DINNER AT EIGHT (director: George Cukor; screenwriters: Herman J. Mankiewicz/Frances Marion/Donald Ogden Stewart/from the play by Edna Ferber & George S. Kaufman; cinematographer: William H. Daniels; editor: Ben Lewis; music: William Axt; cast: Marie Dressler (Carlotta Vance), John Barrymore (Larry Renault), Wallace Beery (Dan Packard), Jean Harlow (Kitty Packard), Billie Burke (Millicent Jordan), Lionel Barrymore (Oliver Jordan), Lee Tracy (Max Kane), Madge Evans (Paula Jordan), Edmund Lowe (Dr. Wayne Talbot), Jean Hersholt (Jo Stengel), Karen Morley (Lucy Talbot), Louise Closser Hale (Hattie Loomis), Grant Mitchell (Ed Loomis), Phillips Holmes (Ernest DeGraff), Hilda Vaughn (Tina, Mrs. Packard’s maid), Edward Woods (Eddie, bellhop); Runtime: 113; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: David O. Selznick; MGM; 1933)
“Features a stellar cast of all-star MGM veterans who all know how to overact.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
It’s a comedy/drama based on the 1932 Broadway hit by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber and sharply written for the screen by Herman J. Mankiewicz, Frances Marion and Donald Ogden Stewart, about a high-society dinner that implodes. It’s adroitly directed by George Cukor (“The Philadelphia Story”/”Holiday”/”David Copperfield”); the gay director was known as a woman’s director and got great comic performances from the actresses. The film features a stellar cast of all-star MGM veterans who all know how to overact. It’s the first producing effort of David O. Selznick, whose father-in-law is MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, as he’s recruited to come over from RKO to take the place of the ailing Irving Thalberg.
The film centers around old money shipping magnate Oliver Jordan (Lionel Barrymore) and his high-strung, ditsy, self-absorbed wife Millicent (Billie Burke), who is preoccupied with giving a NYC society dinner party in a week in honor of the wealthy Brit couple Lord and Lady Ferncliffe they met while vacationing in England. Oliver is more concerned with his failing health and that his shipping company, in which he’s third generation owner, might be wrested away from him as his stock is plummeting due to the Depression and there’s a crooked scheme afloat to buyout the stock from under his unsuspecting ethical nose. Their 19-year-old daughter Paula (Madge Evans) has for the last month been seeing the 47-year-old washed-up, alcoholic and vain three-time married stage actor Larry Renault (John Barrymore) and she intends to let her nice guy society fiancé, Ernest DeGraff (Phillips Holmes), know this as he’s returning from a European holiday to attend the dinner party. Surprisingly Larry gets an invite when a panicky Millicent finds herself one man short, and remembers him as an actor they once knew. Also attending the party is fading old-time stage actress Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), a cunning grande dame, who has remained friends with Oliver after turning down the younger man’s marriage proposal years ago and is one of the few insiders to hold a large amount of shares in the Jordan Shipping Line. Carlotta drops by Oliver’s office to tell him she’s in need of money and intends to sell her stock shares, something he doesn’t want her to do.
Dan Packard (Wallace Beery) is a boorish, politically ambitious, nouveau-riche millionaire mining magnate, who is secretly scheming to take over Oliver’s company while pretending to be his business friend. Kitty Packard (Jean Harlow), former hat-check girl from the Hottentot Club, is Dan’s unsophisticated social climbing trophy sexpot wife who lounges around all day in her bed eating chocolates and sexually entertains there her society doctor friend (Edmund Lowe), while saving her best wisecracks and icy barbs for her hubby. The Packards are invited by Oliver because he wants to make a business deal with him to save his company.
The pretentious luxury dinner party can’t hide that most of the varied society guests have been hit harder by the Depression than meets the eye. This leads to a suicide, a few hearts broken, a ruined dinner party and dreams that go up in smoke.
The three women steal the pic: with Harlow being the most winsome and proves to be a natural comedienne as the fresh hussy with a big mouth and a big heart, Burke is a trip as the fluttering and hysterical society matron who is too blinded being the hostess to notice either her daughter’s love problems or hubby’s more serious life problems, and Dressler has a good ear for comedy and does a convincing job being both a sympathetic nurturing lovelorn adviser and the unsympathetic sarcastic and haughty bitter pill. John Barrymore sadly plays a parody of himself, as his film career went steadily downhill after this film due to drink. The film is probably best remembered for Harlow’s Art Deco styled all-white bedroom, designed by Hobe Erwin and Fred Hope, and her vulgarian white satin evening dress, bare in the back, that became quite the fashion rage and was referred to as the “Jean Harlow dress.”
REVIEWED ON 4/8/2008 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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