Dinner at Eight: Touched by the Depression

The same year as George Cukor delivered an excellent version of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” he also found the time to make this adaptation of a 1932 play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Unlike the Alcott story, this one was a modern depiction of the “problems” facing the upper class. There’s a lot of irony in this film and Depression audiences probably appreciated the way Cukor lampooned the lifestyle of the rich and famous… but there’s also a great deal of darkness here.

The film begins with Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke), the wife of shipping magnate Oliver Jordan (Lionel Barrymore), feverishly planning for a society dinner attended by Lord and Lady Ferncliffe, members of the British aristocracy. Oliver doesn’t really care, but Millicent needs to find a man for her single female guest, former stage star Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler) who has returned to New York. Meantime, Oliver is having serious problems. His company has been hit hard by the Depression and someone is secretly buying company stock, some of which Carlotta owns. Oliver needs help from the wealthy but rather vulgar oilman Dan Packard (Wallace Beery), but he is hesitant.

In fact, Dan is planning to take over Oliver’s entire company, but he agrees to attend Millicent’s dinner only for the opportunity to meet Lord Ferncliffe. Millicent, who still needs an extra man for Carlotta (heaven forbid that there should be an uneven number of guests for her dinner) calls movie star Larry Renault (John Barrymore) who accepts the invitation. Little does Millicent know that her daughter is having an affair with Renualt…

Getting a good look at the upper class
There are many other characters in the film. Jean Harlow plays Packard’s girlfriend, a not too bright gold digger who’s also cheating on him with a doctor who’s also invited to the dinner. Lee Tracy is Renault’s agent who tries to get the washed-up silent film star hired for a new play; Karen Morley plays the doctor’s wife who knows that he’s having an affair with Harlow. We get a good look at both the upper class and the people who work for them and have to put up with their nonsense.

It’s obvious that the Depression is taking a toll on the characters and it’s fascinating to see John Barrymore, the Great Profile, play a guy who used to be big when the pictures were silent (which is just four years ago) but whose career is now going down the drains (not least because of his alcoholism). Apparently, Barrymore had some self-distance, but it is also obvious that he personally survived the transformation of films into talkies; he’s excellent. Oddly enough, the film didn’t earn any Oscar nominations; the actors certainly deserved a few. Dressler is wonderful in one of her last performances as Carlotta, a woman whose stature could intimidate anyone; she’s been given the best lines of the film, including the last one. Harlow is also brilliant as Kitty, Packard’s floozy; she’s just hilarious.

There are several other great performances and that’s one of the outstanding ingredients of this film; almost everyone gets at least one scene to shine. Cukor was indeed a generous man.

I mentioned the darkness. Without revealing too much, I can say that there’s plenty of drama to match the comedy and the pre-Code hilarity. It’s amusing to see Millicent work herself into a frenzy trying to arrange the perfect dinner when almost everyone of her guests have far more pressing issues on their mind. It’s ironic to see how the Depression finally reaches even the lavish dinner parties of this world.

Dinner at Eight 1933-U.S. 113 min. B/W. Produced by David O. Selznick. Directed by George Cukor. Screenplay: Frances Marion, Herman J. Mankiewicz, Donald Ogden Stewart. Play: George S. Kaufman, Edna Ferber. Cast: Marie Dressler (Carlotta Vance), John Barrymore (Larry Renault), Wallace Beery (Dan Packard), Jean Harlow, Lionel Barrymore, Lee Tracy… Billie Burke, Jean Hersholt, May Robson.

Trivia: Remade as a TV movie, Dinner at Eight (1989). 

Last word: “When I learned that Marie Dressler was to play Carlotta Vance, I said to myself: she is not quite my idea for the part, not the way it was played on the stage by Constance Collier… But, very shrewdly, Louis B. Mayer contended that Dressler was the biggest thing in pictures, although she looked like a cook and had never played that type of part.” (Cukor, TCM)

 

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