We trace ensemble casts back through Shakespeare to Ancient Greece and most likely to the earliest days of storytelling; they say ‘it takes a village for a reason.’ Most likely, in the earliest days of our anthropological past, the concept of community was not a distinction between the haves and the have-nots or the 99% vs. the 1%, but a necessity to survival. I won’t go so far as to equate ensemble casting to fending off warring factions of neighboring tribes or to compare the plague of paranoia and petulance of Hamlet to actual Plague. But the concept is old and has been reworked countless times. Its origins trace roots to 1932’s Grand Hotel.
Of all the casting combinations available, if the choice is available, strong, recognizable ensemble casting rewards the audience more than an unruly cast of misfits and vagabond actors. To justify spending time and money on a two-hour film, a viewer will make a few snap judgments: does this subject matter resonate with me? Has this studio produced films before that I know and like? Do I know the lead actors in this film? From where? Has their work impressed me before? With ensemble casting, the actors both bolster and cover each other. With MGM not a performance risk, the team behind Grand Hotel attracted a huge cast – to audiences in the early 1930s – Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, John and Lionel Barrymore. Probably, any one of these actors could have drawn a huge audience his or herself, but instead, to the delight of the audience, all five get a chance to interact and command the screen.
Quite the feat then, to crowd the screen with raw talent and still create a cohesive story that doesn’t feel like a “best of” performance. The titular Grand Hotel is fictitiously set in Berlin, but could be anywhere. The actors play archetypes, and types well, but the story keeps the fluid fivesome afloat. From the rising action we compartmentalize each character according to some personality trait and motivation. Both are clear and subtle; because of the long (and thereby expensive) runtime, Grand Hotel‘s pacing allows space for director Edmund Goulding to establish clear motivations and interactions that feel like they could have happened (in the ’30s). Sometimes the characters stay out of each other’s way and sometimes they’re purposefully in the way. Our one static character, whose function it was to stay out of the way states it clearly:
People come and go. Nothing ever happens
which is simultaneously true, as nothing of grand importance happens, but for the characters involved the interactions are life and death defining. But for Doctor Otternschlag, who’s a permanent resident of the Hotel, he’s seen this before and will see it again. The ‘slice of life’ motif is quite interesting when combined with ensemble casting. It creates a huge scene for almost nothing to happen.
The ensemble concept has reformed over the 85-year history of film – from pieces like Grand Hotel that give its characters room to explore to films like Ocean’s Eleven (and the remake, Ocean’s Eleven) and The Italian Job (and its remake, The Italian Job), which purposely obfuscates the motivations of its stellar cast. Other series/long-form features will cast lots of unknowns or half-knowns to draw more attention to the plot than to the cast. I’d think it’s easier to promote this kind of ensemble cast in our modern film sphere; more outlets for creative freedom exist, while the number of actors who command as much respect as those five did is probably the same – if not less than in the 1930s. This reformation is a commendable and necessary fact of modernizing film.
Grand Hotel holds a distinctive title of both popularizing a genre and not outliving its own popularity through decades of great, mediocre and poorly executed films. It’s still require curriculum for most film (life) students to cite Grand Hotel as a forerunner for so many of the films we watch, even today. It neither created the hustle-and-bustle genre nor defined it: it neither owns the popularity nor defies it. Further, in a testament to the symmetry so often secluded from modern film, Grand Hotel starts and ends on two ideas. The first one, Dr. Otternschlag’s shrewd observation, brings a balance to the film. The second one, that a cast can survive within such a grand idea, has bookended film history until this day. See Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Grand Hotel rightfully took home the crown for Best Picture in 1931/2. In a year when it seemed like every film produced earned a nomination (nominees weren’t standardized at 5 until 1944), Grand Hotel is the cream that rises out of the proverbial crop. Some of the films nominated at the 5th awards are so obscure and dated that I’ll want to space out watching them to keep my sanity – but one thing for sure is that Grand Hotel is eons beyond Arrowsmith.