“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.
This is my contribution to the Miriam Hopkins Blogathon, which is running from January 22 to 25. Please do visit and read the other postings!
I’ll admit I expected a lot from Becky Sharp. It has a great star, Miriam Hopkins, in a powerful role giving her plenty of scope, and a great director – Mamoulian, who made such classic pre-Codes as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Love Me Tonight. It’s adapted from one of the best-known Victorian novels, Thackeray’s glittering satire Vanity Fair, set around the Battle of Waterloo. And, what’s more, it was the first full-length feature ever made in glorious three-strip Technicolor. What’s not to love?
The movie didn’t quite live up to my expectations, though it certainly has its moments and I’m very glad to have seen it. One problem is that it seems to be hard to get hold of a decent print. This film has fallen into the public domain, so many versions around on the net and on DVD are almost unwatchable – very sad, since early Technicolor can look fantastic if properly restored. There is a version restored by UCLA, but this isn’t available on DVD, although it is sometimes shown on TCM in the US.
Aviation movies have long held a fascination for me, but I haven’t seen many featuring female aviators — and most of those I have seen are a disappointment. For instance, I was recently excited at the chance to see the German silent film The Ship of Lost Men (1929), starring my favourite actress, Marlene Dietrich, as a pioneering pilot, but sadly she is only seen in the air for a second or so before landing in the sea, and the film as a whole isn’t very memorable. Dorothy Mackaill, another fine actress, plays a spoilt rich girl playing at being a pilot in the pre-Code Love Affair(1932), the film which features Humphrey Bogart’s first romantic lead role, but, again, she spends very little time in the air and the film doesn’t really live up to its great cast.
Latter-day screwball comedy Eternally Yours was made in what is often described as Hollywood’s greatest year, 1939, and has a superb cast. There are three actors who later won Oscars, not only leads Loretta Young and David Niven, but also Broderick Crawford as the hapless “other man”. Also featured are great silent film actress Zasu Pitts, doing a comic turn, and C. Aubrey Smith, Eve Arden, Hugh Herbert and Billie Burke in small roles. And there’s a good director, Tay Garnett, who went on to make The Postman Always Rings Twice a few years later. Don’t expect too much, though – this is not a masterpiece by any means and I’d have to say it sags in the middle, after a great start.
Any fan of classic romantic comedy will find plenty to enjoy, all the same, just as long as you steer clear of the dire public domain DVDs on the market from companies you’ve never heard of. I rashly bought one of these and found the film almost impossible to watch, with dreadful picture and sound quality, and a lot of bewildering jumps in the story. It later transpired that this was an incomplete version with many scenes missing (including some of the best ones!) so that the plot made little sense. Fortunately there was a more complete version on Youtube (around 90 minutes), with much better sound and picture. This may not be perfect, and still has one or two jumps, but, when I watched this, suddenly the film was immeasurably improved from the butchered version I’d originally seen. I note that the US TCM website also has a DVR version available which may be better yet.
John Barrymore may be best-known for his work in the theatre and in films of the silent era. But, every time I see him in an early talkie, I’m struck by how great he was in these too – and A Bill of Divorcement (1932), a melodrama directed by George Cukor for RKO Radio Pictures, is no exception. Barrymore gives a heart-rending performance as a father coming home after 15 years in a mental hospital. However, although Barrymore was the star with his name above the title, these days the film is best-remembered (when it is remembered at all, that is!) as the debut role for Katharine Hepburn, playing the daughter whose world is about to be torn apart. She was fourth-billed and her name was actually spelt wrong in the final credits, but, even so, she is really a joint female lead with Billie Burke , and has several scenes where her unique film personality comes across.
The film is adapted from a play by British dramatist Clemence Dane, and set in England, although none of the stars worry too much about doing English accents. As with some other movies from this period, this is very much a filmed version of a stage play, with almost all the scenes taking place on the same set, so at times it gives a feeling of what it might have been like to see Barrymore on stage. I have seen some reviews suggesting that the film feels too static, but this is a movie where I think this works, as with Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol (1930), because again the atmosphere is intended to be claustrophobic and intense.
I watched this movie more or less on the spur of the moment. To start with I didn’t know anything about it, and assumed it would be realistic, like most 1930s movies I’ve seen. So I was surprised to discover that in fact it is a comic fantasy, based on a novel by Thorne Smith, who also wrote the book which inspired hit TV series Bewitched.
The plot revolves around a rich, carefree young couple, George (Cary Grant) and Marion (Constance Bennett), who die in a car crash. They find themselves marooned on earth as ghosts, until they can do a good deed to ensure their entrance into heaven. They decide to help a friend, strait-laced banker Cosmo Topper (Roland Young) to enjoy life and stop being so stuffy – but a lot of their ideas turn out to be the sort of help he could do without.