Garbo is in the house!
One of the wacky things about the studio system was that an actor or actress could be conscripted into certain roles in films, whether they liked it or not. Depending on the studio or on their status as a star, refusing a role could mean hurting one’s career or risking suspension. It could also mean being loaned out to another studio such as Columbia, a company which film executives hoped would be purgatory for wayward stars, but that’s another story.
Whether or not actors were suited for the roles they were told to play is another matter. That’s why non-singers or non-dancers such as Peter Lawford were occasionally cast in musicals. In Greta Garbo’s case, she played a ballerina in the 1932 film, Grand Hotel. We’ve already darkened the door to Grand Hotel once on this blog (Read my earlier entry here), but one of the great things about the movie is that its ensemble structure lends it to being looked at from multiple angles.
Madame Gruskinskaya is a renowned prima ballerina and seems to have the world at her satiny feet, but she’s depressed. Her technique has suffered because of it, and she’s so distraught her maid gives her something to help her sleep. She doesn’t want to dance, she doesn’t want to retire, she doesn’t even want to go out and party. She just wants to be alone. Grand Hotel was, incidentally, the first time in movie history that Garbo’s immortal catchphrase was born.
Gruskinskaya isn’t malicious. She is a typical star who is energized by her manager telling her there’s a packed house waiting for her at her next performance, even though it’s a baldfaced lie, but she holds an elevator for an elderly woman who can’t walk very well. She treats her servants as friends and will talk to anyone.
Gruskinskaya comes back early from her performance in a tragic mood. She calls the theater to see how the audience reacted to her leaving, and goes into spasms of despair when she finds out no one missed her. It’s implied that she’s about to end it all when lo and behold, a man (John Barrymore) pops out of the shadows and introduces himself as Baron von Geiger. He tells Gruskinskaya that he’s always loved her and watched her from afar, and that he sneaked into her room because he wants to breathe the air she breathes. It’s all baloney, because von Geiger was really there to steal her pearls, but Gruskinskaya doesn’t know that. When she tries to put him out of her room, he begs her to let him stay.
The two of them watch sunrise from Gruskinskaya’s chaise lounge the next day. The Baron feels badly about stealing from her, and pulls the pearls out of his pocket, confessing his real reason for being in Gruskinskaya’s room. Amazingly enough, Gruskinskaya is repulsed at first, but gets over it very quickly, and von Geiger agrees to come to Vienna with her.
Gruskinskaya is now as happy as she had been down in the dumps. She dances through her day and banters with the servants. Her performance that night is a complete one-eighty from the previous one, and she and her entourage head up to her room laden with flowers. She blithely talks to the press and gets ready to depart for Vienna, thinking the Baron is waiting for her on the train. Little does Gruskinskaya know that Baron von Geiger’s kleptomania is about to catch up with him.
What’s sad about Gruskinskaya is how often people lie to her to keep her happy or at least peaceful. She’s going to dance before a full house when there’s barely anyone there. Everyone knows what’s happened to the Baron, but Gruskinskaya’s staff warn the hotel employees not to tell her. The only inkling she has of anything changing is hearing the music that’s always playing in the hotel suddenly stop, but it doesn’t affect her much. The only thing she does is smell one of her flowers and remark that they remind her of a funeral. Her maid stays silent at this. Everything possible is done to keep this woman insulated from reality and the truth, because it’s more important to those close to her that Gruskinskaya to be the perfect prima ballerina instead of part of the real world. In the event that things do crash for this woman, it may not be a pretty sight.
I always found Garbo’s casting as a ballet dancer rather head-scratching. First of all, at a half-inch over five-feet-seven, she was too tall to be a prima ballerina, especially in that era. Whereas Audrey Hepburn, who really was a ballet dancer, was told that she couldn’t be a lead because of her height. It wasn’t that her teacher was being mean, either–most male dancers of the time were too short to lift a tall partner. Audrey was advised to pursue a career as a second ballerina, but she wasn’t interested, and the rest is history. If Audrey couldn’t do it, there’s no way Garbo could have either.
Secondly, Garbo’s age was pushing things. She was twenty-seven when Grand Hotel was released, and while they say the age at which a prima ballerina retires can vary depending on physical condition, they generally retire very young, or at least shift to less taxing roles. Maybe that was another reason why Gruskinskaya was depressed–she knew age was creeping up on her and she didn’t like it. Garbo herself hesitated to take the role because of her age, but Thalberg sweetened the deal by allowing her to okay the studio’s choice for her male costar.
It’s safe to assume Garbo was more than fine with their selecting John Barrymore. According to the documentary, Checking Out: Grand Hotel, Garbo was entranced, and threw herself at him in the love scenes. She threw herself into the role as well, ordering the stage to be lit with red lights, and had screens put around her sets so that only Edmund Goulding and the cameras could see her. It paid off; Garbo’s performance in the film is beautifully done, and the way her emotions play out on her face is remarkable to see. While Garbo may have been a bit miscast as a ballet dancer, her performance in Grand Hotel is intense, melodramatic, and joyous.
For more Garbo, check in with Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. We’ll see Garbo in a different hotel and a different city tomorrow with Day Two. Hope you enjoyed reading, and see you then!