“Mr. Goulding’s avowed intention in bringing [Grand Hotel] to the screen was to use the camera as a ‘walking personality,’ letting it follow the tangled destinies of the central characters of the Continental setting as an invisible onlooker.” (“‘Grand Hotel’ Film”, par. 9)
I like ballet as much as the next person, though I’m not a dancer and never have been. But this blogathon attracted me because the first ballet dancing character that came to my mind was Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel (1932). It’s not a film about ballet dancers, but I always loved this movie. The way the ballet dancer is portrayed in this film is quite different from other ballet films, like The Red Shoes and An American in Paris (1951).
There is no doubt Greta Garbo was a walking personality. The film Grand Hotel is one of her finest and most famous. As Irene Thirer gushes in her article, “Garbo is the supreme of magnificence” (Thirer, par. 3). This is no easy task in a film is one of the first to emply an all-star cast with a who’s who of MGM studio stars in the early 1930’s, including John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, and Joan Crawford. The film tackles many small stories, some intertwined, some not, of the dramas unfolding among guests at the Grand Hotel in Berlin. As Kathleen Blair points out in her blog post “Revising A Classic: The Grand Hotel”, “[o]f all the scenarios, Garbo’s ballet dancer, Grusinskaya, is probably the most memorable” (par. 7).
Garbo plays a famous Russian ballerina named Grusinskaya and she carries the role with ease in both her figure and style. Indeed, “[s]he is lithe and lovely in the flimsy gownery which makes her convincingly a dancer – even in the knee-length ballet costume of tarlatan and the ballet slippers which she wears in just one scene” (Thirer, par. 4). But all is not well, as she is now “having trouble filling seats at her performances” (Blair, par. 7). The gradual panic and despair that besets a dancer whose success is on the brink of extinction comes out not in a display of her waning dancing skills but in other ways. Blair relates “[Grusinskaya’s peril] is established through conversation… (par. 7). It’s rare that a dancer whose career is on the decline isn’t seen actually dancing. What we see is conversations, as Blair points out. For example, Gursinskaya and her agent Pinenov (Ferdinand Gottschalk) talk over the phone after she has fled a performance where she laments “They didn’t even miss me” when she is told her understudy went on in her place. The emotional melt-down that follows is one of Garbo’s best, “like being transported back to the silent era” because “ [n]o matter what lines [Garbo is] saying, she always speaks more clearly with her face” (Blair, par. 7). As a refugee from the silent era, Garbo uses the non-verbal tools at her disposal, such as facial expression, body language, and gestures.
The scenario involving Grusinskaya conforms with 1930’s gender roles because it is not really about a dancer’s declining career but about love conquers all. Grusinskaya is brought out of her despair and suicide through a love affair with another fellow Grand Hotel guest, the debonair but criminal Baron von Geigern (John Barrymore). She conveniently meets and falls in love with the Baron at her lowest point. His rather quick declaration of love brings on a joy that replaces her dancing. As Thirer describes,
“[Garbo] is brought out of a great despair into a world of light and love. She forgets that her audience did not applaud; that the house was half empty; that she is tired of it all. She wants to sing, dance – because she has found love.” (par. 10)
Photo Credit: Greta Garbo at her most prima ballerina-ish (note the dramatic tortured expression on her face…), with John Barrymore in a scene from Grand Hotel (1932), from The New Movie Magazine, pg. 44, April 1932: We hope/Wikimedia Commons/PD US not renewed
Unfortunately, this was a typical Hollywood story for career women, where love is presented as a better, if not the only, alternative. I talk a bit about how this played out in a choice between career and family where family always won out in two Bette Davis films of the 1950’s here. Interestingly, the story of Grusinskaya and the Baron doesn’t end happily, perhaps a product of the more realistic and uncensored Pre-Code Hollywood.
Garbo’s role in this film somewhat foreshadows her own career, though it’s difficult to say her career was really on the decline. Grand Hotel comes at the beginning of Garbo’s rise to fame in the talkies, but she walked away from Hollywood nine years later. We can’t watch the desperate and despairing Grusinskaya without this knowledge in the back of our minds, making “her close-ups are all the more tragic and beautiful, a look back to the beginning of [Garbo’s] career in silent film” (Blair, par. 7). Garbo takes the role of a ballerina and manages to make her touching and compelling, even without an elaborate dancing scene.
Blair, Kathleen. “Revisiting a classic: The Grand Hotel”. Curnblog: Believe in Cinema. WordPress. . 21 February 2014. Web. 2 August 2017.
“‘Grand Hotel’ Film”. The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 2002. 27 March 1932. Web. 2 August 2017.
Thirer, Irene. “‘Grand Hotel’ is a remarkable piece of work: 1932 review”. New York Daily News. NYDailyNews.com, 2017. 17 February 2015 (original publication date: 14 April 1932). Web. 2 August 2017.