Several years ago, I stumbled on the movie The Impostors, which features a large cast of characters on board a cruise ship playing out their respective dramas. It’s a witty film, filled with zany hijinks and snappy dialogue. Though they’re not the biggest stars, the cast is widely recognizable (Stanley Tucci, Oliver Platt, Steve Buscemi), an ensemble story that seems directly inspired by a film like Grand Hotel.
This movie was a sort of experiment in something that is pretty much commonplace today: the bigger-than-life film packed with all the greatest stars of the day. It’s like an Avengers movie, only with better character names. The Baron. Grusinskaya. Kringelein. And they’re played by John Barrymore, Greta Garbo, Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford. Even I’ve heard of these people.
The thing with ensemble stories is you have to land on a particular individual’s narrative in a quick, easy-to-remember way, and even though I already forget a lot of the specifics of each thread, I think it was done well. Once I got past my usual trouble of recognizing whether there were, in fact, two characters that looked similar and had mustaches (answer: one guy), I enjoyed this. There’s a depressed dancer, a man living it up at the fancy hotel because he’s dying, a factory owner plotting a big deal, a jewel thief and man-about-town, a stenographer (slash-evening escort? unclear), a doctor with a mysterious wound, a porter expecting a baby (from him wife, not himself). And somehow, by the end, these threads all end up interlocking.
“The Grand Hotel: People coming, going. Nothing ever happens,” someone intones at the beginning of the film, as a sort of existential portent. It’s not so much that nothing happens, but that the hotel is a sort of all-seeing but apathetic party to the action. When people leave their rooms, even after living there for years, the hotel absorbs whatever character that person might have brought to it and readies a generic space for the next resident. Hotel as heartless God.
One little thing that amused me, particularly in the historical context, was the silliness of the drunk guy. In the midst of Prohibition, I can imagine that watching the (over)consumption of alcohol on film might have been entertainingly scandalous, sort of the way marijuana use has been portrayed in movies from, say, the nineties. There’s also a touching moment where the drunk man – who’s been freely spending and gambling away his money – panics about losing his wallet full of cash. Meanwhile, the jewel thief, desperate for the cash to catch a train the next day, has tucked the wallet away in his pocket. For a long moment, it’s uncertain whether he’ll run off with the dough or have a change of heart, and it’s notable by that point that you really care what his answer will be.
I wonder if a movie like this could be done successfully today – a story about a contained universe full of characters who start out as strangers but quickly grow intimately familiar.
Theme: Crossing Paths
First Time Watching? Yes
Final Verdict: A short life, and a gay one