Joan Crawford was admittedly awestruck by Greta Garbo. Though they had no scenes together, Crawford would greet the enigmatic star with reverence whenever the two passed each other between camera setups. Garbo never responded, so Crawford ceased her efforts to engage her. Some time later, Garbo stopped Crawford as she walked silently past her, remarking, "Aren't you going to say something to me?"
Greta Garbo was very particular as to how her love scenes with John Barrymore were shot. She requested red front-lighting and required curtains to be placed between the camera and film crew to help set the mood and create the illusion that she and Barrymore were alone. During one take, Garbo got so carried away with the scene that she continued kissing Barrymore for three full minutes after director Edmund Goulding had yelled cut. The bonus smooching footage survives, but was not used in the final cut.
Daringly conceived by MGM production chief Irving Thalberg as what would become the first all-star film. Each studio had produced one all-star musical revue in 1929-30 to showcase the splendors of sound, but conventional wisdom decreed that no more than one or two stars should appear in a picture, thus maximizing profits by forcing audiences to pay separate admissions to see their favorite stars spread across many films. That philosophy changed after Grand Hotel (1932), which featured five of MGM's top-tiered stars and became one of the highest grossing pictures in studio history. Realizing that one star-laden vehicle could lasso attendance from each of its performers' respective fan bases, as opposed to producing five or six separate vehicles to achieve the same effect, Thalberg immediately set Dinner at Eight (1933) into motion as the first all-star comedy.
In addition to her reservations about appearing youthful enough to portray a prima ballerina, Greta Garbo was also reluctant to act in a film which included a cast with so many additional stars. Irving Thalberg was able to convince her to take the part by offering to bill her by her last name only in the credits, an honor which was reserved for only the most esteemed actors at the time.
Joan Crawford initially objected to her role as Flaemmchen because she feared that much of her performance would be censored for being too provocative and racy. Director Edmund Goulding and producer Irving Thalberg assured her that her part would be filmed in a tasteful manner and that she would be shown in a sympathetic light. Crawford's misgivings were warranted, however, as many censor boards in conservative American states cut the majority of her scenes for indecency.
Author and playwright Vicki Baum based "Menschen im Hotel" both on a true story about a scandal at a hotel involving a stenographer and an industrial magnate, and on her own experiences working as a chambermaid at two well-known Berlin hotels.
The Hollywood premiere of the film promised a performance from Greta Garbo following the film screening. Instead of Garbo, audience members were greeted by her co-star Wallace Beery who appeared on stage in drag. Mimicking Garbo, Beery repeated her famous line, "I want to be alone." The skit was poorly received.
The Hollywood premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater was one of the film industry's most spectacular promotional events to date. A reproduction of the film's iconic circular reception desk was placed outside the venue, and many of the movie stars who attended the showing were asked to sign the ledger at the desk as if they were hotel guests.
MGM studio brass wondered how their top female star Greta Garbo would get along with John Barrymore in their many scenes together. They were both big personalities, and she had her well-known peculiar quirks. As luck would have it, there was no need to worry as the two hit it off from the beginning. On the very first day of filming together, Garbo reportedly greeted Barrymore warmly by saying, "This is a great day for me. How I have looked forward to working with John Barrymore!" Barrymore supposedly was won over immediately. "My wife and I think you are the loveliest woman in the world," he replied.
In a package deal, MGM purchased both the stage and film rights of Vicki Baum's novel, Menschen im Hotel, for $35,000. The play was a spectacular hit on Broadway, and recouped the studio's initial investment before a single frame of the film was shot.
Though film lore has suggested that Joan Crawford was irked by Greta Garbo's top billing, this was never an issue, as in 1932 Garbo was by far the more established personality and Grand Hotel (1932) was considered a step up for Crawford, who was just beginning her ascent to prominence.
Greta Garbo was true to her sometimes aloof and temperamental reputation. Most notably, she detested having any outsiders watching her at work while she was filming and had no qualms about having people removed from the set, no matter who they were. "...it would have been the same if it had been Jesus Christ," said Lionel Barrymore. "She didn't do it to be snotty. She was frightened. She was like a cat that went under the bed when a stranger came into the room." Edmund Goulding agreed. "In the studios she is nervous. "Rather like a racehorse at the post--actually trembling, hating onlookers. At the first click of the camera, she starts literally pouring forth Garbo into the lens."
