Friday, May 10, 2013

Dinner At Eight (1933)

Recently I have been chatting with Jeff, a friend in Indiana who loves old movies even more than I do. He suggested that I watch a movie I had never even heard of called Dinner At Eight. My library had it, so I took his advice: I reserved it and recently watched it. When I did a little bit of research on it I learned that it was a "Grand Hotel" type picture, made in the wave of many similar films after Grand Hotel (1932) was such a success.

Dinner At Eight features Billie Burke as a wife determined to have a dinner party. Her world revolves around her social calendar, and when a famous European couple agree to attend one of her functions, we have the "hook" on which to build a movie around. She is oblivious to the fact that her husband, the CEO of a large shipping company (played by Lionel Barrymore) is stressed out because his company is dangerously close to going bankrupt. He wants to borrow money from unscrupulous businessman Wallace Beery, who happens to be married to unsophisticated trophy-wife Jean Harlow, who is busy having an affair with Lionel Barrymore's doctor. See how conveniently all of these stories tie together? If you have already guessed that all of these people are attending the dinner party, you're way ahead of Billie Burke. Dinner At Eight also features John Barrymore (Lionel's brother) as a has-been, alcoholic Broadway actor who is having an affair with Lionel's daughter. Marie Dressler also appears as a retired Broadway star looking to scratch out a living any way she can and is a friend to most of the other characters.
I have often heard the name of Marie Dressler but I had never seen her in anything before this. Here she plays what I imagine is a caricature of herself as a retired actress; this was one of her last roles (she died in 1934). She really seemed to relish this role; she seemed to be enjoying herself. She definitely made all of her scenes eminently watchable. Lionel Barrymore is fun to watch, and his brother John is all Pride and Arrogance about growing old and becoming a has-been, but the others are rather dull. Jean Harlow is not funny here at all. In fact, her shrillness gets very annoying very quickly. 

After watching the film I verified what I had suspected: it was filmed before the so-called Hays Code (censorship) took effect in Hollywood. In other words, there was more adultery and suicide here than you would have expected from "the Golden Age of Hollywood." Still, the idea of writing a whole movie around a silly dinner party presented by a silly woman doesn't stand up to the test of time: it doesn't make a compelling story now. Although most of the acting is top-notch and some of the serious issues raised regarding money, morality, and adultery are interesting to watch, as the movie ended I couldn't help thinking, "No wonder I've never heard of this movie." If you have about two hours and have an interest in old Hollywood than I can recommend this. If you are thinking you would rather skip it for something with a little bit more of a "punch," I can totally understand that, too.

Dinner At Eight (1933)
Directed by George Cukor
Screenplay by Herman Mankiewicz, Frances Marion, an Donald Ogden Stewart
From the play by George Kaufman & Edna Ferber

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