top of page
And The WInner  Is - a dive into the story behind every film to win Best Picture
  • L Alan Reitano


Updated: Feb 20, 2023


Grand Hotel was the fifth film to win Best Picture from the 1931 -32 season.

It was the first film to feature an all-star cast, and so far the only film to win Best Picture without a nomination in any other category.

Grand Hotel along with Wings and Driving Miss Daisy are the only Best Pictures for which the director wasn’t also nominated. The film was directed by Edmund Goulding, produced by Irving Thalberg for MGM – and distributed by the Loews.

The budget was $740K and the film earned $2.59 million at the box office.


Irving Thalberg

Irving Thalberg was known as the Hollywood Wonder Boy. He had a knack for selecting scripts.

He was born in Brooklyn, and suffered from a congenital heart disorder as a child. Doctors predicted he’d never make it to thirty. His career in film began when he took a job as a secretary with Universal in New York. He quickly rose to studio manager of their L.A. studio – helming hundreds of films. By age 25 he was made head of production at MGM. Among the stars he developed – were Greta Garbo, Lon Chaney, Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable and countless others. He also shepherded the career of Norma Shearer – whom he married.

In 1936 he turned down an opportunity to make Gone With The Wind saying –

“I just made ‘Mutiny On The Bounty,’ and ‘The Good Earth.’ Now you want me to burn Atlanta? …Absolutely not. No more epics for me now. Just give me a little drawing room drama…. I’m tired.”

While on the set of the Marx Brother’s A Day At The Races, Thalberg developed pneumonia.

He died on September 14th, 1936, beating the doctor’s prediction. He was 37.


The screenplay - written by William A. Drake, and Viki Baum - was based on a play he had

adapted in 1930 from Baum's novel Menschen im Hotel.

Viki Baum

Baum was Austrian - born in Vienna to Jewish parents. Her book was based on experiences she had as a hotel housekeeper.

She was also a professional musician playing harp with the Vienna Concert Society and considered herself a new woman of the 20th century. In the 1920s she took up boxing, training with the German champion – and Marlene Dietrich.

Her book portrayed the decade between the two World Wars - a time of great enlightenment and decadence in Berlin. It was banned in Germany when the Nazis began to gain power. Sensing what was coming - Baum emigrated to the US when asked to write the screenplay for Grand Hotel – with screenwriter William A. Drake – and an uncredited Bela Balazs. MGM Creative director and cinematic savant - Irving Thalberg – had purchased the rights to the book – for somewhere between $13K or $35K (depending on the source). He hired Drake to adapt it for the Broadway stage – where it ran for 459 performances. By the time the film was made – Thalberg’s investment in the story had already turned a nice profit.


Portmanteau is s style of filmmaking that follows the stories disparate characters, all crossing paths in a single location. In the case of Grand Hotel - five people who all cross paths at the hotel.


It was an all-star crew as well. Cedric Gibbons – who designed the Oscar® statuette in 1928 was the art director for Grand Hotel and designed 360 degree, circular desk in the lobby of the hotel. It was the first time a film intentionally showed action that wasn’t part of the plot. The design gave new depth and realism to filmmaking - and changed the way film sets were built going forward. The technique is still in regular use today in film and television. The legendary walk and talk scenes from the TV show the “West Wing” used the technique to near perfection.

As a result of Gibbons' design, the art deco hotel becomes a character in itself - the way the ship does in Titanic.

(NOTE: the sculpting of the Oscar® statuette was done by George Stanley)


After the success of the Grand Hotel play - Thalberg needed a gimmick to set the movie apart from its predecessor. His solution was the All Star Ensemble Cast idea. No one had ever tried it before.

There were rumors that some of the stars didn’t want to share the stage. The gossip press at the time - even insisted that the entire cast had never been on set at once. It's not true. There’s a single publicity photo of them all in a row in front of the circular desk. The cast included John and Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Berry, Lewis Stone, Jean Hersholt, and of course Greta Garbo.

