Saturday, November 10, 2012

Grab a Seat for DINNER AT EIGHT Tonight on TCM

If you look at the DVD image for Dinner at Eight, an MGM prestige pic from 1933, you'd guess that it's a Jean Harlow vehicle. And you'd be wrong. In the tradition of Grand Hotel, made in 1932, Dinner at Eight features overlapping stories, fabulous wardrobe and excellent production values, as well as some of the biggest names MGM had to offer.

With two Barrymores (John and Lionel), Wallace Beery, Billie Burke, Marie Dressler, Madge Evans, Harlow, Jean Hersholt and Lee Tracy, there are stars all over Dinner at Eight. Director George Cukor and producer David O. Selznick were also at the top of MGM's food chain, and they were working with an Edna Ferber/George S. Kaufman play adapted for the screen by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Frances Marion. Some pretty fancy names there.

But what's really great about Dinner at Eight is not all the star power, not even the snappy lines handed to Dressler to hurl at other people. It's the interplay between the characters. People remember it as a droll comedy of manners where social climbers and rich folk trade quips before a swanky dinner party. And it is that. Still, the key to Dinner at Eight is that the social climbers have the cash and the rich folk are teetering on the brink of financial disaster. There are machinations, manipulations and doublecrosses at every turn, along with Jean Harlow in a gorgeous slipper satin gown and Marie Dressler doing it up proud as Carlotta.

Dressler had been a big star in vaudeville before she turned to moving pictures, and she'd won an Oscar for Min and Bill, where she brought warmth and charm to the role of Min, a rawboned, rough-and-tumble gorgon running a waterfront dive. In that movie, the sloppy, sozzled object of her affections was played by Wallace Beery, her co-star in Dinner at Eight, who'd won an Academy Award of his own for his role in The Champ in 1932.

The two would be unlikely movie stars now, since neither was what you might call a looker. If you're looking for Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, Dressler and Beery are not it. Beery was perfect for his role in Dinner at Eight, where's he supposed to be a crass mining tycoon who "smells of Montana," but Dressler seems a strange choice for Carlotta, who we're told was a major leading lady of the stage and a famous seductress in her personal life. Let's just say that Dressler was playing against type, and it's to her credit that Carlotta is always believable, amusing and relatable in Dinner at Eight. I'm guessing she's the one most people at home would want to invite to their own dinner parties.

So what exactly is the party we never quite get to in Dinner at Eight? The movie opens with society swells Millicent and Oliver Jordan, played by the lovely Billie Burke, who you might recognize as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz, and Lionel Barrymore, mean old Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life. Millicent is the one planning the party, in honor of a visit from a British Lord and Lady with both money and gold-plated aristocratic credentials. Millicent doesn't know that her husband's shipping company is on the brink of a takeover, and Oliver doesn't know that the brash self-made millionaire he's looking to for a loan is the one behind the buyout.

Beery's Dan Packard and his beautiful wife Kitty, played by Jean Harlow, are expected for the dinner Millicent is planning, along with the Jordans' daughter, Paula (Madge Evans) and her fiance (Phillips Holmes); fading stage legend Carlotta Vance (Dressler), who was once Oliver's lover; an alcoholic movie star Lothario named Larry Renault (John Barrymore) who is secretly involved with Paula; and a sex addict doctor (Edmund Lowe) who's been sleeping with Kitty, who happens to be his patient.

Various plot threads unravel as we get closer to 8 o'clock, with Larry the movie star and Oliver the shipping magnate both experiencing career and health crises, everybody's illicit love affairs uncovered, everybody looking for money, and lots of conflict involving class, cash, sex and social position.

Although the financial woes underline everything, this is a seriously fun movie, with the Harlow/Dressler conversations the best of the bunch. This exchange has gone down in movie history:
Kitty: I was reading a book the other day.

Carlotta: Reading a book?

Kitty: Yes. It's all about civilization or something. A nutty kind of a book. Do you know that the guy says that machinery is going to take the place of every profession?

Carlotta: Oh, my dear, that's something you need never worry about.
Dinner at Eight starts at 8 (of course) Eastern time on Turner Classic Movies. That makes it 7 for the Central time zone people, but we'll have to deal. I didn't have time to send out engraved invitations, but I hope you'll all show up for Dinner, anyway. It's a very tasty movie.


  1. You know, this is another of those classics that I've never seen. I've read about it in the book that consists of interviews with George Cukor about ll his movies (it's one of the earliest, of course, and gets rather brief treatment).

    I think I saw bits of the cable remake with John Mahoney and Marsha Mason as the Jordans, Lauren Bacall as Carlotta, Ellen Greene as Kitty, plus Charles Durning, Julia Sweeney, and Harry Hamlin. And then there was the Lincoln Center Theatre revival in 2002, with Christine Ebersole and James Rebhorn as the Jordans, Marian Seldes as Carlotta, Emily Skinner as Kitty, and a cast otherwise including John Dossett, Ann McDonough, Kevin Conway, and Joe Grifasi. That one completed its subscription run and stopped. I guess I should catch the movie on TCM, huh?

