Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees wouldn't dare miss a dinner date with this all-star cast...even though she never liked aspic.
"I've had the most ghastly day anybody ever had. No aspic for dinner!"—Millicent Jordan
Dinner at Eight, producer David O. Selznick's first film for MGM, was his way of thumbing his nose at his detractors. Dogged by rumors of nepotism (he was Louis B. Mayer's son-in-law) and inspired by the success of the all-star smash Grand Hotel the previous year, Selznick acquired the rights to the stage play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, assembled a stellar cast (which included three stars from Grand Hotel—Wallace Beery and John and Lionel Barrymore), and let director George Cukor (The Philadelphia Story) work his magic. The result was, not surprisingly, a hit. Selznick went on to forge a distinguished career, and Dinner at Eight remains a classic blend of melodrama, comedy, and star charisma.
Facts of the Case
Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke, The Wizard of Oz) is in a tizzy trying to organize a fancy dinner for Lord and Lady Ferncliff. She's not getting any help from her husband, Oliver (Lionel Barrymore), who is distracted by worries about his faltering shipping business, or her daughter, Paula (Madge Evans), who is preoccupied with a clandestine romance. Millicent is already fretful at having to invite her husband's old flame, the aging actress Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler, Anna Christie), but she's even more upset when Oliver asks her to invite shady businessman Dan Packard (Wallace Beery) and his vulgar wife Kitty (Jean Harlow, Libeled Lady). When she loses her "extra man," she's forced to fall back on has-been actor Larry Renault (John Barrymore) to fill out the table, even though he's a notorious drinker. Fortunately, mild-mannered Dr. Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe) and his patient wife are also there to act as buffers—although the good doctor's manner is not quite so mild when he's around sexy Kitty. With businessmen cheating each other, spouses cheating on each other, careers foundering, reputations tottering, and lives hanging in the balance, Millicent's dinner party may end up being the most scandalous social event of the season.
Although it's packaged here as part of Warner's comedy collection, Dinner at Eight actually performs a skillful balancing act between comedy and melodrama. We get comedy in the marital knockabout act of Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery, two reprehensible types who give each other what for with complete abandon, but potential tragedy in the characters of Oliver Jordan and Larry Renault, both of whom, in their different ways, are struggling to fight off impending professional failure. We have clandestine romance that's both funny (Kitty's affair with her doctor) and serious (19-year-old Paula's affair with an older married man). There's lots of sharply observed social commentary, and the overarching device of the dinner party gives the story a nice satirical edge; even with her husband and daughter facing serious life crises, Millicent is convinced that having to serve crab meat instead of aspic is the worst cataclysm that could befall anyone. There's plenty of physical comedy, and the script is chock-full of quotable jokes. Yet the film is alive to the fragility of human happiness, which gives it a similar flavor to its forerunner, Grand Hotel. As terrific as the stars are, it's really the writing that sells Dinner at Eight and gives it the timeless quality of a true classic.
In addition to being a highly entertaining comedy-melodrama in its own right, Dinner at Eight is also a fascinating time capsule of Hollywood. When Selznick hired screenwriters Frances Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz to adapt the stage play, he made certain that the roles were tailored to the stars who would play them. Thus, there are inside jokes galore, as when Marie Dressler, who made her screen debut with Charlie Chaplin in Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914), makes a joke as Carlotta Vance about having worked with "the man with the little moustache." The prime example of the overlap between life and art comes in the character of Larry Renault, a scarcely disguised version of John Barrymore himself. A huge success on the stage—his Hamlet was famous—Barrymore was beginning to slip from prominence in 1933 due in part to his prolific drinking. For Barrymore to play Renault, an actor who was facing professional obsolescence and drinking himself into oblivion, was almost excruciatingly true to life. George Cukor reported that Barrymore took the role with good grace, and the actor doesn't shrink from making himself look pathetic, but I can't help but wonder how he must have felt to be enacting the deterioration of his own alter ego. His final scene, a dialogue-free sequence bathed in deep shadow, chills the blood with its bleakness and sad attempt at dignity. This was one of Barrymore's last star-caliber performances before he backslid into comical supporting roles (some of which are quite good; see especially his work in the Claudette Colbert vehicle Midnight), and its impact derives from its combination of fine acting and disturbing verisimilitude.
