Dinner at Eight (1933)
Dinner at Eight (1933)

Genre: Dramatic Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 51 min.

Release Date: August 23rd, 1933 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: George Cukor Actors: Billie Burke, Lionel Barrymore, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, John Barrymore, Madge Evans, Lee Tracy, Edmund Lowe, Jean Hersholt, Karen Morley

 


 

P

erky, chirpy Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke) is ecstatic that she’s secured the esteemed Londoners Lord and Lady Ferncliffe as dinner guests for an upcoming Friday-night party. After all, everyone in New York will be envious of the catch. Ocean shipping company mogul and husband Oliver Jordan (Lionel Barrymore) dismisses them as stuffy elites, but if their presence elates his wife, so be it. Meanwhile, daughter Paula (Madge Evans) prepares for her looming wedding to Ernest (Phillips Holmes), though she appears less than enthusiastic and terribly distracted.

Former international actress Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler) stops by to visit Oliver, revealing to her longtime friend that she’s penniless, despite her illustrious career and her image of wealth. Worryingly, she wishes to liquidate her Jordan company stock, which would put Oliver in a tricky situation, considering the unfortunate timing and the ongoing economic turmoil. Prominent, noisy Oklahoman businessman Dan Packard (Wallace Beery) also stops in for a quick meeting with Oliver, failing to provide any confidence in backing the flagging company’s stability.

While Millicent can only think of entertaining guests and putting on a show of affluence, Oliver’s wellbeing takes a hit from the stress of his company’s financial predicaments. Just within the Jordan household, a disparate cross-section of social interests is scrutinized, demonstrating the varying concerns of high-class people – from keeping up appearances to contending with romantic conundrums. Packard’s wife, the vain, whiny, lazy, air-headed Kitty (Jean Harlow), presents yet another amusing viewpoint, here from a less upright couple, though no less prosperous. And as a last-minute substitution, burned-out, booze-loving actor Larry Renault (John Barrymore) receives an invite, bringing with him the complications of a revelatory affair. The one constant is that the pursuit of money far outweighs a respect for connubial fidelity.

“I know how many times you’ve been married.” “I’m still married!” The stage is set (adapted from Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman’s work on Sam H. Harris’ play) for a chaotic clash at the eight o’clock dinner. Curiously, the film is considered a comedy, yet the relationship entanglements weaving through the distraught characters are pointedly dramatic, if not cruelly bleak. Humor finds its way into conversations, but a screwball pacing is absent (the story moves carefully and unrushed) and there is no slapstick. Even though a few roles speak at a breakneck speed, the hallmarks of a typical comedy-of-manners rarely materialize. For the most part, “Dinner at Eight” is a serious, somewhat dour drama.

The film is patterned closely to “Grand Hotel,” what with its assemblage of stars and converging plotlines – and its Oscar-winning successes. The melodrama matches, too, gathering together a collection of largely unlikeable, unsympathetic people engaged in unpleasant activities, incessantly yelling about their woes or arguing over their differences. Audiences of the era may have been fascinated to see the inner workings of the upper crust – and perhaps overjoyed at their steadily deteriorating lives and relatable frailties – but these are painfully dull, generic ordeals. Plus, there’s a sadness surrounding the pervasive unfaithfulness and the bitter manipulation; these are deeply unhappy souls intent on destroying themselves and everyone around them. Of course, by the end, when the awkwardness comes to a head, they all get what they deserve – in an unexpectedly satisfying way. “I’m gonna be a lady if it kills me!”

– Mike Massie

  • 4/10