Dinner at Eight (1933)

Directed by George Cukor
Cinematography William H. Daniels

Dinner at Eight is a 1933 American Pre-Code comedy-drama film directed by George Cukor. Adapted to the screen by Frances Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz from George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber‘s play of the same name, it features an ensemble cast of Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, Lionel Barrymore, Lee Tracy, Edmund Lowe, and Billie Burke.

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Madge Evans in Dinner at Eight (1933)

A starry showcase (and all but grand exit) for consummate scene-stealer Dressler

9/10
Author: bmacv from Western New York
17 August 2004

Among the great actresses who have helped to illuminate the silver screen, Marie Dressler may be Chateau d’Yquem – a grand premier cru, in a class all her own. As aging star of the theatuh Carlotta Vance, a living relic of the ‘Delmonico’ era in New York, she walks away with an immortal movie, as entertaining a contraption as the studio system ever confected. And she does it effortlessly, despite some very tough competition – the most lustrous talent MGM could summon in the worst year of the Depression, and maybe the best it was ever able to gather together in the many constellations it assembled.

Dressler heads a large ensemble cast, with several distinct but interlocking stories, all leading up to (but never quite making) a posh dinner party at the mansion of Billie Burke, wife of shipping magnate Lionel Barrymore. Desperately trying to snag (the unseen) Lord and Lady Ferncliffe – moldering aristocrats she once met at Cap d’Antibes – Burke bullies and badgers everybody she can think of to seat a swank table. Worrying about nothing so much as how ‘dressy’ the aspic will be – it’s the British Lion molded out of a quivering gelatin – she’s oblivious to the human dramas whirling around the people on her guest list.

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Marie Dressler,
For starters, her husband is not only seriously ill but close to bankruptcy, to boot. Down in his nautical offices on The Battery, he’s paid a visit by an old (and older than he) flame, Dressler; a bit down on her luck herself (‘I’m flatter than a pancake – I haven’t a sou’), she wants to sell her stock in his company. Another visitor, one of the sharks circling around to feast on his bleeding empire. is Wallace Beery, a loud-mouthed boor whom Barrymore nonetheless cajoles Burke into inviting, against her snobbish sensibilities. Beery, a politically connected wheeler-dealer, has problems of his own, namely his wife Jean Harlow. She lounges luxuriously in bed most of the day, changing in and out of fur-trimmed bed jackets and sampling chocolates while waiting for her doctor-lover (Edmund Lowe) to pay another house call under the pretext of tending to her imaginary ailments.

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Burke’s and Barrymore’s young daughter, meanwhile, conceals a clandestine affair with ‘free, white and 45″ marquee idol John Barrymore, a washed-up drunk whose grandiose airs can’t even fool the bellboys he sends out for bottles of hooch (a storyline in the screenplay, co-written by the also alcoholic Herman J. Mankiewicz – from the George S. Kaufmann/Edna Ferber stage hit – that can’t have been comfortable for the similarly afflicted Barrymore, who’s even referred to in the movie by his emblematic sobriquet ‘The Great Profile’).

Those are the major strands of the story, but there’s even more talent on board: Louise Closser Hale as Burke’s pithy cousin; May Robson as the cook in charge of the ill-starred aspic; Lee Tracy, as John Barrymore’s exasperated agent; and, deliciously, Hilda Vaughn as Harlow’s mercenary maid.

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The goings-on range from the farcical to the tragic, and for the most part, the cast does proud in coping with the often drastic shifts of tone (true, some episodes carry more weight than others, some players less inspired than their colleagues; it’s an episodic movie, at times dated, from the infancy of talkies when scenes were not a snappily edited few seconds but prolonged and often stagy).

Still, in this starry cast, Dressler shines brightest. A Canadian gal who started in the circus, she worked in vaudeville, theater, and, in the last few decades of her life, in Hollywood. Despite her girth and the delapidations gravity had worked on her face, she’s never less than transfixing. She tosses off the requisite comedy as effortlessly as that oldest of pros that she had become, yet can draw the camera to her deeply kohled eyes when she imparts some very bad news and turn it into a few seconds of threnody. (Only Barbara Stanwyck commands so boundless a range, which we have the luxury of observing over several decades of her career; what survives of Dressler dates only from her few last years.) Dressler would make but one more movie before her death, but it’s chivalrous to think of Dinner At Eight as her grand exit.