It’s often thought that Grand Hotel was the first film to feature the Barrymore brothers John and Lionel together. But the brothers made Arsene Lupin – a heist film about the theft of the Mona Lisa – the same year – and Lupin beat Grand Hotel to the box office by a month.


In addition to John and Lionel Barrymore, their sister Ethel – known as the first lady of the American Theater, comprised the first family of American acting. The family are still in the business today with Drew Barrymore – John’s granddaughter – the star of ET,”and Never Been Kissed.

John Barrymore - cast as as Baron Felix von Gaigern, in Grand Hotel, began appearing in silent films in 1912. He notably played Jekyll and Hyde, Sherlock Holmes, and several Shakespeare roles. He was also a legendary drinker.

John Barrymore

The alcohol led to a decline in his career, after he became a problem on set.

John Gielgud called him a “monstrous old male impersonator jumping through a hoop, (who) should really have been shot.” While recording a radio show for NBC – Barrymore collapsed and was rushed to the hospital where he died ten days later from cirrhosis.

His final film role was in Playmates, in 1941. He notably appeared in Dinner at Eight - and never won an academy award – though both his sister Ethel and brother Lionel both earned that honor.

Lionel Barrymore portrays the terminally ill Otto Kringelein in Grand Hotel. He’s a man on a spending spree before his impending demise.

Lionel Barrymore

Barrymore would win best actor in 1930 for his role in A Free Soul, the tale of a lawyer defending his daughter’s ex – who’s been charged with murder. The performance concludes with an early example of what would become the classic courtroom summation in hundreds of films and TV shows.

Lionel Barrymore began his stage career – at age 15 - with his grandmother Louisa Lane Drew - another legend of the American stage. By his early twenties Lionel was a star on Broadway. His first film was for Biograph Studios in 1909, and he was working with D. W. Griffith by 1911.

MGM offered him a contract in 1924 where he quickly earned respect as one of the best actors in town. Lionel Barrymore suffered from debilitating arthritis – which caused him to limp. During the filming of Saratoga he tripped on set and broke his hip. Reportedly Louis B. Mayer bought him $400 a day worth of cocaine to dull the pain. Late in life Lionel Barrymore became a composer – one of his works was performed in Dr Kildare’s Wedding Day, the film series where Barrymore played the crusty counterpart to Lew Ayres, Dr. Kildare.

Barrymore’s best known today though, for his portrayal of the craven Mr. Potter in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.


Wallace Berry

Wallace Beery – who had won Best Actor for his role as a boxer in 1931’s The Champ, was cast as Preysing the devious businessman.

Beery is probably best known as Long John Silver in the 1934 adaptation of Treasure Island.

He would appear in 250 films in his career, but had a reputation as mean spirited and lecherous. Even Louis B. Mayer famously admitted – “Yes Beery’s a son of a bitch. But he’s our son of a bitch.”


Joan Crawford – almost didn’t take her role as the innocent, yet willing stenographer Flaemmchen. Crawford whose real surname was LeSueur, had started out on Broadway in the twenties. When she came to MGM to make silent films, Louis B. Mayer thought her name sounded too much like "sewer" – and organized an magazine contest to “name the star.” She was almost Joan Arden – but Crawford won out.

Joan Crawford - 1939

Initially her roles were small and insignificant. Crawford became a star as a result of an active campaign of self-promotion. It might have worked too well – by the mid-thirties Crawford – along with Garbo, Norma Shearer, Katherine Hepburn, Fred Astaire, John Barrymore and others, were dubbed by the press as Box Office Poison, meaning a film they were in would be avoided by the public.

The perception would eventually turn around, and in 1945 Crawford would win Best Actress for her role in Mildred Pierce.

With Grand Hotel, Crawford was reluctant to take the part – believing that most of her scenes would end up on the cutting room floor after the censors got a look. Many of them were cut in conservative states, but her performance in the film was so strong - that after previews – the "Hollywood Reporter" thought she had stolen the “female meat of the movie,” from her co-star Greta Garbo.

