This star-studded adaptation of Vicki Baum's novel about two nights in Berlin's Grand Hotel won the Oscar for best picture.
Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) does not have long to live and has decided to spend his money in Berlin's most expensive hotel; he demands and gets a better room. Businessman Preysing (Wallace Beery) is working on a merger that depends on a deal with Manchester. Baron Felix von Geigern (John Barrymore) desperately needs money to pay a large debt. Stenographer Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford) also needs money, lives on one meal a day, and has been hired by Preysing. Kringelein worked as a bookkeeper in Preysing's textile factory before he became ill. Russian dancer Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo) is tired and does not want to perform. Dictating to Flaemmchen, Preysing gets a telegram that the Manchester deal is off. The baron climbs in Grusinskaya's window and steals her pearls. A maid comes in, and he hides in the closet. Grusinskaya returns early because she refused to dance, saying she wants to be alone. In despair she talks of death, causing the baron to come out and encourage her; he says he could love her. Very late at night Kringelein comes in drunk with the doctor.
The next morning Preysing is arguing with other businessmen about who first approached the other about the merger. The baron tells Grusinskaya he has no character, that he is a gambler and a thief, showing her the pearls. She says that he can keep them, and they embrace each other passionately. She invites him to join her on the train to Vienna and offers him money. Baron says he will get money himself and leaves. Grusinskaya is elated and dances around her room. Preysing is told the merger is off; but he lies about Manchester to change their minds. The baron keeps his date with Flaemmchen; but he tells her he fell in love and asks her to dance with his friend Kringelein. Preysing wants Flaemmchen to take dictation and reprimands Kringelein as a wayward employee. Kringelein dancing with Flaemmchen is very happy; he criticizes Preysing, saying he can't do anything to him because he is going to die. Preysing invites Flaemmchen to England and agrees to pay her 1000 marks.
The baron tells the man he owes 10,000 marks he'll have to wait. Playing cards, Kringelein wins, and the baron loses. Kringelein collapses, and the baron takes his wallet; but when Kringelein becomes desperate, he finds it. Grusinskaya returns from a triumphant performance, and Flaemmchen refuses to be intimate with Preysing. Preysing asks for his wallet back from the baron and accuses him of being a thief, clubbing him to death. Flaemmchen runs to Kringelein and cries. Kringelein tells Preysing, "You don't kill a man about a pocketbook." Preysing is afraid of a scandal and asks Kringelein for help. Kringelein reports the murder, and Preysing is arrested. Both Kringelein and Flaemmchen loved the baron and decide to travel together, both crying for joy. Grusinskaya is told the baron left and leaves; then Kringelein and Flaemmchen leave happily. All this, and the doctor says nothing ever happens at the Grand Hotel!
This film represents the desperation of the depression as every main character is desperate - Kringelein because he is dying, the baron for money, Preysing because the failed merger may ruin his business, Flaemmchen to earn money, and Grusinskaya because she is tired of performing and lonely. Yet Kringelein is liberated by facing death, and Flaemmchen is happier with him.