Grand Hotel: Dialogue and Engagement
One of the biggest headaches in narrative is what to reveal when and how to reveal it. Nowhere is this headache more intense than at the beginning of a narrative, the Setup, where we describe the Initial State of our change elements and create anticipation for the conflict the narrative exists to relate. Reveal too much, and you spoil the punch line. Reveal too little, and things don't make sense.
As part of my research for a truly fine-grained model of narrative, I've been watching a lot of movies the last year or two. Some of these films are excellent. They get all or most of it right. Some are pretty good. And some suck like a drainhole.
A lot of "classic" films get it mainly right. 1932 Academy Award Best Picture winner Grand Hotel (by William A. Drake and Béla Balázs) is one such classic. I watched it while working out and found it riveting. But not perfect. Some of its shortcomings may be barnacles from the 1930 stage dramatization (by William A. Drake) and 1929 novel (by Vicki Baum). Page, stage and screen have different requirements and different strengths. Sometimes adaptations don't scrape the hull sufficiently. The barnacles I want to dissect here belong to those ancient subspecies of bugaboo: dialogue and exposition, that is, revealing background through stuff characters say to each other.
The story has six main characters:
- Senf - the Hotel's head porter and an expectant father
- Otto Kringelein - a terminally ill accountant from Fredersdorf; in Berlin to see a great specialist and have a life-end fling
- General Director Preysing - Kringelein's "big boss" in Fredersdorf; in Berlin to seal a crucial merger with the Saxonia Company
- Madame Grusinskaya - a Russian ballerina with a failing career; in Berlin on tour
- Baron Felix von Gaigern - penniless gambler and hotel thief; at the hotel to steal Madame Grusinskaya's pearls
- Flaemmchen - stenographer, businessman's escort, model and would-be actress; at the hotel to take dictation from Preysing
The film begins with five urgent telephone monologues. Senf calls a local clinic to ask how his wife's delivery is progressing. Kringelein asks a colleague to tear up his will. Preysing speaks to his father-in-law about the importance of the impending merger. Grusinskaya's maid, Suzette, updates Grusinskaya's manager, Herr Meierheim, on Grusinskaya's condition. Gaigern talks to an associate about funds and the status of an impending burglary.
My analysis will focus on the movie's first three minutes and eleven seconds, which fit comfortably by location and content in the all-important Hook (the quick front bit that makes us want to keep watching) and Setup (the larger front bit that prepares us for all the fun). I'll take a sharp knife to the shooting draft, a film transcript and my own humble revision.
But first I'll lay out some Principles.