Ring a Ding Ding
I did not know going into Dinner at Eight just how depressing it was going to be. The presence of Jean Harlow and Billie Burke in particular among the all-star cast had me expecting a comedy, as it seems dinner-centered movies are apt to be. But the meal in this flick does not materialize until after the picture’s close, so the story instead follows the events that lead up to it.
Besides Burke’s character of Mrs. Millicent Jordan, who is the dinner’s hostess, none of the characters’ stories have anything to do with the affair, other than that they are all set to attend it. Set in the heart of the depression, we watch sadly as all suffer their personal disasters. Millicent’s husband Oliver, played by Lionel Barrymore, owns a shipping company that will cancel its first voyage because it carries too little cargo to be worthwhile. He has solicited the help of the prosperous Larry Packard (Wallace Beery) and asks him to hold some company stock until a loan can be repaid. Also in town from England is the down-and-out stage actress Carlotta (Marie Dressler), with whom Oliver was once in love and still admires. She holds some of the company stock and wants to unload it because of her own financial troubles, but Oliver begs her not to for fear of losing control of the firm.
Millicent has meanwhile invited Packard and his floozy wife Kitty (Harlow) to the dinner at her husband’s request and in needing to fill some empty seats. Kitty pounces on the opportunity to schmooze with classy people, while Packard only agrees because the dinner is being thrown for an influential English couple. Kitty is having an affair with a Dr. Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe) whose wife, we discover, knows of his indiscretions. The couple are also attending the meal. Lastly, the Jordan’s daughter Paula (Madge Evans) will be joined by her fiancée at the occasion but is secretly in love with an actor more than twice her age: John Barrymore‘s Larry Renault. This drunkard is trying to make a go at stage performing because the advent of sound has made him undesirable in Hollywood. He learns, however, that his career is essentially ended.
Although some of the characters’ affairs overlap, all their plights are separate. Despite a love for Larry being Paula’s trouble in the face of a forthcoming wedding, Larry’s problems are totally absent the girl. Possibly the only person not facing doom is Harlow as Kitty. She merely sees the dinner as a social step-ladder and she has not yet learned the doctor is returning his devotion to his wife. Kitty quarrels and physically fights with her husband but is confident that a cushy future awaits her.
Dinner at Eight did lend itself to three particular comedic moments. Just after Millicent learns the important English dinner guests will not be attending, daughter Paula tries to confess her decision to break the engagement for her actor lover and husband Oscar says he is not feeling well (he is dying) and wishes to rest as the others go to the theater. Millicent flies into a frenzy as she shouts about how no ones troubles are as bad as hers, given the aspic has been destroyed, one servant in jail the other in the hospital, and the guest list is now two people short of a traditional party. The other two laughs come from Harlow. Once at the party, the guests awkwardly speak about their like or dislike for Florida. Kitty says she cannot lay out in the sun because of sensitive skin and never exposes that skin then turns away from the camera displaying a totally bare back. Just prior to the film’s close, we get this exchange:
Kitty: I was reading a book the other day.
Carlotta: (Shocked, stopping in her steps) Reading a book??
Kitty: Yes. It’s all about civilization or something. A nutty kind of a book. Do you know that the guy says that machinery is going to take the place of every profession?
Carlotta: Oh, my dear. That’s something you need never worry about.
Carlotta’s suggestion is pretty blatant, and serves to end the movie on a positive note as all individuals funnel into the dining hall, laughing and in good spirits.
Dinner at Eight, based on George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s play, is such a tragic collection of stories that portray the various impacts of the Great Depression. Particularly, this story highlights the fall of successful and wealthy individuals who have never known dire straits. Although it is not a pick-me-up, Dinner at Eight offers fantastic performances by all involved. Of particular note are both Barrymores: Lionel as a gaunt, dying man and John as an arrogant alcoholic. Burke also lends occasional comedic relief as the energetic party planner and is most endearing.
- Dinner at Eight is set for 6 p.m. ET Nov. 9 on TCM.