DINNER AT EIGHT (1933) B/W 113m dir: George Cukor
w/Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Lee Tracy, Billie Burke, Edmund Lowe, Madge Evans, Jean Hersholt
Superb all-star comedy-drama. Cukor's seamless direction and one of the most polished acting ensembles of all time transform a competent theater piece into a film classic. The lives of the characters intersect in interesting ways, and each story is compelling in itself, particularly Barrymore as a prideful actor whose bad reputation finally eclipses his talent; Dressler as an aging actress in between engagements; and, above all, Harlow as a social-climbing minx who insists her doctor pay her bedside visits.
From The Movie Guide: "A gorgeous, high-gloss deco mosaic, overloaded with star power, and a curious triumph over all by the electroplated Venus, Jean Harlow. DINNER AT EIGHT was the second all-star vehicle from MGM (after GRAND HOTEL) and did much to establish [David O.] Selznick as a producer to be reckoned with. The script, expertly adapted from the [George S.] Kaufman - [Edna] Ferber stage play by Frances Marion, Herman Mankiewicz, and Donald Ogden Stewart, polished the comedy elements of the original to further balance the existing melodrama. The MGM constellations twinkle as Gotham strata of society are invited to dine by Lionel Barrymore and Billie Burke. Under the patina of luxe, hearts break, plans go up in smoke, dreams are dashed.
"This is the beginning of the end for John Barrymore, playing a has-been that has been patterned after him; it's a bitchy casting idea, chilling to watch. Other good parts would follow but DINNER AT EIGHT would mark the point where he began careening into parody. Burke and Barrymore turn in definitive portrayals of their star personas. Dressler's shrewd grande dame in decline (based on Mrs. Patrick Campbell) is a textbook of brilliant comic business, and Beery turns in his usual workmanlike despisable grizzly.
"But it's Jean Harlow who elevates herself to the big guns here. Her gold-digging amoral little hussy, spitting out chocolates she doesn't like back into her fancy candybox, is just as self-centered as the others. But despite the whinny voice, rock candy cosmetology and bratty manipulation, she still manages to infuse heart into her characterization. Cukor, who expertly directed, claimed she did it on her own; it's proof positive that the legendary sex symbols always have an undeniable element of humanity. (It may have helped that she and Beery hated each others guts.) Madge Evans plays the ingenue, a role Joan Crawford pulled out of at the last minute, wisely, given the Harlow victory. Devotees of Hollywood costume design should enjoy the platinum blonde's outrageous costumes, the last word in Adrian vulgarity.
"The Breen Office took exception to DINNER AT EIGHT (Joseph I. Breen being the West Coast assistant to Will Hayes, who headed the censorship board affixing production codes to films at the time). Breen told Selznick that he seemed to have a predilection for suicide in his movies, citing such films as ANNA KARENINA and WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD?. To calm the censors, the scene where John Barrymore actually turns on the gas was cut. The producer would remain forever proud of this film, taking particular delight that the chic set decorations of the movie (especially Harlow's bedroom set) helped popularize art deco in the early 1930s."
From the website www.albany.edu, this article about the film by film critic Damian Cannon:
"DINNER AT EIGHT was a bold experiment, but also a desperate one for youthful David O. Selznick in 1933. Selznick had appeared on the MGM lot as the genius behind RKO’s phenomenal KING KONG, but had discovered to his dismay that Hollywood, the ultimate industry town, was dead set against him. Selznick was part of a power play by MGM’s grumpy, tyrannical Louis B. Mayer to replace the beloved Irving Thalberg, who had suffered a heart attack and was recuperating in Europe. Selznick had recently married Mayer’s daughter, Irene, and his appointment to Thalberg’s position seemed a clear case of family loyalty superseding artistry. 'The Son-In-Law Also Rises,' was the title of a memorable editorial in The Hollywood Spectator, which referred to Selznick as 'the industry’s most outstanding case of nepotism.'
