Manuel Betancourt

Mondays with Manuel: Grand Hotel (1932)

April 1, 2013 · in Books, Film, Manuel Puig


Mondays with Manuel is a new ongoing series here at the blog wherein I am watching all the films referenced in Manuel Puig’s The Buenos Aires Affair (1974). If the name sounds familiar, it is because Puig gave us that other Hollywood-obsessed book (turned film/turned play/turned musical) Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976). In his 1974 police novel, Puig opens every chapter with a snippet of dialogue from movies he adored, all of which star beautiful and iconic starlets from Old Hollywood from Dietrich to Garson. I’m working on Puig and the influence of these films on his prose for my dissertation, and this seemed like a good way of doing double duty (triple if I include the fact that I hadn’t seen any of these films before!).
Greta Garbo: (the famous ballerina has been a great success that night as the star of her ballet; back in her suite at the Grand Hotel in Berlin she wants to share her happiness but the eagerly awaited guest has not arrived; it is late, the orchestra in the main salon, floors below, has just retired) The music has stopped… how quiet it is tonight! … It was never so quiet in the Grand Hotel… (she looks at a bunch of flowers sent by admirers) These flowers make me think of funerals, don’t they Suzanne?
The faithful companion: They’re just lilies, Madame,… lilies.
Greta Garbo: Suzette… please ring the Baron. (the companion dials the number, the telephone rings but no one answers)
The faithful companion: It doesn’t answer, Madame.
Greta Garbo: (not knowing that her lover Baron von Geigern lies murdered since the night before in that other room of the hotel) Ring, Suzette, ring… (to herself) Come to me, chéri… I’m longing for you. Last night I couldn’t sleep, thinking that you might come to me…
(from Grand Hotel, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

The only film in Oscar history to win Best Picture without any other win (let alone any other nomination!) is a kind of an omnibus film following several characters all staying at the Grand Hotel in Berlin. Chockfull of star power (featuring a young Joan Crawford as well as Lionel Barrymore & Wallace Beery), Puig yet again solely zooms in on Greta Garbo’s “famous ballerina” Grusinskaya, making not only her “faithful companion” (Rafaella Ottiano’s Suzette) but her “awaited guest” (John Barrymore’s Baron) mere nameless footnotes around her. Not unlike Marguerite in Camille, here Garbo’s ballerina is a nervous wreck from the moment we meet her, wishing to forsake everything and give into her depression. It is, of course, only the love of a man that saves her from such a fate. Improbably — as befits the Hollywood trope Puig adores so — she meets the Baron one night as he’s about to steal from her and falls madly in love with him.

Located towards the end of the film, when the ballerina begins worrying for her new lover who has unknown to her been killed a couple of doors over, Puig’s scene as written takes certain liberties with the way it happens on screen. In the film, it is Garbo who rings the Baron and has the latter part of that last dialogue with herself while waiting for the hotel phone operator to connect her with her lover’s room to no avail. Whether this was a conscious choice or the result of what was then the scarcity of rewatching means — think, a project like this would be almost unthinkable without handy DVDs, streaming options and the like! — is anyone’s guess though in either version you get to see Garbo’s ballerina unwittingly foreshadowing her lover’s death even as she remains confident he’ll meet her by the end of the film as she leaves to continue her tour. And yes, that makes two films already wherein Garbo gets an unhappy ending (add in Dietrich’s X-27 and Puig isn’t giving us many happily ever afters for these “nervous, sick, sad and too gay” characters!).

Mondays with Manuel Index:

Chapter I: Camille (1936)
Chapter II: The Blue Dahlia (1946)
Chapter III: Humoresque (1946)
Chapter IV: The Shanghai Express (1932)
Chapter V: Red Dust (1932)
Chapter VI: Blossoms in the Dust (1941)
Chapter VII: Marie Antoinette (1938)
Chapter VIII: Algiers (1938)
Chapter IX: I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955)
Chapter X: Ziegfeld Girl (1941)
Chapter XI: The Letter (1940)
Chapter XII: The Hamilton Woman (1941)
Chapter XIII: Dishonored (1931)
Chapter XIV: Tender Comrade (1943)
Chapter XV: Grand Hotel (1932)
Chapter XVI: Gilda (1946)