  2. I was wondering when I wrote this if this was one of the classics you'd missed. You need to see it for Marie Dressler, who died not long afterwards. She's a real original and someone who is so much a figure of her time as this big, clunky, not-at-all pretty woman who somebody still thought could carry a picture and be believable as the woman men had swooned for. I mean, Lionel Barrymore (54 at the time of the movie) is married to Billie Burke (49), but Marie Dressler (64) is the love of his past? Today, they'd cast Tom Hanks (56) as Oliver, Marion Cotillard (37) as his lovely wife, and Julia Roberts (45) as the aging stage star from his past. I don't know if there is a functional equivalent of Marie Dressler but whoever she is, she would never get cast in that role. Lauren Bacall and Marian Seldes are quite different types, you know?

  3. Hah. It turns out LCT had planned (it looks to me) something closer to a Marie Dressler type: Dorothy Loudon. She took ill after one preview and Marian Seldes came in to replace her (after the understudy doing some performances).

    Also, it may be ungallant, but I was wondering how Emily Skinner, post-weight-gain (I mean, you saw her in MERRILY the year before), fared with critics in a Jean Harlow role. But apparently they were content to call her voluptuous, and the occasional negative remarks were about overacting. So, I'm a superficial jerk. Also, the part seems somewhat differently conceived in the play.

    At least one review of that revival remarks that the classic exchange you quoted isn't in the stage play. Score one for Hollywood adapters, I guess.

  4. So, let's see, if we cast a new movie version, seeing as how it fits our economic times, it's a given that John Goodman will play the Wallace Beery role. (Note that a functional equivalent to Wallace Beery was easy to come by.) I think I might go with someone other than Tom Hanks, even though I don't know who. Scarlett Johansson will be first in line for the Harlow role, and they'd probably go with Cloris Leachman if they want a sexually-voracious-gorgon type for Carlotta, or Roseanne Barr if they're insane. If not, then I'd like Kathy Bates, who can actually act, and has the right dry wit and presence to put down a Scar-Jo. But I think Soignee and Still Gorgeous Even Though Over 40 would be higher on the priority list. So, you know, Susan Sullivan or higher wattae, like Glenn Close, Helen Mirren...

    I am depressing myself as I imagine a fake movie that isn't going to happen.

    On the other hand, there's room for a musical stage version a la Grand Hotel, with Brian d'Arcy James and Sutton Foster as the Jordans, Megan Hilty as Kitty, Danny Burstein as Dan Packard, Kevin Kline as Larry Renault, Harriet Harris as Carlotta...

  5. No, wait! Howard McGillin as Larry Renault!

  6. Would this be an updated setting, like the TNT telefilm? (And if so, can we have a half-undressed workout for Howard, like Harry Hamlin had?)

  7. Well. So now I can check off DINNER AT EIGHT, a classic now seen.

    Marie Dressler, there's a phenomenon. However over-the-top she (aided by her lines) goes, she's always believable and warm (funny is a given) and I definitely see why she was a big deal in her day, and even why she was chosen for the part. But what's up with the makeup, especially the raccoon eyes? From this one role, I would say that, though not conventionally pretty or anything, she could be made to look striking, and convincing as a former stage star, if made up accordingly, and I don't see why they'd want to sabotage that. It's not "period" -- nobody else comes off grotesque. Actually I'm surprised how realistic and restrained a lot of the acting is; some early talkies seen to belong to another century in that respect, but not this one.

  8. I find her convincing as a former stage star, just not as a former siren with admirers and Stagedoor Johnnies for miles. I'm not sure about the eye makeup because she always looked like that as far as I know. Maybe she just came with unusually dark circles around her eyes.

    I don't know any way to explain her except to say that she came from vaudeville at a time when women of some, er, girth were popular. Mae West, Lillian Russell... So I guess she fit in. She certainly had her tics and a broad performance style, but there is something very winning about her, and she really was a huge star. Hitchcock would've loved her as one of "grotesques" if she had been around by the time he got there.

  9. Oh, and John Barrymore looked lovely to me. Not as much of an alcoholic has-been as I remembered, and much better than Twentieth Century, which was only a year later. When he put on his tux and top hat, it was like, wow, elegant!

    The other weird thing is that Jean Harlow was only 20-21 when it was filmed. The hair and makeup (as well as her manner) make her look much older than that.

  10. Isn't that true of so many of the actresses in 1930s and 40s movies, though? They made their debuts around age 20 and were definitely adults. (The cliché now is that adolescence lasts till 30, and then it was the opposite -- adulthood started in your teens. Was it having to grow up and make a living right away, with none of this college nonsense? I don't know.) Anyway: Barbara Stanwyck was a Ziegfeld girl at 16 and playing leads in movies by 23. Bette Davis was getting non-ingenue roles at 24. But the two classic examples, I guess, are Lauren Bacall (20 at most in "To Have and Have Not") and Angela Lansbury (not a romantic role, but still who'd believe she was in her teens for her debut in "Gaslight"?).

    I share your pleasure at John Barrymore in this. I'll dare to attribute some of that to the Cukor good judgment too: part of the point about Larry is that he does put up a good front and make a good impression. (I now want to check out the updated remake to see how they justified young Harry Hamlin as a suicidal has-been. Maybe they didn't, and it was one of many misjudgments in that ill-fated effort.)

    On my way home yesterday, I stopped off to check out the book of Gavin Lambert interviewing George Cukor, and was stunned to find they didn't have it. I've been used to finding anything I can think of there. I have distant memories (decades ago at IU) of reading that though he had high regard for Marie Dressler, she wasn't his idea for this part.