Title: Dinner at Eight
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Director: George Cukor
Herman J. Mankiewicz
based on the stage play of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber
Music: William Axt
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Louise Closser Hale
An American Pre-code curio directed by George Cukor in his early formative days, a celluloid adaptation of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s eponymous stage play, DINNER AT EIGHT is a sumptuous and stellar ensemble piece takes place within glossy mise-en-scène, all its main characters are either esteemed troupers or of wealthy background and well above the hoi polloi, although the inimical Depression era starts to catch up with some of them.
The titular dinner is hosted by the opulent New York shipping baron Oliver Jordan (Lionel Barrymore) and his wife Millicent (Burke), to entertain the esteemed British Lord and Lady Ferncliffe, who are visiting the city. Millicent is preoccupied with guest arrangements one week before the dinner, while Oliver is stricken by both the business downturn and a malignant health hazard and their daughter Paula (Evans), who is clearly fretted by her impending marriage because she has been engaging herself in a secret one-month-long affair with a married silent movie star Jerry Renault (John Barrymore), who would be invited to the dinner although the Jordans have no inking of Paula’s underhand involvement. Jerry’s entire performance is restricted in a posh hotel suite, he is the tragic narcissist who cannot face the double-whammy of his dwindling career and fading celebrity persona, no more leading man part for him in the sound era, and consumed by alcohol, he magnificently botches his last straw, a one-scene-only role in a prestigious play. After a blistering waking-up call from his agent Max Kane (Tracy), it seems that the Jordans’ evening dinner, even Paula, doesn’t matter to him anymore.
Another distinguished dinner guest is the venerable stage star Carlotta Vance (Dressler), who resides in England over a decade but recently arrives in New York with her own agenda (to sell some stocks to tide herself over), idolized by Oliver for ages, her highfalutin mannerism is an absolute hoot and a high-octane Dressler simply lights up the screen gussied up with her dowager trappings (millinery and furs, in particular), it is a larger-than-life comical role, but she rounds out the ridicule without belying any self-consciousness and overacting, on the same plane, Carlotta is as much a farce to be laughed at as an unfeigned force to be reckoned with, she could be very wise in conveying bad news later in the scenery.
Then there are the Packards, Dan Packard (Beery), a sleazy tycoon-cum-politican-wanna-be, who schemes to take over Oliver’s shipping enterprise and his trophy wife Kitty (Harlow, in fabulous haute couture designed by Adrian Greenberg), petulant, dismayed by the prospect of wanting societal esteem, she cheats on her husband with Dr. Wayne Talbot (Lowe), – whose philandering propensity is well condoned by his wife Lucy (Morley), and later during one of the most acrimonious on-screen spouse squabbles, she exhorts Dan to leave Oliver’s business alone by threatening to spill the beans of his shenanigans to public (yet we cannot get the particular occasion behind her noble action, apart from her abhorrence of going to Washington), a blonde bombshell Harlow is another earth-shattering sensation, a strong-willed young woman marries for wealth but is never inured to be bullied by her boorish hubby, a deep-flawed character but we are hopelessly transfixed by Harlow’s unassailable moxie and enchanting verve to applaud for her, even her brutally put-upon maid (Vaughn) has a scene-stealing moment to reciprocate the wickedness.
The Barrymore brothers are at the top of their games too, one year after co-starring in Edmund Goulding’s GRAND HOTEL (1932), they are in another touchstone ensemble symphony without sharing any scenes together. John empathetically enacts a character might feel too close to home with regard to his real life, and his exiting scene is patently poignant, and Lionel, in his more down-to-earth poise, holds the heart of the story, how to cope with all the adversities assaulted en mass, and finally, his helpmate Millicent, deviled by incessant unforeseen hiccups in preparing the dinner, Billie Burke warbles in her ludicrous high-pitch voice and alternates grandly between a piqued hausfrau, a rounded socialite and a supportive wife. DINNER AT EIGHT benefits greatly from its Pre-code discretion and fleshes out many a vividly morally compromised character through its ultimately fluffy material, a hallmark blowout for Tinseltown oldie suckers and star-stuck on-lookers alike.