"Selznick may well have been duped by the conniving Mayer, who liked to refer unctuously to his employees as 'the MGM family.' Selznick sought to be released from his contract, but Mayer remained firm. Selznick went into a deep depression: 'All [my] past accomplishment ... is wiped out ... any appreciation of the future ... is impossible because I am not an executive here ... by right of six or seven years of struggle ... but a relative here by right of marriage ....' As he wrote later, 'I saw no alternative except to try to make some fine pictures that would, in part, regain for me the position in the industry I had lost through joining MGM.' He set out to do that with DINNER AT EIGHT, based on the smash Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman hit of the previous Broadway season. Selznick had always been pugnacious, and now, he courted direct comparison with Thalberg by borrowing Thalberg’s 'galaxy' approach of placing multiple stars in large prestige productions for DINNER AT EIGHT, a philosophy which had worked perfectly in 1932’s GRAND HOTEL, a Thalberg production. Selznick upped the ante: there were ten major parts in DINNER AT EIGHT. John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, Lee Tracy, Jean Harlow, Edmund Lowe, Madge Evans, Jean Hersholt, and Billie Burke were the marquee names in the cast. (Selznick’s only disappointment in casting was his failure to secure the services of Clark Gable for the part eventually played by Lowe. Mayer felt Gable was too ‘manly’ for the part.) Still, disaster seemed to stalk the young producer, who feared failure as much as others fear death. In March, 1933, as the film was beginning production, an earthquake struck Hollywood. Several companies, including Warner Brothers’ GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, were shooting that day, and footage of shaking sets and screaming extras was recorded by cameras all over town. Then, actress Billie Burke’s husband, legendary showman Florenz Ziegfeld, died while shooting was in progress after a lingering illness.
"But ‘the Selznick touch’ turned out to be every bit as remarkable as ‘the Thalberg touch.’ Cukor’s direction was surehanded and elegant, bringing out the hissing ironies in every relationship, and the malignant pathos in every character. John Barrymore, as the ham actor who can’t even stage his own death well, mercilessly burlesqued himself: when George Bernard Shaw visited the set, Barrymore purposely overacted so Shaw could get an eyeful of Cukor disciplining him. The film ran on a crackerjack schedule even for its time: Selznick and his director, George Cukor, saw to it that DINNER AT EIGHT was completed in only 24 days, at a total cost of only $287,000. The film brought in over $3,000,000 in rentals, and played to packed houses and critical raves. Thalberg returned from his recuperation to pronounce the project a success in his own best tradition of quality filmmaking, and to personally reassure Selznick that Selznick’s future productions would have his blessing, as well.
"At MGM, Selznick would turn out some of the studio’s most popular and profitable films, extending the Thalberg tradition of prestige pictures to such works as VIVA VILLA!, MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, DAVID COPPERFIELD, ANNA KARENINA and A TALE OF TWO CITIES. But it would not be enough, it would never be enough, for a man who had first worked in films in his teens as the protege of his father, producer Lewis J. Selznick. Selznick couldn’t bear the thought of anyone else believing that he was on a set merely by advantage of birthright or marriage, and in a hundred ways, the crafty Mayer continued to undercut David’s belief in his own success. Beginning in 1936, Selznick would strike out on his own, under the banner of Selznick International Productions. Success on his own terms, in his own name, would follow, right through his crowning achievement, 1939’s GONE WITH THE WIND.
"But even then, in order to secure the services of Clark Gable to play Rhett Butler, Selznick had to return to Mayer, who still owned Gable’s contract. The cost was high; the right to distribute Selznick’s masterpiece, and much of the profits. This lost share of GONE WITH THE WIND money would haunt Selznick for the rest of his life, as he speculated on the other projects it could have seeded. Even in his greatest moment, then, Selznick remained in bitter thrall to a father figure he could not seem to appease, and to a shaky belief in his own abilities.
“In this masterpiece, George Cukor managed to control and extract the strengths of his star-studded cast to memorable effect. Clearly adapted from the stage, with its long scenes, this heritage works to great advantage with the vignettes which compose the story. The script is astoundingly perfect, vibrant with witty language, knowing comments and a pulsating energy which envelopes the actors. Despite being set in the Depression era the stories are just as amusing today, betraying none of the six decades which have passed since its making. If it’s at all possible the acting is even better, with each performer inhabiting their roles to perfection. Lionel Barrymore is depressingly excellent as the broken-down star (mirroring his own life), John Barrymore is beautiful as the only honest man in the entire picture and Dressler is magnificent in her struggle with time. Every character is impressive, bursting with distinct qualities and just so much more three-dimensional than the simple sketches which inhabit many movies. Pure, unadulterated class.”