A Look Back: “Dinner at Eight”
Note: This post was originally published by my friends Scott Jordan Harris and Simon Mason at The Spectator Arts Blog: “Touching From a Distance,” a wonderful pop culture an entertainment blog based in the U.K.. If you love film, music, literature, theatre, and the fine arts, TFAD is a site for you.
After the positive reception and well deserved 1932 Best Picture Oscar for the excellent ensemble drama Grand Hotel, MGM sought to replicate its success by enlisting the talents of David O. Selznick to produce an equally star studded and flamboyant followup. Turning once again to Broadway for inspiration, Selznick acquired the rights to a play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, hired George Cukor to direct, and had Herman Mankiewicz and Frances Marion write the adaptation (with Donald Ogden Stewart adding some additional dialogue.
The result was Dinner at Eight, a slickly produced film featuring some of Hollywood’s best actors at the height of their abilities. While not as artistically or financially successful as Grand Hotel, Dinner at Eight would go on to earn a rightful place in cinematic history, becoming a classic largely on the strength of its performances, the acuity of its observations, and a particularly legendary double-take and retort from one of the screen’s truly grand dames.
The film’s plot centers on a planned dinner party that Millicent Jordan (played by the delightfully flighty Billie Burke) is trying to put together in honor of a never seen Lord and Lady Ferncliffe. As an increasingly flustered Millicent tries to even out a table for ten (because “eight people isn’t a dinner”), she discusses possibilities with her distracted husband Oliver (played with great warmth by Lionel Barrymore) and rattles off the names of the characters who’s lives will gradually come together throughout the course of the film.
These include Marie Dressler as Carlotta Vance, an aging theatre star who hasn’t “got a sou” and has come back to New York looking to sell some shipping stock she once bought from her old friend and former lover, Oliver. Oliver’s business has been hard hit by the depression, and the strain has driven him to seek financial assistance from a less than honest, and politically ambitious Dan Packard (Wallace Beery), who is secretly angling to take over Jordan’s shipping lines through a series of veiled proxy buyouts. Packard’s wife Kitty, played by Jean Harlow, is the brassy former coat-check girl with her sights set on becoming a socialite. She has been carrying on an affair with the weak willed Dr. Talbot, played by Edmund Lowe. Talbot is also the Jordan’s family doctor, and it is through he that we discover that Oliver’s many stresses are having a very negative effect on his health. Rounding out the cast is Madge Evens as the Jordan’s daughter Paula, who is engaged to be married, but secretly in love with the fading movie star Larry Renault, played with heartbreaking real-life parallels by John Barrymore, who’s runaway vanity is steering him down a path to mutually assured career and self destruction.
The film is a wonder of small, yet powerful acting moments. It’s an ensemble film, to be sure, but one in which the ensemble hardly appears together in full. Rather, following a more theatrical style, the action moves from scene to scene, character to character, depositing plot exposition in simple vignettes that keep the multiple stories moving forward and tied together in the viewer’s mind. What’s particularly striking about the film today is not so much its high studio gloss and all-star cast, but rather the insight and intelligence of the scenes themselves – the moments they explore, and the character traits they reveal.
Take, for example, an early scene between Carlotta Vance and Oliver Jordan where, as the discuss Carlotta’s financial situation, they also reminisce about their past. As they exchange remembrances of their former selves, we can see that while their love may have faded, it was only so that their friendship could grow stronger. They may have arrived an old age filled with troubles and regrets, yes, but they’ve managed to keep and carry the fond memories of their shared past with them. Dressler and Barrymore manage to convey so much genuine warmth between these two comfortable souls that the viewer is transported back along their memories, visualizing them both in the beauty of their youth and affection. Using the simplest of gestures – soft shared glances, gentle touches – they convince us that they would have been a grand couple, and we mourn for the life that could never be.