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Lee Tracy
As Dinner At Eight winds down, the aspic never makes it to table, nor do some of the expected guests. But life plods on, if capriciously and unfairly. Burke, at the end of her tether, utters a plangent cry that sums up man’s impotence against the cruelty of fate: ‘Crabmeat…CRABMEAT!’

Millicent Jordan’s Dinner Party

Author: lugonian from Kissimmee, Florida
22 April 2005

DINNER AT EIGHT (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1933), directed by George Cukor, MGM’s second attempt with an all-star production following the success to GRAND HOTEL (1932), is a remarkable as well as memorable movie that has benefited from repeated viewings over the past years. As with GRAND HOTEL, DINNER AT EIGHT was adapted from a stage play (by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber), and reunites some of its GRAND HOTEL performers, including John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery and Jean Hersholt. Unlike GRAND HOTEL, DINNER AT EIGHT is one of the best movies ever assembled to not receive a single Academy Award nomination.

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Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow

Even though it would be difficult to pinpoint which of the major stars might have been worthy of that honor, a Best Picture nominee would have spoken for the entire cast. In the usual manner of all star productions, of the major leads, all introduced with each face framed in a dinner plate, the one whose name comes first is the one with either the least amount of screen time or the one whose character enters late into the story. The star in question is Marie Dressler, a top-name at the time, leaving a big impression with her limited performance, and yet, it is Billie Burke as Millicent Jordan whose presence is felt throughout mainly because it’s her dinner party.

The story begins with Millicent Jordan (Burke) a New York social wife, announcing her upcoming dinner party she’s arranging for Lord and Lady Ferncliffe, and the people she intends to invite. As with the stage production, the movie plays out in numerous acts: (a) “The Jordan Home”: Introductory scenes focusing on Millicent (Burke), her husband Oliver (Lionel Barrymore), head of a declining shipping company, and their troubled daughter, Paula (Madge Evans); (b) “At the Office”: Oliver is visited by once acclaimed stage actress Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), with whom he had loved in his youth, as well as one of the invited guests; and Dan Packard (Wallace Beery), a middle-aged promoter whom Oliver hopes could save him from his financial difficulties; (c) “The Battling Packards”: As a favor to Oliver, Millicent reluctantly telephones Kitty (Jean Harlow) and invites the low-life couple to her dinner.

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Kitty, spoiled and lazy, wants nothing more than to break into society and meet the right kind of people. Being home all day doing nothing, Kitty secretly carries on a love affair with her family doctor, Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe), while her husband goes away on business, a secret known only by Kitty’s maid (Hilda Vaughn); (d) “The Matinée Idol”: In need of an extra dinner guest, Millicent invites matinée idol Larry Renault (John Barrymore), a friend of the family in town staying at the Versailles Hotel. Unknown to Millicent, her engaged daughter Paula is secretly Renault’s mistress; (e) “Dr. Talbot’s Domestic Problems”: Scene involves Kitty’s doctor and his illicit affairs with his patients, as discussed between him and his understanding wife (Karen Morley). which concludes with a visit from gravely ill Oliver who is diagnosed with heart disease; (f) “Back to the Jordan Home”: While Millicent is interacted between scenes involving the dinner guests, this segment involves Millicent’s own domestic problems with her hired help as well as the news about her guests of honor departing for Florida, leaving Millicent to locate substitutes as the guests of honor; (g) “Final Showdown for the Packards”: In their home getting ready for the function, Dan and Kitty come to a showdown revealing how they actually feel about one other, with all their secrets coming out; (h) “Renault’s Tragic Performance”: Renault turns down the one act part as a beachcomber in a forthcoming play offered to him by an important producer (Jean Hersholt). Believing he is still important to the theater, Renault’s trying and upset agent (Lee Tracy) brings the drunken actor to reality by telling him his career has ended long ago.

