Best Pictures of 1933 (#9) – Dinner at Eight

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.

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6 Comments

Filed under 1933, Yearly Best Pictures

6 responses to “Best Pictures of 1933 (#9) – Dinner at Eight

  1. DINNER AT EIGHT is another excellent American film from the early pre-Code years that features some sparkling writing and unforgettable performances. My favorite of all is Marie Dressler. Yes, I agree that it’s one that crossed the line seamlessly from stage to screen. It’s a classic, even if it falls short of GRAND HOTEL. Another very fine essay here!

  2. Thanks Sam. Yes, Marie Dressler is fantastic in one of the great comedic performances of the 1930s. It may be because of her that I will expand my best performances to include supporting actor and actress categories. I’m always looking for opportunities to make this project even crazier and more difficult to complete.

  3. This was the first movie I saw John Barrymore in and I found his performance absolutely devastating. He had already played a drunk as Villon in ‘The Beloved Rogue’, but this is a far bleaker portrayal – a caricature of his real life. For me he dominates the film, but, as you say, Dressler is great too.

    • You had a similar reaction to his performance as I did. It is interesting that he is so dominate in the movie, yet doesn’t really have any interactions with any of the other major characters. His own battles with alcohol clearly deepened his performance and make it, as you say, devastating.

      Dressler is fantastic, probably my pick for best supporting actress that year (though I wasn’t doing that category at the time), though I think Jean Harlow is worth recognition as well.

      • That’s interesting, it hadn’t struck me that he doesn’t have much interaction with the other major characters, but yes – he’s very isolated from the rest, which I suppose is the point. Also agree that Jean Harlow is great in this – I must watch it again soon.

  4. Harlow is great in playing nasty … that’s true.

    My personal problem is: How often can a woman watch that attitude and bad-bad manners, without being influenced. After a week nothing but DINNER @ EIGHT, there was somehow an influence on my behavior: Several times I heard myself speaking to myself “OH GOODY!” … the same way Harlow said it.

    Thanks God this creepy spirit has left me in the meantime!

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