Friday, September 19, 2014

#1,495. Dinner at Eight (1933)

Directed By: George Cukor

Starring: Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery

Line from the film: "I never could understand why is has to be just even, male and female. They're invited for dinner, not for mating"

Trivia: Both Jean Harlow and Marie Dressler died within four years of the film's release: Dressler in 1934 at age 65, and Harlow in 1937, at age 26

Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke), the wife of shipping magnate Oliver Jordan (Lionel Barrymore), is throwing a dinner party in honor of a British lord and his wife, who are visiting America. As Millicent (called “Millie” for short) dedicates the majority of her time to planning the shindig, her husband Oliver wrestles with the fact that his company, which has been in his family for generations, is going under. To make matters worse, someone is buying up the company’s stock with the intention of taking it over, and Oliver has no idea who it is. For help, he turns to self-made millionaire Dan Packard (Wallace Beery), who has several connections in Washington. To get in his good graces, Oliver asks Millie to invite Packard and his wife, Kitty (Jean Harlow) to the party. A rather common girl, Kitty is thrilled at the prospect of attending such a swanky event, though her husband isn’t too keen on the idea. Not willing to sit back and allow his stubbornness to keep her out of high society, Kitty issues Dan an ultimatum: either accompany her to the dinner or she’ll spill the beans that he’s the one trying to take over Oliver Jordan's business!

Other guests include renowned actress Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), an old flame of Oliver’s who has fallen on hard times, and Dr. Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe), a general physician and womanizer who’s having an affair with Kitty Packard. Also invited is Larry Renault (John Barrymore), an aging actor whose best days are behind him. Unbeknownst to the Jordan’s, Renault has been secretly seeing their daughter, Paula (Madge Evans), despite the fact the young girl is already engaged to someone else. What’s more, Renault is an alcoholic, and his drunken behavior all but destroys his chances of co-starring in a new Broadway show. With such an impressive guest roll, Millie is sure her party will be a hit, but Oliver’s failing health, along with a last-minute cancellation, threatens to ruin the dinner before it’s ever served.

Released one year after the star-studded Grand Hotel, Dinner at Eight reunited all three of that film’s leading men. Lionel Barrymore’s Oliver Jordan is a friendly, gentle soul who, in spite of having the weight of the world on his shoulders, always has time for a smile and a kind word. On the opposite side of the spectrum is Dan Packard, the greedy businessman so wonderfully played by Wallace Beery. After agreeing to help Oliver try and save his company, Packard makes arrangements to take it over himself. Both men play similar characters to the ones they portrayed in Grand Hotel, while the third lead, John Barrymore, tests his range with a more demanding role, that of an alcoholic has-been who still considers himself an important star. It’s a tremendously poignant part (made doubly so by the fact the actor himself was an alcoholic at the time), and John Barrymore plays it to perfection.

That said, it’s the movie’s female cast that steals the show, with Maria Dressler leading the way as the outspoken Carlotta, who generates most of the film’s humor (when Oliver’s secretary says she’s been a fan of hers ever since she was a little girl, the perturbed Carlotta, none too happy to be reminded that she’s old, sarcastically shoots back “You know, we must have a long talk about the Civil War sometime. Just you and I”). Also good is Jean Harlow, who portrays Kitty as a social climber willing to step over anyone, including her husband, to get where she wants to go. Topping it off is Billie Burke (Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz) as the hyper Millie, too busy concentrating on her party to notice her husband’s world is falling apart. In one very funny scene, Millie learns, on the day of the dinner, that her chauffeur and butler just got into a fight, sending one to jail and the other to the hospital. Needless to say, it pushes her to the breaking point. Based on a hit play, Dinner at Eight is clearly an actor’s film, but it’s actresses are the ones who shine brightest.

Simultaneously witty and moving, Dinner at Eight is, like Grand Hotel before it, a fabulous motion picture featuring some of Hollywood’s best at the absolute top of their game.

1 comment:

tjpieraccini said...

Interesting - I loved Dinner at Eight when I first saw it, many years ago (having been enticed by some clips in That's Entertainment 2 - e.g. Jean Harlow saying 'I was reading a book the other day' and Marie Dressler nearly falling over)and then I watched it again a year or two ago and was really disappointed - in stark contrast to my reaction to Platinum Blonde, which I watched about the same time and liked quite a bit. But I still have Dinner at Eight, so perhaps it's time to give it another try... (After all, I love Grand Hotel!)