Critical Evaluation (Masterplots)

The critical community is always suspicious of a novel that enjoys the sheer commercial impact of Grand Hotel. In its global appeal (it has been translated into more than twenty languages), its staggering sales, and its translation into a variety of media (a hugely successful stage play; an Academy-award winning film; and, more than four decades after its initial publication, a popular stage musical), Grand Hotel is often cited as the first best seller of the twentieth century. The critical community, however, traditionally looks askance at a novel that finds such a wide appeal, certain that a novel this popular, read by so many people, could not also maintain the integrity and requisite thematic density of “serious” literature.

Vicki Baum struggled publicly against the idea that she wrote middlebrow popular trifles, but there is no denying her appeal or her productivity. For decades, she was a name brand, and her books were marketed with savvy professionalism by her publishing house. By the mid-1930’s, Baum was the best selling German-language author in the world. She emigrated to the United States in 1932, in part to avoid Nazi persecution—her fiction, however, was never political, and her Jewishness was not a part of her writing. Rather, she emigrated mostly because of the appeal of the American market, specifically the work in Hollywood. Even as she maintained a resilient commercial appeal (more than fifty titles, most of these best sellers), she disparaged her own status, often calling herself a first-rate second-rate writer.

It is a credit to Baum’s ingenuity, however, to have devised a plot structure that quickly became a genre unto itself, and to have created an enduring (and reliable) formula for generations of both highly successful novels and commercially successfully films. In a single grand setting, in a compact space of time, she brings together a small cross-section of characters from different economic classes, generations, and backgrounds—strangers to each other. She structures a series of accidental encounters often involving romance or crime among these characters. As a result of these encounters, each character...

(The entire section is 893 words.)