In order to balance things out, and keep his star happy, Irving Thalberg shot some additional scenes to bolster Garbo’s role in the film.


Greta Garbo initially passed on her role as well. She thought she was too old – at 27 – to play a ballerina. The Hollywood gossip rags - every eager for a story - attributed her reluctance to not wanting the share the spotlight with the other stars.


Thalberg enticed her into the part with a promise to bill her as simply “Garbo” – inducting her into the one name artist club - an honor reserved today for the best of the best.

Garbo had started in silent films in Sweden and perfected a mournful style of acting. Most critics consider her role as the fatally ill courtesan in Camille as her best role, though she’s better remembered today for her role in Ninotchka.

Both films earned her Best Actress nominations. She received a single nomination for the films Romance & Anna Christie – in the same year. She never won. Garbo earned the praise of actress Maureen O’Sullivan, who had one scene with her in another film. O'Sullivan claimed -

“On the set she did nothing. I thought she was the worst actress ever. Then (I) saw the rushes and everything Garbo was thinking was up there on the screen. The camera loved her.”

Garbo’s iconic line ‘I want to be alone,’ as quoted and parodied for years.

There was some truth to the line. Garbo was a legendary recluse. She was known to avoid industry social functions – never signed autographs – nor did she reply to the voluminous piles of fan mail she received.

Lionel Barrymore believed she didn’t want to be alone as much as she wanted to be left alone likely because she was really shy and self-conscious. During the love scenes in Grand Hotel she had the room cleared and screens set up with only the camera lens poking through. Not even the crew was allowed to watch.

Garbo’s ‘I want to be alone line’ – is probably the most quoted from Grand Hotel, though Lewis Stone has an irony filled line at the end of the opening sequence - and again at the close of the film – “Grand Hotel -- people -- coming -- going... Who cares... nothing ever happens.”


The all-star cast concept may have been too successful, as none of the actors were nominated for their roles in Grand Hotel. All the stars attended the premiere, except Garbo. Emcee Will Rogers told the audience that she’d appear after the film. What they got was Wallace Berry in drag saying “I vant to be alone.” It didn’t go over well.

Grand Hotel is the first Best Picture with a score and cue music recognizable in the way we use music today. Garbo has a theme that sneaks in almost every time she’s in a scene.


The biggest legacy of Grand Hotel is the impact it had on storytelling in film. Portmanteau filmmaking – has come to mean – simply multiple stories, or even chapter-based stories like Pulp Fiction.

The technique also came to be known as ‘Grand Hotel Theme,’ referring to a film that follows the lives of separate characters all in one location. “Airport” in 1970 set around air travel, and “Posideon Adventure” – on a crusie ship, are later examples of the Grand Hotel style of film making. Robert Altman would become a master of the portmanteau style of parallel narrative. Dozens of Altman films use the style and the the all-star cast. “M*A*S*H” – is centered around the 4077th army hospital in Korea – “Nashville” – is set in the country music scene - “Pret a Porte” – revolves around Paris fashion week, “Short Cuts,” in set in L.A., “Gosford Park” – in a Downton Abby style manor house, and "Cookie's Fortune," in a small Mississippi town are all portmanteau style films, with all star casts.

Altman became so adept at the technique - it’s often known today as the “Altmanesque,’ style of filmmaking.

But it all started with Grand Hotel. A film that won the only Academy Award it was nominated for – Best Picture.

Grand Hotel was remade in 1945 as Weekend at the Waldorf, with Ginger Rogers, Lana Turner, Walter Pidegeon and Van Johnson.

A ‘70s remake started and failed several times. It was never made.

Garbo’s famous ‘I want to be alone’ line made the AFI Top 100 list of all-time movie quotes.

And today Grand Hotel, is on the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.

2 views0 comments


bottom of page