Dinner at Eight (George Cukor, 1933)

This is my contribution to the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon. Please do look at the great range of postings.

Dinner at Eight 5“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.

A star-studded cast indeed

A star-studded cast indeed

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.

Dinner at Eight 7

Lionel Barrymore and Billie Burke

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.

Dressler as Carlotta

Dressler as Carlotta

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.

John Barrymore and Madge Evans

John Barrymore and Madge Evans

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.

Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery

Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery

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.

Jean Harlow - by George Hurrell 1933 - Dinner At Eight. Scanned by jane for Dr. Macro's High Quality Movie Scans website: http://www.doctormacro.com. Enjoy!

Jean Harlow – by George Hurrell 1933 – Dinner At Eight.

 

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23 thoughts on “Dinner at Eight (George Cukor, 1933)

  1. Wonderful film and I enjoyed your post for this blogathon. I;m still working on my piece, hope to have it ready later tonight. Anyhow, in researching Lionel Barrymore, he had two daughters who both died in infancy, and when he met Jean Harlowe, he felt she was the daughter he never got the chance to know, as Harlowe was the same age as one of his daughters. When Harlowe died so tragically, Lionel took it very hard. I’d like to think that Dinner at Eight was a fun movie set to be working on.

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    • Thanks for visiting and commenting, Jenni. That’s interesting to hear about Lionel Barrymore and Harlow having such a good relationship. I agree it’s nice to think that they all enjoyed making this film together.

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  2. Pingback: THE BARRYMORE TRILOGY BLOGATHON HAS NOW ARRIVED | In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.

  3. Enjoyed this review. I’d forgotten much about it. I agree with your assessment. It was easy to judge the hostess (as I did), but now, being such a poor one myself, I sympathize with her efforts at least, if not with how she carries them off:)

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    • Ha, I’m no great hostess either, so must agree that I feel sympathy with her efforts, even if her single-mindedness becomes more than a bit scary along the way. Thank you!

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  4. You’re right about both Barrymores’ performances being witty but also heart-breaking. They are superb in this film, as is everyone else.

    I also liked your point about the Depression-era glamour being tinged with desperation. That is the perfect description.

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    • Thanks so much, Ruth – I do agree that the whole cast is superb. Although I tried to focus more on the Barrymores here, I’m thinking that I should really watch it again soon and try to concentrate more on the other characters and in particular the great actresses, including Dressler and Harlow.

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  5. I have to admire Cukor’s direction on this film, because the plot goes through such mood swings, from the daffy comedy of Billie Burke preparing for the dinner, to the vulgar hilarity of Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery’s bickering, and then to the grim scenes of John Barrymore committing suicide. It’s something of a portmanteau movie, with not only dozens of stars, but dozens of stories for all different tastes; and Cukor keeps it all seamless. I think that’s one of the reasons this film endures.

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    • I’m getting a taste for portmanteau movies and would really like to see more of them. Those changes of mood you highlight are amazing and sometimes take place within a single scene, for instance there’s a lot of dark humour in John Barrymore’s scenes of self-destruction. Cukor was a fantastic director and I agree he keeps it seamless here. Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment.

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  6. This is one of my favorites. I really enjoyed your review. For me Harlow and Beery were the highlights along with the great Marie Dressler though the whole cast shines. For some reason, I appreciate Dinner at Eight way more than Grand Hotel.

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    • I’ve been trying to think whether I like this or Grand Hotel best, and I’m really not sure – probably whichever one I saw last! I think John Barrymore has a greater part in Dinner at Eight and Lionel in Grand Hotel, but both have such great casts and powerful scripts. Thanks very much, Bea.

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  7. Pingback: THE BARRYMORE TRILOGY BLOGATHON: A BIG THANK YOU TO ALL PARTICIPANTS | In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.

  8. Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon. I’ve only just got around to reading the entries now, and I highly enjoyed reading your post. Thanks for doing this film.

    I would also like to invite you to participate in my new blogathon. The link is below with more details

    https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2015/08/17/in-the-good-old-days-of-classic-hollywood-presents-the-lauren-bacall-blogathon/

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  9. Yes, Harlow gives one of her finest performances here Judy, and the film is exquisitely made. I do agree that nothing can hide that it is a Depression era film, hard as they may try. The cast assembled is about as renowned as one could have managed at that time. Cukor is perfection. Superbly written piece here Judy.

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