Friday, September 2, 2011

Dinner at Eight (1933)

MGM puts together yet another picture featuring a sizable ensemble cast of well known and respected personalities from their famed stock of stars to present the 1933 picture Dinner at Eight. The studio was always willing to boast that it had “more stars than there are in the heavens,” and with their previous success of star-studded Grand Hotel the year prior, MGM looked to try to repeat the same formula. Armed with a large billing of award winning actors and legendary names, Dinner at Eight was a vehicle for featuring their stars, inspired by the Broadway play of the same name that ran the year prior. The play had many characters and many storylines that revolved around a single event. This kind of story structure was not common in film production due to the high numbers of actors needed to make the production happen and thought this kind of structure to not be easy to follow with many cuts from one story to another, but MGM though its star power would help such a film be received by their audience.

Dinner at Eight is a comedy about the people and events that happen within the week leading up to a dinner party they are to take part in, featuring tales of wealth, selfishness, the loss of money, greed, social standing, various romantic relationships, and affairs. Centered around the dinner party being planned by its host, Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke), we watch the reactions and fates of each of the individuals that are invited to the proposed glorious affair which is to honor a wealthy English couple, Lord and Lady Ferncliff. With a wide number of intermixing stories of the individuals to take part in the party, the guest list becomes assembled, each having their own personal hardships leading up to the event, and just when the party would seem to be an utter disaster, especially with the guests of honor deciding to not show, each person enters the dinner with a renewed outlook on life.

Despite being a picture that lasts a shade under two hours, much takes place in the within the intertwined stories of each individual:

Oliver Jordan (Lionel Barrymore) is an owner of large shipping company that comes on hard times due to the Depression and falls ill of a heart condition that he wishes to hide as to not worry his wife. Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke) is the stressful host attempting to assemble a proper party for her guests of honor, not quite paying attention to others actions or needs, using this dinner to be rather selfish until she discovers her Oliver is in fact ill with a serious heart condition. This news snaps her from her selfish ways realizing what is most important as they enter the dinning room.

The guest list includes many friends and business colleagues. Carlotta (Marie Dressler) is an aging stage actress and dear old friend of Oliver. Dan Packard (Wallace Beery) is a successful, yet bully of a businessman that Oliver hopes will help him keep his company afloat. He is escorted by his gold digging wife Kitty (Jean Harlow). Dr. Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe) is Oliver’s physician and secretly having an affair with Kitty, which Kitty uses against her husband Dan. Larry Renault (John Barrymore) is a washed up silent movie star who takes refuge in alcoholism and an affair with the host’s daughter Paula (Madge Evans), but when things get desperate commits suicide the night before the dinner. Despite all their personal problems and tragedies, the group comes together to enjoy a genuinely nice evening together rather than the originally indented superficial selfish gathering.

The film appears packed with story plots. With a beginning that starts off slow and leads to a more intriguing middle and ultimately satisfying ending. Once in the heart of the picture the film seems to fly by at an amazing pace. With new layers of story being placed on top of others previously presented, you become more invested and enthralled by the picture and its characters. It’s fun to see the cast of stars come together in this film, as many are well known form films past. When you come to the concluding shot where we escort them entering the dining room as one group for the first time in the picture, you get a sense that this gathering is almost as if watching a parade of Hollywood royalty for its time. The finale to the film is good, despite in some way it felt like MGM was trying to recreate the magic of The Grand Hotel, but I really didn’t care.

The cast was a true assemblance of some of MGM brightest shining stars of that period. Brought together are some of Hollywood’s most notable names. The Barrymores, John and Lionel, were two of the most noted and respected actors of stage and screen. Wallace Beery was an Academy Award winning actor and a classic movie tough guy. Marie Dressler, too, was an award winning actress, whose life on stage and screen was solidified in talking pictures. Sadly this was one of her last major films, as Dressler would pass away in 1934. Jean Harlow, the famous blonde beauty, in her first year with MGM went from an unpolished girl used for her seductive looks with little other skill and was polished into a real acting talent, as she plays a good dramatic role as the gold-digging wife. Though she was in the beginning of her acting transition, Harlow was still very appealing in her normal role demand, as she is the butt of a dumb blonde joke and her dress is so tight in the film that she was literally sewn into it for production.  Edmund Lowe was fading romantic lead, but would still hold up in such a picture with great cast. Billie Burke, veteran stage and movie actress, would revive her career on screen after the tragic passing of her famous husband, Florenz Ziegfeld. Burke would have a long career, but is most remembered for her role as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. Fellow support actors included Lee Tracy, Madge Evans Philip Holmes, Karen Morely, and Jean Hersolt, each playing their smaller roles, but each played their parts in Hollywood history.

Called to direct this picture was George Cukor at a time before he would become known as a reliable and highly respected director. Formally a stage director, he was one of many that were hired to Hollywood when sound was added to motion pictures. At first working as an assistant or apprentice, typically shadowing another director or co-directing, Cukor would get his chance to direct on his own, with Dinner at Eight being his first major film. He does a fine job provided a sense of emotion while at the same time making us laugh at the silliness of how these upper class individuals handle their trouble, making them human rather than simply caricatures of a sociological class. This would be one of his two breakout film of the year, the other being RKO’s Little Women, starring Katharine Hepburn.

The picture is a fun film that intersects the careers of a number of Hollywood notables. The movie is good, not great; no were near as great as The Grand Hotel, which I think the film was trying to recreate in a certain mean. It is a comedy that does create good laughs, and is even honored on the AFI list of top comedy film compiled in 2000 at #85. Going into the film with no knowledge of the picture I came out satisfied and felt it was worth watching. If there is anything to say that is most notable about this picture being worth watching it is the stars, for it is a grand ensemble for yet another MGM film.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The (1947)

20 th Century-Fox Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz Starring: Gene Tierney , Rex Harrison , George Sanders Honors: #73 on A...