Number 9 – Dinner at Eight (U.S., George Cukor)
MGM attempted to follow up on the success of Grand Hotel with another star studded, multi-story film, Dinner at Eight. Though not as good as Grand Hotel, this George Cukor movie still succeeds, mostly thanks to stellar performances and sharp writing. Instead of throwing random characters together in a common location, this story uses (if you couldn’t tell from the title) the pretext of a dinner to bring together a loose group of acquaintances. The hosts, Oliver and Millicent Jordan (played by Lionel Barrymore and Billie Burke), invite a small group for dinner in honor of a visiting British nobleman. However, Oliver is distracted by the fact that his third generation family shipping business is threatened by a hostile takeover at a time when business is skidding. He asks fellow businessman Dan Packard (Wallace Beery) for help unaware that Packard is the man scheming to snatch Jordan’s business from him. He asks his wife to invite Dan Packard and his wife, Kitty, an uneducated social climbing trophy wife brought to life memorably by Jean Harlow. Other guests include Marie Dressler as the former stage star Carlotta Vance, hard up for money after years of extravagant living in Europe; John Barrymore as Larry Renault, a former silent film star whose alcoholism has stalled his career; and Edmund Lowe as a philandering doctor who makes frequent house calls to Mrs. Packard.
The first two acts of the picture follow these characters in the lead up to the dinner: Mrs. Jordan’s panic over every detail that goes wrong, Mr. Jordan’s attempts to save his company, Kitty Packard’s campaign to get her husband to accept the invitation so she can hobnob with real society, and Renault’s clandestine affair with the Jordan’s young daughter. What we see is two groups jockeying for position: the has-beens and the up-and-comers. The has-beens (Carlotta Vance, Oliver Jordan, Larry Renault) desperately work to reclaim some of their past glory or just scrap together enough money to live. The up-and-comers (Dan and Kitty Packard) scheme to get what they want, unafraid to step on toes and bend laws and ethics. Kitty is even willing to blackmail her husband out of a business deal to get what she wants. The classic rivalry is between Jordan and Packard but, ironically, Jordan doesn’t know that Packard is his enemy. This indictment of Depression era businessmen’s economic immorality is a message that is sadly still relevant. However, the nostalgia for the business practices of the Progressive and Gilded Age capitalists is grossly misplaced (read anything about the lives of Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Rockerfeller, J.P. Morgan, etc).
What is surprising is the picture, based on a Broadway play, takes its sometimes theatrical dialogue and transforms it into compelling cinematic fare. We come to genuinely care for Lionel Barrymore’s goodhearted Oliver Jordan. It is also fun to see Kitty Packard show she isn’t all perfume and makeup; her mind is sharp, she just holds back until it can come in handy. And John Barrymore delivers a truly sad performance considering his own problems with alcohol. It is surprising that MGM allowed one of their marquee stars to play a desperate drunk, at one point pulling off his belt to sell so he could buy alcohol. In another surprising moment his agent (Lee Tracey), fed up with his delusional client, lays into him, telling him he’s all washed up. He especially (verbally) attacks the man’s aging face, pointing out specific flaws, flaws that Barrymore’s makeup may have highlighted. I also love Marie Dressler’s coquettish portrayal of Carlotta. She is clearly past her prime, both professionally and physically, but she still carries herself as though she were still a twenty-something beauty.
All in all, this is an evenly constructed ensemble piece that works towards a satisfying and affirming conclusion.