This is my contribution to the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon. Please do look at the great range of postings.
“The most glamorous production of all time,” proclaims the original trailer to Dinner at Eight. Well, Jean Harlow’s astonishing dresses, made by Adrian, are certainly glamorous – and so is the whole central idea, of a businessman’s wife arranging a grand society dinner. But, like the previous year’s great portmanteau drama featuring some of the same stars, Grand Hotel, this is very much a Depression era film, with a desperation underlying the glamour.
The film has an astonishing cast even by the standards of MGM – it must be one of the most star-studded ensembles of all time, featuring both John and Lionel Barrymore, as well as Harlow, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, Billie Burke, Madge Evans, Lee Tracy and Edmund Lowe. Names like Phillips Holmes, Grant Mitchell and May Robson have to make do with bit parts.
Based on a stage play by Edna Ferber and George S Kaufman, it’s sometimes a little static and talky, but carried through by the great cast and the sharp dialogue, scripted by Frances Marion and Herman J Mankiewicz. Director George Cukor also gives each of his roster of stars time to put their own stamp on the film and make their personality felt.
The main plot, such as it is, revolves around Millicent Jordan (Burke) trying to organise a dinner for a titled pair of British visitors. But her plans spin out of control as various problems arise and her guest list constantly changes, leading to her becoming obsessed. When one of her servants stabs another in a row over a maid, with one landing in hospital and the other in jail, all she is bothered about is that the aspic centrepiece for the dinner landed on the floor. The first time I saw the film, I found it hard to sympathise with Millie, but this time round I felt for her more. Anyone who has organised any kind of project or event will recognise something of that single-minded focus which leads to everything else seeming like an interruption. Billie Burke also starred opposite John Barrymore in Cukor’s 1932 film A Bill of Divorcement, but gets a chance to bring more nervous humour to her role here.
The two Barrymore brothers both play characters who are desperate for money, but putting on a show of wealth, in very different ways. Oliver Jordan (Lionel) is running an old New York shipping firm which has been successful for 100 years, but is now heading for the rocks in the Depression. He keeps quiet about his money problems, just as he keeps quiet about the pain in his heart. But it seems inevitable that both his own health problems and those of his firm will eventually be known. Oliver is distracted from his woes by memories of his youthful love for musical comedy star Carlotta. Marie Dressler is cast against type in furs and jewels, and it’s hard to believe in her as a former great beauty (“I was gorgeous, wasn’t I?”) but she carries it off with a down-to-earth wit and warmth. She lives in the Hotel Versailles (decadence and doom), but is running short of cash too. “Everybody’s broke”, as Millie says.
Oliver doesn’t realise that his daughter, Paula (Madge Evans) shares his love for actors, and is infatuated with a fading silent movie star, Larry Renault (John Barrymore). John clearly plays this hard-drinking, womanising character as a version of himself, with repeated references to his “great profile”. But the TCM article on the film says he also partly based Larry on Lowell Sherman, another actor with similar problems who played a self-destructive drunk in Cukor’s great melodrama of the previous year, What Price Hollywood?
Despite clutching an invitation to the dinner, Larry spends the whole film isolated in his suite at the Versailles, which he can’t pay for – he hasn’t had anything to eat all day, and sends a bellboy out to pawn a silver photo frame so he can buy more booze. John has no scenes with Lionel and indeed the only other stars of the film he meets are Madge Evans and Lee Tracy as his fed-up agent. Some of the film’s most powerful scenes – black comedy and tragedy both at once – come when the conceited Larry meets an impresario casting a new play, and can’t accustom himself to the idea of asking for a small part rather than the lead. Although Larry’s problems are largely due to drink, this need to battle for work must have struck a chord with many people in the Depression audience. Both the Barrymore brothers are superb , heartbreaking and funny at once.
However, the film’s greatest humour probably comes from Jean Harlow as Kitty Packard, the spoilt wife of businessman Dan (Wallace Beery) – one of the few characters who doesn’t have any problem with money. He’s just trying to get hold of as much as possible and also to show off his riches, by buying his wife “big” bracelets. The couple’s war of words is often hilarious and Harlow gives one of her greatest performances here, with no holds barred.
The film isn’t out on DVD in the UK, but I have a Dutch import disc which is clearly made from the US DVD, and has a good sharp picture most of the time. It also includes a featurette about Jean Harlow. Most of the photos in this review are gratefully taken from Doctor Macro.