Genre: Comedy Melodrama
Directed by: George Cukor (The Philadelphia Story)
Starring: Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Lee Tracy, Billie Burke, Edmund Lowe
MGM's attempt at creating another Grand Hotel (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), follows the same basic approach as the first film, but it's a very different proposition altogether. Where Grand Hotel had been a very European romantic melodrama. This is a very American comedy melodrama — one that you can search with a fine-tooth comb without finding anything romantic at all. Depending on your outlook, that can be a plus or a minus. For me, it's a little bit of a minus, though the two are hard to compare fairly. The two are big, glossy, all-star movies. Some of the same performers are back — notably, John and Lionel Barrymore, and Wallace Beery. (Jean Hersholt is on hand, too, but his role is negligible. And lovers of esoterica might note that Edwin Maxwell and John Davidson show up.) The sets are solid, but there's nothing as — well, grand as the Grand Hotel. And that gets to the crux of things. Not only are Dinner at Eight's stage origins more evident, but without those hotel walkways, the huge lobby, the cocktail bar, etc. there's less interaction, less of a sense of an ensemble cast. It feels like a very good, very entertaining movie, but Grand Hotel feels like something truly special. However, the good in Dinner at Eight is very good indeed.
The production was given over to producer David O. Selznick, who had just come from RKO Radio. Not too surprisingly, Selznick handed the direction over to George Cukor, who'd come from RKO with him. Would it have been a better picture with Grand Hotel's Edmund Goulding? That's a hard call. Both directors were noted for making "women's pictures" (that's code for gay), but Goulding's movies tend to be less cynical (1947's Nightmare Alley to one side and more overtly romantic. That might not have been a good fit — especially where Jean Harlow's and Wallace Beery's comedy were concerned — but Goulding would probably have gotten a more nuanced performance out of John Barrymore. And, much as I adore Barrymore and will watch him in anything, this is one of my least favorite of his performances, but that might have a lot to do with the fact that his scenes exist off to the side of the rest of the film. His Larry Renault — a washed-up alcoholic movie star who feels a little too much like a preview of Barrymore's last years — spends the entire movie in his hotel room. The only member of the main cast he ever appears with is Madge Evans as Paula Jordan, the foolish lovestruck 19-year-old daughter of Oliver (Lionel Barrymore) and Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke), who are giving the dinner of the title. His character is central to the drama, but he almost feels like he's in another movie.
The overall film, however, is a lot of high class, sophisticated fun. A lot of what makes the film work can be laid at the feet of Marie Dressler in her next-to-last film. MGM's popular star was usually cast in sentimental roles, but here she gets to play aging stage beauty Carlotta Vance. Her beauty has faded, her finances are shaky, and she's constantly being told how someone not that much younger than herself saw her "when I was a child." ("Really? We should talk about the Civil War some time — just you and I," she icily remarks to 57-year-old Elizabeth Patterson.) But she remains a formidable figure — and she lights up every scene she's in. She also has the best scene in the film — when she has to break bad news to Madge Evans — and the film's best line. You'll know it — it's the last line in the picture and it's made even better by the startled "take" she does when Harlow tells her, "I was reading a book the other day." Dressler gets top billing — and she deserves it.
At the same time, Harlow gives her a run for her money (though they only share that one scene) as the vulgar, social-climbing Kitty Packard — the trophy wife (though the term didn't exist then) of roughneck crooked businessman and political aspirant Dan Packard (Wallace Beery). The film affords her the opportunity to loll around in a variety of white outfits trimmed in chiffon, feathers and fur, while trading well-timed insults with Beery. Really, how can you not love a movie where the ditsy blonde gets the upper hand on nearly everybody — including the husband who tells her to "go lay an egg?"
The Asheville Film Society will screen Dinner at Eight Tuesday, August 6, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.
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