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Millicent Jordan is pre-occupied with the plans she is making for a high-class dinner party. Her husband Oliver is in failing health, and he is also worried because someone is trying to buy up the stock in his shipping business - even his old friend Carlotta wants to sell her stock. Hoping to get help from businessman Dan Packard, he persuades Millicent, against her wishes, to invite Packard and his wife to the dinner. As Oliver's problems get worse, Millicent is increasingly quick-tempered because the plans for the party are not going smoothly. As the time for the dinner approaches, it appears that the hosts and the guests will all have plenty on their minds. Written by
DINNER AT EIGHT (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1933), directed by George Cukor, MGM's second attempt with an all-star production following the success to GRAND HOTEL (1932), is a remarkable as well as memorable movie that has benefited from repeated viewings over the past years. As with GRAND HOTEL, DINNER AT EIGHT was adapted from a stage play (by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber), and reunites some of its GRAND HOTEL performers, including John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery and Jean Hersholt. Unlike GRAND HOTEL, DINNER AT EIGHT is one of the best movies ever assembled to not receive a single Academy Award nomination. Even though it would be difficult to pinpoint which of the major stars might have been worthy of that honor, a Best Picture nominee would have spoken for the entire cast. In the usual manner of all star productions, of the major leads, all introduced with each face framed in a dinner plate, the one whose name comes first is the one with either the least amount of screen time or the one whose character enters late into the story. The star in question is Marie Dressler, a top-name at the time, leaving a big impression with her limited performance, and yet, it is Billie Burke as Millicent Jordan whose presence is felt throughout mainly because it's her dinner party.
The story begins with Millicent Jordan (Burke) a New York social wife, announcing her upcoming dinner party she's arranging for Lord and Lady Ferncliffe, and the people she intends to invite. As with the stage production, the movie plays out in numerous acts: (a) "The Jordan Home": Introductory scenes focusing on Millicent (Burke), her husband Oliver (Lionel Barrymore), head of a declining shipping company, and their troubled daughter, Paula (Madge Evans); (b) "At the Office": Oliver is visited by once acclaimed stage actress Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), with whom he had loved in his youth, as well as one of the invited guests; and Dan Packard (Wallace Beery), a middle-aged promoter whom Oliver hopes could save him from his financial difficulties; (c) "The Battling Packards": As a favor to Oliver, Millicent reluctantly telephones Kitty (Jean Harlow) and invites the low-life couple to her dinner. Kitty, spoiled and lazy, wants nothing more than to break into society and meet the right kind of people. Being home all day doing nothing, Kitty secretly carries on a love affair with her family doctor, Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe), while her husband goes away on business, a secret known only by Kitty's maid (Hilda Vaughn); (d) "The Matinée Idol": In need of an extra dinner guest, Millicent invites matinée idol Larry Renault (John Barrymore), a friend of the family in town staying at the Versailles Hotel. Unknown to Millicent, her engaged daughter Paula is secretly Renault's mistress; (e) "Dr. Talbot's Domestic Problems": Scene involves Kitty's doctor and his illicit affairs with his patients, as discussed between him and his understanding wife (Karen Morley). which concludes with a visit from gravely ill Oliver who is diagnosed with heart disease; (f) "Back to the Jordan Home": While Millicent is interacted between scenes involving the dinner guests, this segment involves Millicent's own domestic problems with her hired help as well as the news about her guests of honor departing for Florida, leaving Millicent to locate substitutes as the guests of honor; (g) "Final Showdown for the Packards": In their home getting ready for the function, Dan and Kitty come to a showdown revealing how they actually feel about one other, with all their secrets coming out; (h) "Renault's Tragic Performance": Renault turns down the one act part as a beachcomber in a forthcoming play offered to him by an important producer (Jean Hersholt). Believing he is still important to the theater, Renault's trying and upset agent (Lee Tracy) brings the drunken actor to reality by telling him his career has ended long ago. Later, after the management asks him to leave the hotel, Renault agrees, thus, giving his one last "performance" to take place in the room; (i) "Dinner at Eight" The gathering of all the party guests at the Jordan home, with some resolutions resolved, concluding with the most celebrated exchange between Carlotta and Kitty.
Categorized as a comedy, with the exception of some cleverly written dialog, DINNER AT EIGHT is anything but a comedy. In truth, it's actually a stylish dramatic story centering upon the troublesome lives of Millicent Jordan and chapters involving her invited guests. The most interesting, as well as tragic, is John Barrymore's as Larry Renault, and how his character closely foreshadows his own life, as a habitual drinker, a fading actor with ex-wives, now in financial ruin. He is even addressed to as "The Great Profile" by his agent (Tracy). What's even more ironic is that Marie Dressler and Jean Harlow, who closing scene is classic, each would be dead not long after the release DINNER AT EIGHT, leaving their legacies behind them. Besides the leading players, others in support include Phillips Holmes, Louise Closser Hale, May Robson, Grant Mitchell and Elizabeth Patterson, all giving capable performances under Cukor's excellent direction. No underscoring whatsoever, with the exception of "I Kiss Your Hand, Madame," which is themed during the opening credits, and orchestra playing at the final minutes of the function, DINNER AT EIGHT appears to be a motion picture that has surpassed the 1932 Broadway play.
Distributed on video cassette as far back at the 1980s, and later on DVD, DINNER AT EIGHT, which makes a good double bill along with GRAND HOTEL, frequently plays on Turner Classic Movies. While there has been a 1989 made-for-television remake which premiered on Turner Network Television, with everything brought up to date, the main course on the menu today continues to be the unsurpassed 1933 appetizer. (****)
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