Among the other many fine performances given by this star-studded cast, Jean Harlow's deserves special mention. Through some strange alchemy, she makes us feel affection for Kitty, the shallow, brazen, conniving gold-digger who blackmails her husband into giving her a shot at high society. At this point in her career as a "sex vulture," to use Harlow's own disparaging term for the roles she was usually assigned, directors had finally figured out that Harlow was a comedienne. Cukor, famous for evoking strong performances from actresses, brings out a winning combination of sex appeal and deft comedy in Harlow's performance here. Part of the reason Kitty is so entertaining is that she is so blatant; in the middle of a slanging match with her boorish husband, she'll switch tactics and try baby talk—and no one could baby talk like Harlow. She's so obvious she's irresistible. There's also something appealing in the way she stands up to the character played by Wallace Beery, an underhanded, ruthless conniver who has no compunction about ruining other businessmen. She's the only one in the film who gives him the reaming he deserves, and the image of burly Beery getting raked over the coals by this tiny blonde in a negligee is priceless. Legendary costume designer Gilbert Adrian outdid himself for Harlow: Her beaded negligee with the 22-inch ostrich cuffs has become an indelible image of classic Hollywood, and all Adrian's costumes for Kitty embody that over-the-top combination of sexiness and conspicuous consumption. He also provides a great visual joke with the gown she wears to the Jordan party: After mentioning that she has to be careful about exposing her skin because she's sensitive to sunburn, Kitty turns around and reveals that her dress is backless.
Billie Burke is also pitch perfect, in the first of what would be a succession of dizzy society lady roles (such as her recurring role in the Topper movie series). No one else has ever done that kind of part as well as she, and it's all the more remarkable that she created this dotty comedic persona while undergoing personal tragedy: Her husband, impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, was dying while she was shooting Dinner at Eight. Marie Dressler is an endless delight, with her humorous, homely, mobile face; she's terrific at mugging and double takes. A hugely popular star between her talkie debut in 1930 and her death in 1934, Dressler is able to glide from pathos to comedy within a single breath, evoking a sense of glory days now past and then self-deprecatingly laughing off the follies of youth. She's perfectly credible as the still-spirited wreck of a great woman, and I hope that we'll see more of her work soon on DVD. (I'd particularly like to see her chase Wallace Beery with an axe in her Oscar-winning Min and Bill.)
Warner Bros. has done a fine job with their presentation of this film. Some sequences (such as the beginning) show considerable age-related wear, but the print is mostly in excellent shape and has obviously been subjected to a great deal of cleaning and restoration work: Black levels are deep, whites are luminous, and there's lots of depth and detail. This is one of the cleanest, most attractive prints of this era I have seen, and the visual quality is matched by a pristine mono track that is completely innocent of the hiss and crackle that usually bedevil early talkie films. Fans will be delighted at how good it looks and sounds.
The extras also contain a particular treat, a 22-minute short film called Come to Dinner that parodies Dinner at Eight. The cast is composed of lookalikes, who do an exceptional job of capturing the mannerisms of the stars, and the story line is a ruthless parody of the hit film. It's true that the rhymed dialogue and the music number were a bit wearing, but this is the kind of pop-culture curiosity I love to see packaged with classic movies. The original trailer enhances the experience as well, but unfortunately the same cannot be said for the 1993 biographical program, "Harlow: The Blonde Bombshell." Sharon Stone overacts as hostess, vamping up every bit of narration she's given, and the entire production seems more interested in looking glossy (Stone has as many costume changes as in a feature film) than in offering a substantive look at Harlow's life. It's also two-thirds finished before it stops harping on Harlow as sex goddess and gives us a sense of the lovable, unpretentious, rather shy actress behind the sexy screen persona. It does, however, clear up the mystery surrounding the suicide of Harlow's second husband, Paul Bern, and the circumstances of Harlow's death.
Fans of Hollywood's golden age have no excuse not to add this disc to their collections. Dinner at Eight is funnier than Grand Hotel but no less engrossing, and for sheer pounds per inch of star quality—not to mention the behind-the-scenes talent—it's one of the greatest achievements of the early 1930s.
Since I hear they have a pressing dinner engagement, all parties are free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Harlow: The Blonde Bombshell Documentary
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