There’s an equally effective, and poignant, moment moment between the philandering Dr. Talbot and his wife Lucy (played by Karen Morley). Lucy has walked into the tail end of a telephone conversation he is having where Harlow’s character is demanding a little more of his “bedside manner.” As the doctor becomes aware of his wife’s presence, he attempts an awkward cover-up, setting in motion a remarkable dialogue exchange wherein Lucy, who has, of course, caught on to her husband’s infidelity, admits her awareness with a quietly tragic resignation. As the scene progresses, you see the pain etch more deeply not only into her eyes as she describes how she has gradually, and grudgingly, come to accept his character flaw, but also his eyes as he realizes the weight of the cross he’s forced his wife to bear. It’s a devastating moment between two people still obviously in love, yet unable to break from the patterns of the past. If only things were different…
As the object of Doctor Talbot’s lust, and Dan Packards’ increasing frustrations, Jean Harlow instills Kitty Packard with a ferocious desire to be both respectable, and independent on her own terms. Harlow has always been known for her sex appeal, and rightly so – the woman is the very epitome of “jiggle” – but in this film she displays a fierceness of character that betrays a true actress in high form. While she may have ridden Dan’s coattails to the posh life, she retains enough of the barroom broad to stand up to Dan’s tough guy facade and threaten to blow his entire business schemes out of the water if she is not allowed to attend the dinner party that would get her foot in the door of the high social life. Harlow exudes a fiery sex appeal in this role, spending a large portion of it reclining in a bed the size of New Hampshire, and demanding Doctor Talbot’s attentions as if she were a petulant child. While a large portion of her role is designed to serve as comic relief, we quickly realize that her entire motivation centers around a very adult and desperate desire for acceptance by the “right” crowd.
John Barrymore, as Larry Renault (one of the “right” crowd) carries off a particularly strong moment in the film that, while eerily reflective of his real-life alcoholic decline, show off a profound fearlessness and dedication to craft. In the first scene, we see him with the Jordan’s daughter, Paula, and it’s quickly established the two are lovers. Paula wants Renault to attend the party so that she can announce her love for him to her family, but Renault isn’t so sure this is a good idea. He is acutely aware he’s in a downward spiral and realizes he is not strong enough to keep her from following him into oblivion. He tries to gently push her away, but as she keeps insisting her love is strong enough to withstand all obstacles, his frustration mounts, and he begins to drink.
What follows is not your typical drunk scene where one glass equals instant inebriation. Over the course of several scene, we watch as Renault downs glass after glass after glass. Instead of cutting from a scene of sobriety to one of intoxication, Cukor’s camera watches as Barrymore slowly degrades his condition. It is a master class in subtlety. Movements once graceful, become cumbersome; eyes once sharp, turn bleary and unfocused; and a once charming personality burns away to a bitter rage that begins lashing out at the people around him who truly care. In a series of subsequent scenes, his vanity and alcoholism combine to to effectively dismantle every single last option he has available. This once divinely proud and gifted man slides from tragedy to travesty before our eyes, and all we can do is watch in muted horror.
It is Marie Dressler that comes to bring us back to from the abyss. Dinner at Eight is a high point in the cinematic career of Ms. Dressler, who literally devours her role, and leads the other cast members in a full on charge to do the script emotive justice. She handily walks away with every scene she is in and, despite her less than attractive physical appearance, captivates us with her warmth and generous humanity. Towards the end of the film comes a masterfully comic scene between Marie Dressler and Jean Harlow, wherein Ms. Dressler gives perhaps one of cinema’s most legendary double-takes to Ms. Harlow’s announcement that she has just read a book. The scene is legendary for a reason, and well worth a look:
At the time this movie was made, MGM was regarded as the finest studio in Hollywood, and with films such as this, it is easy to see why. The movie virtually glistens, both in terms of decor and talent. In terms of acting, it is first rate by even today’s standards. The story lines are mature, and adult audiences tired of explosive fluff will find a lot to enjoy and think about. Each of these scenes described above, and many others, make Dinner at Eight a worthy addition to anyone’s movie collection.