Dinner At Eight is a 1933 comedic drama from director George Cukor. Made after the success and in the tradition of Grand Hotel (1932), Dinner At Eight features an all-star cast of actors, whose characters all come together for an elite dinner party. But before they arrive, they all must deal with their social and financial status due to the great depression.
The hosts of this illustrious dinner party are Oliver and Millicent Jordan (Lionel Barrymore & Billie Burke). Oliver is a shipping mogul whose business has been hit hard by the depression, and now due to financial problems he has increasingly poor health. His wife, Millicent, has spent far too many years maintaing her elite status and has completely stopped paying attention to the obvious needs of her husband and 19-year-old daughter, Paula (Madge Eveans). Paula is engaged to Ernest DeGraff (Philips Holmes), who is about to return from overseas just in time for the dinner, but she also has been involved in a love affair with the much older, Larry Renault (John Barrymore).
Renault is an aging actor of both the screen and stage. Unfortunately, he has been unable to survive the business with the success of talking pictures. He is a raging alcoholic struggling to get himself back into the spotlight. Renault is a late addition to the party’s guest list, and in fact is only invited because there is another aging star, Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler) coming, and Millicent needed to even out the guests.
Carlotta is a former girlfriend of Oliver’s, but for years now they have just been good friends. Carlotta is also in need of money and is trying to sell her stocks in the Jordan shipping business. Of course Jordan doesn’t have enough money to buy her stocks. In fact he has asked a shady businessman from the west, Dan Packard (Wallace Beery), to help him out financially. Packard tells Jordan that he will think about it, but really he has a scheme to take over the business and leave Jordan completely broke.
Packard tells his young, gold-digging wife, Kitty (Jean Harlow), about his new scheme, but she only cares because she is excited to have received an invitation to the dinner party at the Jordan household. She has been looking for ways to mingle with the “right” people, and she sees the dinner party as a perfect opportunity. Her relationship with her husband has been deteriorating for some time due to her disapproval of his money grubbing schemes, as well as her affair with her doctor (and Oliver Jordan’s doctor), Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe). Dr. Talbot has had many affairs over the years and his wife, Lucy (Karen Morley), has known about them all. She confronts her husband and he admits that he has a problem with his sexual urges towards these younger women, but he also admits that he is dedicated to overcoming this problem.
The final dinner guests (The Loomis couple) are last minute replacements, and are also cousins to the Jordans. Ed and Hattie Loomis (Grant Mitchell & Louise Closser Hale) don’t really want to come to the party because they obviously aren’t from the same upper class as the other couples. Hattie has grown tired of Millicent’s petty ways, and Ed wants nothing more than to go see the latest Greta Garbo picture. Well there you have it, the simple story of Dinner At Eight.
The film plays nicely, but the problem is that the drama and the comedy seem to be at odds for control of the film. At the beginning the comedy dominates many scenes, but by the end there is very little comedy at all. Director George Cukor seemed to do the best with what he had, and honestly he had some wonderful screenwriters in Frances Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz. Every actor in the film was their usual brilliant and enjoyable self. John Barrymore, as he so often does, finds a way to look so troubled and sad. His performance left me wanting to find this poor forgotten actor and save him from his own miserable life. Lionel Barrymore has become one of those actors that always seems to make me smile. Just his presence in a scene makes the scene that much better. His addition to the movie is monumental, and as the only character who seems to be working in a selfless way, he is the true hero of the story.
I understand that the goal was to make another picture of the same caliber as the Best Picture winning Grand Hotel, but obviously there is no recipe book for making a great film. Just because the idea worked once, doesn’t mean it will work again.Back to Home for More Reviews