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John Barrymore

Later, after the management asks him to leave the hotel, Renault agrees, thus, giving his one last “performance” to take place in the room; (i) “Dinner at Eight” The gathering of all the party guests at the Jordan home, with some resolutions resolved, concluding with the most celebrated exchange between Carlotta and Kitty.

Categorized as a comedy, with the exception of some cleverly written dialog, DINNER AT EIGHT is anything but a comedy. In truth, it’s actually a stylish dramatic story centering upon the troublesome lives of Millicent Jordan and chapters involving her invited guests. The most interesting, as well as tragic, is John Barrymore’s as Larry Renault, and how his character closely foreshadows his own life, as a habitual drinker, a fading actor with ex-wives, now in financial ruin. He is even addressed to as “The Great Profile” by his agent (Tracy). What’s even more ironic is that Marie Dressler and Jean Harlow, who closing scene is classic, each would be dead not long after the release DINNER AT EIGHT, leaving their legacies behind them. Besides the leading players, others in support include Phillips Holmes, Louise Closser Hale, May Robson, Grant Mitchell and Elizabeth Patterson, all giving capable performances under Cukor’s excellent direction. No underscoring whatsoever, with the exception of “I Kiss Your Hand, Madame,” which is themed during the opening credits, and orchestra playing at the final minutes of the function, DINNER AT EIGHT appears to be a motion picture that has surpassed the 1932 Broadway play.

Distributed on video cassette as far back at the 1980s, and later on DVD, DINNER AT EIGHT, which makes a good double bill along with GRAND HOTEL, frequently plays on Turner Classic Movies. While there has been a 1989 made-for-television remake which premiered on Turner Network Television, with everything brought up to date, the main course on the menu today continues to be the unsurpassed 1933 appetizer. (****)

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One of the great sophisticated pre-code comedies

8/10
Author: calvinnme from United States
25 December 2009

“Dinner at Eight” is a 1933 film that still holds up when viewed by today’s audiences. How odd that it wasn’t even nominated for an Academy Award. This could be because it is quite similar in form to “Grand Hotel”, which won the Best Picture Oscar the year before. It really is more of a comedy/melodrama than pure comedy, since there is much tragedy unfolding during the movie. Aging star Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler) is broke, silent film star Larry Renault (John Barrymore) is “washed up” and a hopeless alcoholic, and Oliver Jordan (Lionel Barrymore) is in danger of losing his shipping business. While these people are all struggling, the only characters that are doing well are the reptilian Dan and Kitty Packard (Wallace Beery and Jean Harlow). Dan Packard is a self-made millionaire with no ethics, and his wife is a gold digger with eyes for another man – her personal physician. The lives of the players all intertwine in ways that are unknown to them, with the depression-era message being that the rules of life have changed in ways that had never occurred in the U.S. before. The vice of the opportunistic social-climbing Packards is rewarded, while the well-heeled of yesteryear, playing by the rules of the past, have nothing but their memories and faded finery left to comfort them.

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Lionel Barrymore,

Of course, there are plenty of comic moments. Billie Burke’s performance as Mrs. Jordon is hilarious as her prime concern is that her carefully planned dinner party is coming apart before her very eyes. She comes across as a kinder, gentler Marie Antoinette when she acts like the accidental destruction of her centerpiece dish, a lion-shaped aspic, is the end of the world. Although many have said that Jean Harlow steals this picture, and her talents do shine through, I think Marie Dressler’s comic touches really help make the film.

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For example, when a forty-something secretary mentions that she saw Dressler’s character perform “when she was a little girl.” Dressler replies that the two must get together some evening and discuss the Civil War. Dressler also makes the very last scene of the movie. As everyone is going into dinner, she finds herself in conversation with Harlow’s character. First off, she does a hilarious double-take when Harlow mentions she’s been reading a book. Next,Harlow tells Marie Dressler how this book she has been reading says that machinery will soon take over every profession. Marie Dressler looks Jean Harlow up and down as only she could do and says “My dear I don’t think you need to worry about that.”

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