Much ado was made in the press about the numerous big stars in the cast and how there was sure to be a tumultuous clash of egos. Some journalists referred to this as the "Battle of the Stars," as if they were trying to deliberately egg on the perceived animosity to create a more exciting story. The more peaceful reality was that the actors were all extremely professional and did their utmost to accommodate and respect each other and allow everyone a chance to shine. It also didn't hurt that Edmund Goulding lived up to his reputation as a diplomatic handler of big personalities.
Greta Garbo lived up to her reclusive reputation by refusing to attend the spectacular Hollywood premiere of the film at Grauman's Chinese Theater. Instead, Garbo spent the evening at home with close friends.
Rumors circulated that additional scenes with Greta Garbo were added after previews to ensure that Joan Crawford didn't walk off with the picture. This is not founded in truth, as the film's script was faithful to both the stage play and novel upon which it was based.
Irving Thalberg originally wanted his wife Norma Shearer to play the role of Flaemmchen. However, she received a lot of fan mail in which fans discouraged her to take the role, after which she refused the part.
Joan Crawford tackled the role of Flaemmchen with her characteristic gusto and confidently held her own with the rest of the more established cast. Crawford was always in awe of Greta Garbo's presence and eager to talk to her idol, but since the film never called for their characters to be in the same room at the same time, there was little chance of the two spending much time together. Crawford was also too intimidated to ever directly approach Garbo, who coolly kept her distance. One day, however, Crawford was surprised when Garbo spoke to her first. It was an experience that Crawford called "thrilling" when Garbo stopped her on the stairs at MGM and said, "We're in the same picture. How sad I am that we haven't one scene together." It was a story that Crawford proudly told many times throughout her career, the thrill of that moment always evident.
The theatrical trailer which is commonly shown on behalf of this film was designed for an intended, but unrealized, 1944 re-release, and reflects the promotional style and lettering of the 1940's, not the 1930's. The original 1932 trailer is apparently lost. It would have most likely looked similar in design to the film's opening credit sequence.
Wallace Beery was originally upset at being cast as Preysing, believing that playing an amoral business tycoon would wreck his image, and tried to stage a "walkout" in protest. When he relented, he reportedly decided to steal as much of the show as possible and constantly tried to upstage the other stars in the film.
By all accounts Greta Garbo and John Barrymore worked extremely well together and were quite generous to each other as actors. Garbo typically didn't socialize much when she was working and kept to herself, but she made an exception in Barrymore's case as she regularly enjoyed talking with him during their down time. Years later Barrymore described Garbo as "a fine lady and a fine actress." Garbo described him as "one of the very few who had the divine madness without which a great artist cannot work or live."
Apparently, there were some suggestive scenes shot between Crawford and Wallace Beery including one where they are both holding ends of a garter. These scenes were cut later, but a still is reprinted in Alexander Walker's book, "Joan Crawford, the ultimate star."
A preview screening held in Monterrey California produced rave reviews for up-and-coming star Joan Crawford. Crawford's reception was so positive that Irving Thalberg feared her performance would outshine Greta Garbo's. Thalberg carefully supervised the editing process to ensure a balance of footage between all of the film's stars.
Principal photography commenced in December 1931 soon after the New York stage play closed. There was a great deal of publicity surrounding the production with excitement building over what promised to be a star-studded box office event.
In the scene where Greta Garbo utters her famous 'I want to be alone line' you can hear the song 'Lover come back to me', written for the 1928 play New Moon (1930). The bridge of the song contains an excerpt from a piece by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky entitled 'The Seasons, June, Barcarolle'.
The only appearance in a Best Picture Oscar winning film of six out of seven of the main cast, with Lionel Barrymore the only exception as he also appears in Best Picture winner You Can't Take It with You (1938).
Two years before directing this film, Edmund Goulding directed the movie The Devil's Holiday (1930), which took place at a hotel called the Grand Hotel. Both films open with scenes of switchboard operators saying, "Grand Hotel! I'll connect you!"
In 1989, a new musical adaptation was produced for Broadway. It opened Nov 12, 1989 at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York and ran for 1,017 performances. Among the replacement cast members during its long run were Cyd Charisse as Grusinskaya (the Greta Garbo role in this film) and John Schneider as Felix Von Gaigern (the John Barrymore role in this film).