery does a great job of being an awful person. He is both evil and persuasive so that he does not become a totally hateable man, but one we know not to cross.

  • The Secret Six is set for 7:30 a.m. ET Aug. 14 on TCM.

Source: Robert Osborne, TCM.com

China Seas

Ring a Ding Ding

China Seas (1935)

     I love China Seas, and not just because of Jean Harlow‘s “nip slip” (see below). I am hesitant to call it the best Harlow-Clark Gable collaboration because Red Dust is also stellar, but this one really packs a punch. The chemistry between the lead players is the same hot-headed Harlow against equally stubborn Gable the two typically ignited on screen, but I think Harlow really plays that part best in China Seas while maintaining a vulnerable edge that easily wins over the viewer.

     The story is not just a romance set on a voyage between Hong Kong and Shanghai. It also offers pirates, betrayal, heroism and a conflicting love interest for Gable as ship’s captain Alan Gaskell. Alan is surprised to find before shoving off that China Doll (Harlow), a girl he picked up in Hong Kong –a performer of some sort– has booked herself passage on the non-luxury boat because she’s mad for the captain. Also on board is a friend to both China Doll and Alan, James MacCardle, played by Wallace Beery, but we are tipped off early on he has some shady connection to pirates hiding aboard the ship that seek a shipment of gold.

     Alan immediately discovers that also on board is an ex-lover, Sybil, played by Rosalind Russell, who immediately ignites a passion in the captain who is far more gruff than the man she used to know. China Doll notices this right off and voluntarily backs away from her man, although she does a poor job of severing the ties. Alan plans to marry the now-widowed Sybil as soon as they dock and leave his sea life behind, but Russell’s character quickly fades into the background once a typhoon and subsequent pirate takeover come to the forefront.

     China Doll seems to be missing during the storm during which all passengers have headed for the lounge area of the ship. She is partaking in a drinking/gambling game with MacCardle in his cabin when she finds half a 100 pound note in his wallet that is surefire evidence he is a pirate. MacCardle notices the missing money and forces China Doll to join up with him or essentially be killed. The dame runs to the captain after the storm calms down, but he, drunk, refuses to listen to a word because he thinks she is just there to win him back. That pisses the gal off and she steals the key to the armory, delivering it to MacCardle.

      In the midst of the pirate takeover, a crewmate (Lewis Stone) who chickened out during the typhoon and was arrested because of it, is shot, has his foot broken and still manages to save the day by crawling to the captains quarters to gather grenades. Despite a Chinese torture device, Alan never gives up the location of the gold and convinces the criminals and  MacCardle –who is translating with the pirates and pretending to be on Alan’s side– that there is no gold.

     Alan solves the mystery of how the pirates got the key to the armory and sends China Doll to trial, but not before making his decision about what broad he wants to marry.

      Now to touch on that accidental indecent exposure to which I alluded. There is a scene that I have noticed both times I watched this movie when Harlow’s gown slips from her soldier and she flashes a full breast at the camera. I am doing my best to not sound like a pervert here, but I found it pretty amazing that such a mishap could make into a final film print. For those wanting to look for this incident, it occurs in the scene when China Doll is fighting off a drunken MacCardle who wants his half 100-pound bill back. In stumbling around the room on a ship rocked by the storm, Harlow’s dress strap slips off her soldier, the what would now be deemed “nip slip” occurs and she, realizing what happened, throws her shoulder back to force the gown in place. I find it comical that this happened to Harlow, who always wore slinky dresses that seemed poised to slip from her shoulder at any moment. Call it fate.

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