George Cukor’s Dinner at Eight is one of those classic comedy-dramas that most everyone has seen clips from even if he hasn’t seen the entire film, but one owes it to himself to experience the entire delightful show.
The Production: 4.5/5
Having filmed a hit Broadway play Grand Hotel in 1932 with an all-star cast, made a king’s ransom of profits, and earned a Best Picture Oscar to boot, MGM decided to repeat their profitable experiment the next year with another hit play, this time George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s Dinner at Eight. The result? No Oscar for their trophy shelf this time but another all-star line-up that delivered another huge hit that not only kept reigning number one box-office star Marie Dressler at the top of the heap but also allowed Wallace Beery to maintain his top ten status and brought rising star Jean Harlow into the hallowed top ten as well. As with Grand Hotel, Dinner at Eight presents a series of dramatic vignettes involving a collection of people who are all to meet for dinner and plays out their individual stories with tinges of comedy around the edges to soften the melodramatic stretches that affect nearly all of the upper crust characters trying to keep their heads above water in the depths of the Great Depression.
Shipping magnate Oliver Jordan (Lionel Barrymore) is facing financial hardships with his fading steamship line just ripe for unscrupulous entrepreneur Dan Packard (Wallace Beery) to buy up the majority of shares in the company. Oliver begs retired stage legend Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler) to hold onto her stock so he won’t lose his majority, but she’s in dire need of money and is finding it hard to resist the generous offers for her shares. Jordan’s business crises have also weakened his heart putting his health in a precarious state, and his family doctor (Edmund Lowe), who just so happens to be having an affair with Packard’s gorgeous if unrefined wife Kitty (Jean Harlow), is doing all he can to keep Jordan from a heart attack. Jordan’s fluttery wife (Billie Burke) is anxious to score society points by inviting some of New York’s finest including one-time matinee idol Larry Renault (John Barrymore) for a Friday night dinner at eight to meet the ritzy British aristocratic Ferncliffes, so Oliver has her invite the Packards in an attempt to win the dirty dealer over to his side not knowing that all of the guests she has invited are dealing with personal problems which could bring them all to their knees.
The original stage play has been streamlined by screenwriters Frances Marion, Herman J. Mankiewicz, and Donald Ogden Stewart into a tight 111-minute running time (the original play was a more Upstairs/Downstairs event with the servants’ stories all but eliminated here). George Cukor has directed the individual vignettes almost as little playlets tied together by all of the characters knowing they’ll be attending the climactic dinner party in a week’s time. Paramount among the human interest stories is the somber examination of one-time screen idol Larry Renault now down-on-his-luck reduced to pawning his cufflinks and silver picture frames for liquor money and the domestic back alley brawl between the battling Packards: loud-mouthed, ambitious Kitty determined to enter into high society and calculating vulgarian Dan who’s interested in a career in politics and who doesn’t care whom he has to step on to get there. Other subplots involving the Jordans’ daughter Paula (Madge Evans) having a secret affair with Renault without her fiancé (Phillips Holmes) knowing and the doctor’s affair with Kitty Packard anything but secret from his long-suffering wife Lucy (Karen Morley) don’t get quite the development they deserve, but the antics of Carlotta, Kitty and her maid (Anna Duncan), and Billie Burke’s endlessly flustered hostess Millicent Jordan are fine recompenses.
Upon release, Marie Dressler and Jean Harlow received the lion’s share of praise for their performances: Dressler for stepping up in class to play something other than a slattern and yet retain her humor and Harlow for milking every bit of humor and pathos out of her birdbrained social climber. In retrospect, however, it’s John Barrymore’s portrait of Larry Renault which is by far the most haunting performance in the piece. Though few knew it at the time, Barrymore was basically playing himself: a stage and screen idol who was drinking his life away and would soon be reduced to supporting roles and then nothing but parodies of himself to earn drinking money. It’s a somber, harrowing portrayal of a dipsomaniac which Cukor films tellingly, right down to the slow push-in on the actor’s famous profile in his final moments. Lee Tracy has some very good moments as Renault’s dedicated agent while Lionel Barrymore plays the enfeebled businessman with canny restraint. You’ll never forget Billie Burke’s hilarious anguish about losing her aspic for dinner nor cook May Robson’s exasperation about its demolition. In smaller roles, Grant Mitchell and Louise Closser Hale make hilarious dinner replacements for some missing guests, and Elizabeth Patterson as Oliver’s secretary has a wonderful early scene with Marie Dressler that the two experienced character actresses obviously relish.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 is faithfully retained in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. The image is sharp as a tack, all the better to see the lush, detailed sets and Adrian costumes in all of their black and white glory. Contrast has been expertly applied for a beautiful viewing experience, and the entire image is free from any age-related scratches, splices, dirt, or spots. The movie has been divided into 27 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix is typical of its era. Dialogue has been recorded expertly and has been mixed with William Axt’s background music and the various sound effects for a first-rate listening experience. There are no age-related anomalies like hiss, crackle, flutter, or pops to ruin the aural presentation.
Special Features: 2.5/5
Harlow: The Blonde Bombshell (47:01, SD): excellent overview of the life and career of Jean Harlow hosted by Sharon Stone.
Come to Dinner (SD): clever 1933 satire of the film with unknown actors doing a fine job impersonating Dressler, Harlow, John Barrymore, Burke, and Beery.
Theatrical Trailer (3:01, HD)
George Cukor’s Dinner at Eight is one of those classic comedy-dramas that most everyone has seen clips from even if he hasn’t seen the entire film, but one owes it to himself to experience the entire delightful show presented in exquisite video and audio quality in the new Warner Archive Blu-ray. Highly recommended!
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