Dinner at Eight

Ring a Ding Ding

Dinner at Eight (1934)

     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.
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Piccadilly Jim

Ring a Ding Ding

Piccadilly Jim (1936)

     I was nearly jumping for joy last week upon discovering the movie Piccadilly Jim because not only does it star love-of-my-life Robert Montgomery but it is based on a P.G. Wodehouse story, an author I greatly admire and one capable of cute romance with an abundance of witty dialogue.

     Montgomery plays the title character whose real name is Jim Crocker. Piccadilly Jim is the pen name he uses for his political cartoons published in an English newspaper. Despite being American, Jim resides in England and enjoys a life of too much drinking and too little work. When his butler Bayliss, expertly played by Eric Blore, wakes Jim at the “crack of dusk”, he is informed his father is awaiting an audience with the party boy. The relationship between Jim and father James (Frank Morgan) is a comical reversal on the typical father-son set-up. James is there to ask for his son’s help/approval in marrying a woman. Because this father –a Shakespearean actor who continually has his quotes completed by Bayliss– is less well off than his son, he needs the financial and phony prestige his son presents to convince his girlfriend’s sister that he is a decent mate who can put up a dowry.

     The woman in question Eugenia, played by Billie Burke –for those Wizard of Oz fans, you will note this is a coupling of Glinda and the Wizard– and her sister’s family is a set of wealthy Americans who made their millions through a process to turn cloth scraps back into standard material. The meeting between Eugenia’s family, the Petts, and Jim does not go over well, however. Not only is he late, but they discover that despite James’ description of his son as a serious artist, he is in fact a lowly cartoonist. Not only that, but he has been fired from his job.

     What ultimately results in the Pett’s  rejection of James as a suitable husband leads Jim to develop a comic strip based on the family called “Rags to Riches” and makes fools out of the Petts, or Richwitches as they are known in the strip. The family is oblivious, however, because they are back in the U.S. and the comic runs only in England.

     While all the father drama is occurring, Jim has spotted a beautiful American girl who happens to be seeing a Lord Priory (Ralph Forbes), but that does nothing to dampen Jim’s determination to land her. The girl, Ann (Madge Evans), is willing to accept the man’s advances, but is devoted to her current beau. Jim spends several months frequenting the places he had seen Ann and does not learn until months later she had been in America, but is back in town again. The trouble is, Ann is niece to the Petts and that family’s return to England has brought with it many a jeering and cackling onlooker who recognizes the family as the Richwitches. Jim manages to conceal from Ann that he is Piccadilly Jim as he spends the remainder of the story trying to woo her away from a profitable but loveless marriage to Priory.

     My only complaint about Piccadilly Jim is that it did not contain enough of the Wodehouse-esqe dialogue I would expect from one of his stories. Every now and then I could spot a fast-paced or otherwise dryly hilarious string of phrases, but otherwise it did not necessarily feel like his type of story. What I did enjoy immensely was seeing Montgomery in a romantic role again. It seems I have subjected myself mainly to his war and otherwise nonsexual roles as of late. The romantic plot is certainly very adorable and is the rare time Montgomery plays a man genuinely in love, rather than a cad looking for another fling.

     The story on the whole is full of laughs. Eric Blore, who often plays a servant or other nervous character, was perfect as the butler, and Frank Morgan garnered the usual laughs, especially as he masquerades as a Russian count. The Pett family also has a young boy, Ogden (Tommy Bupp), who spews nonstop snarky lines, trips unsuspecting strangers, and draws mustaches on marble busts and antique portraits. I had a lot of fun with Piccadilly Jim  and highly recommend it.

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