Cukor’s all-star gala remains a tasty dish
DVD output has to date offered but a soupcon of 1930s classics. Where are Gold Diggers of 1933, Top Hat, Cavalcade, Bombshell, Footlight Parade, The Old Maid, These Three, King Kong, The Good Earth, Ruggles of Red Gap, and Ninotchka? We can scratch Dinner at Eight off that list; Warners Video has at last released it. And, to be fair, there has been a drip drip of releases lately, from Libeled Lady in March to I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang slated for May. Dinner at Eight is a particularly welcome addition, for it represents the second effort by MGM to manufacture an all-star ensemble piece worthy of itself. The studio succeeded beyond precedence with the first all-star talkie Grand Hotel in 1932, and the fact that Dinner at Eight surpasses its genre predecessor in wit and entertainment value is no small accomplishment. Imagine the vicarious pleasure in 1933 of first watching white satin wave across Jean Harlow’s breasts. Imagine the indoor sport of mocking the rich with smart, satiric dialogue as the depression poor sacrificed a quarter for two hours in the dark. Dinner at Eight unmasks the Park Avenue social registry to offer all that and a great deal more. It arrived at the darkest of moments, and was shot entirely during the special session of Congress that gave birth to the New Deal.
Beyond our memory is the way the classic studios kept and maintained talent like exotic fish. First-time producer David O. Selznick issued a royal edict telling, not asking, top personnel at MGM to get to work. Just like that, schedules were made, long term contracts were honored, and no less than Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, Harlow, Billie Burke, and two Barrymores reported for duty, supported ably by pretty young things Madge Evans and Phillips Holmes and several finely etched lower ranking players such as Lee Tracy, Karen Morley, Elizabeth Patterson (I Love Lucy‘s Mrs. Trumbull), May Robson, Edmund Lowe, and Jean Hersholt. Fabled names like Adrian, Cedric Gibbons, and Frances Marion did the costumes, sets, and screenplay adaptation from the stage original. Promising newcomer George Cukor, fresh from A Bill of Divorcement with Katharine Hepburn and John Barrymore, was signed to direct. Dinner at Eight was given the best that MGM had, which in 1933 was the best anyone had.
This is a comedy of complexity, where each of the main characters has multiple points of intersection. Lionel Barrymore is Evans’ father and Burke’s husband and Lowe’s patient and Patterson’s employer and Dressler’s flame of yesteryear and Beery’s would-be dupe. Dinner at Eight has a touch of Molière and Sheridan to it, where audiences are rewarded for paying close attention and dignity is routinely punctured for laughs. Dinner at Eight can also claim ancestry to those later screenplays that take wicked glee in labyrinthine deceit and secrecy, from Shampoo to Gosford Park.
Based on a 1932 Broadway hit by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, Dinner at Eight was then, now, and forever a tribute to the joys of overacting with the right script and the right performers. Cukor’s reputation as a great “woman’s director” was born here. Thunderous Marie Dressler lurches through the movie under a heavy load of make-up, jewelry, pelts, and wounded pride. It’s a stretch to believe that she was once a celebrated beauty of the Lillian Russell-Anna Held type, but part of the joke is her self-delusion fed adoringly by Lionel Barrymore. Her Carlotta Vance is the grandest of grand dames, broadly rendered, and a loving elegy to a career devoted to laughter. It is Dressler who delivers that immortal line to Harlow in response to books, machines, and professions, and in doing so pays tribute to working women everywhere. Chirping Billie Burke is the exacting hostess at the center of dinner plans, anal long before the word was accepted in mixed company. She believes civilization will perish without the perfect aspic for Lord and Lady Ferncliffe, and who are we to disagree? When Jean Harlow tries on hats, receives her lover, or sass talks Wallace Beery, she becomes film’s great comic trollop. She holds court from her bed like a spoiled Persian cat, a disagreeable chocolate substituting for a furball. The only thing that excites this former hat-check girl from the Hottentot Club is social climbing, which she does with unfailing ineptitude.
Many of Cukor’s most revered movies have a problem or two that often go unmentioned, perhaps because that would spoil the fun. Those Norma Shearer domestic scenes in The Women have a regrettable saccharine goo. Born Yesterday deflates when Billie gets wise. The sexual politics of The Philadelphia Story and My Fair Lady don’t age well.
In Dinner at Eight, it’s the strain toward drama that doesn’t pay off. Dinner at Eight offers economic ruin, ill health, and suicide amidst the champagne-spritzed repartee, but the drama stands apart because it is not of the equivalent excellence of the movie’s social comedy. John Barrymore’s skilled performance as a sodden, bombastic ham actor on the skids has a too-close-to-home queasiness to it, and his clandestine love affair is uninvolving. Brother Lionel is so upstaged by a flotilla of strong women that his performance, and the acute crises that accompany his character, are summarily eclipsed.
It doesn’t diminish the joy of watching Dinner at Eight to suggest that its many parts don’t always mesh. It is ultimately a triumph of type casting the crème de la crème: Dressler as an overripe actress of the mauve decade, Billie Burke as a flighty society matron, John Barrymore as a faded matinee idol, Jean Harlow as a sexy tart, Wallace Beery as a crooked blowhard. So what if these assignments lacked creativity? MGM had stars, and knew how to use them.