Dinner at Eight, 1933, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Marie Dressler, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Billie Burke. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 113 minutes.
This pre-code dramedy of a group set to gather together for a dinner honoring a socially elite couple has little to do with that actual event, rather, it’s a story of eight diverse people coming to grips with life-altering events.
There are affairs and sly business dealings, the spark of engagement and marriages staggering to stay together, the naïvety and idealism of youth set in contrast to the solid, secure reality of years. All in all, there are characters we all know in our own lives, or want to know, or can imagine all too well.
Flighty Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke) has plans for a dinner party, while unbeknownst to her, husband Oliver Jordan (Lionel Barrymore) is suffering both from ill health and the imminent downfall of the lucrative family business.
Much to Oliver’s delight, however, his old friend Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), an aging and once beautiful actress whom he loved in his younger years, is in town to visit. He soon learns she’s there in part to sell off her share of stock in his company, a move that could be the final nail in the coffin of the business.
Meanwhile, the Jordan’s daughter Paula (Madge Evans), although engaged to society catch Ernest DeGraff (Phillip Holmes), is in love, or believes herself to be, with Larry Renault (John Barrymore), a fading movie star with a drinking and ego problem, who doesn’t share Paula’s feelings.
The man instrumental in the likely undoing of Oliver’s company is Dan Packard (Wallace Beery), although Oliver is unaware of his role. Dan has an antagonistic relationship with his beautiful young wife, Kitty (Jean Harlow), who, for her part, is having an affair with her doctor, Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe). Dr. Talbot, it turns out, is also treating Oliver.
This story plays out with some of the finest actors and actresses of its time in a film considered one of the best of the 1930s. Although it wasn’t nominated for any Academy Awards, many of the cast and crew were past or future Oscar winners, including Lionel Barrymore, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery and director George Cukor.
Dressler was one of MGM’s most popular actresses at the time, yet playing a sophisticated, fading beauty was entirely unlike her typical brassy role, so her sparkling performance was (and remains) a delightful surprise. In many ways, she stole the spotlight from “blonde bombshell” Jean Harlow.
For her part, Harlow rose to the occasion, proving her comedic and acting skills and creating a role that was a turning point for her, leading to other parts in major films of the decade. Look for her dress in the dinner scenes. That beautiful gown by Adrian became known as the “Jean Harlow dress.”
John Barrymore, much like his character, was once a great star, now battling alcoholism and fading glory. Interestingly, Barrymore had no problem playing up the similarities, in fact, he encouraged it, adding details from his own life to the script.
As a pre-code film, this movie is laden with sexual innuendo and a near-profanity or two. The story is biting and heartbreaking, funny and wise, and well worth the watch.