After the success of 1932’s all-star GRAND HOTEL, MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer kept his sharp eyes peeled for a follow-up vehicle. The answer came with DINNER AT EIGHT, based on the witty Broadway smash written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Mayer assigned his newest producer (and son-in-law) David O. Selznick, fresh from making hits at RKO, who in turn handed the director’s reigns to another MGM newcomer, George Cukor. Both would have long, prosperous careers there and elsewhere. Frances Marion and Herman Mankiewicz adapted the play to the screen for the studio with “more stars than there are in heaven”, and those stars truly shine in this film (in the interest of fairness, the stars will be presented to you alphabetically):
John Barrymore as Larry Renault
The Great Profile plays aging, alcoholic former silent star Larry Renault in a role that surely hit close to home. Barrymore’s star was certainly on the decline at this juncture of his career, yet he gives a magnificently poignant performance as an actor who doesn’t know (or doesn’t want to believe) he’s washed up. His ‘final solution’ scene is heartbreaking and will haunt you long after the final reel.
Lionel Barrymore as Oliver Jordan
Though Lionel’s part of the financially and physically ailing shipping magnate Jordan isn’t as flashy as brother John’s, he’s the film’s moral center, trying desperately to keep a stiff upper lip for his wife Millicent’s big social bash while suffering inside. Lionel’s been accused of sometimes overacting, but he definitely underplays it here. In fact, I’ve never seen him give a bad performance!
Wallace Beery as Dan Packard
Beery , on the other hand, frequently sliced the ham thick onscreen, and as the crude Packard, he mugs it up with the best of them. Whether berating Jordan’s offices (“Say, who put up this building – Peter Stuyvesant?”) or battling with his peroxide blonde wife Kitty (and we’ll get to HER later), Beery brings an overbearing, obnoxious presence to this dinner… just the way the part was written, and he’s a perfect fit!
Billie Burke as Millicent Jordan
Dithering Millicent is oblivious to everything going on around her except her precious dinner party, and nobody could’ve done justice to the role the way Burke does. The character would have been unsympathetic in lesser hands, but the veteran actress makes one feel sorry for her onscreen plight. Offscreen, Miss Burke’s real-life husband, Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, died before the film was competed, making her performance even more amazing, considering what she was going through.
Marie Dressler as Carlotta Vance
Out of all the cast of pros, Marie Dressler unquestionably steals the film as the down-on-her-luck former stage star Vance. Dressler is an absolute delight as the once celebrated Carlotta, now “flat as a mill pond, I haven’t got a sou”. She also gets off the best lines (“If there’s one thing I know, it’s men. I ought to, it’s been my life’s work”), including that now-classic final exchange with Kitty Packard, which features one of the greatest double-takes in movie history!
Jean Harlow as Kitty Packard
While John Barrymore was on his way down, Jean Harlow’s star was shooting skyward, and DINNER AT EIGHT is the film that put her over the moon. Vulgar Kitty makes her husband, the rough-hewn Dan, look like an English Lord, and she’s a total scream as the social climbing sexpot. Her battles with Beery are more than just acting – the two despised each other, despite MGM costarring them in three films together. Jean sparkles and shines as she bickers with Beery, and their dialog together is priceless. Of course, the final scene, where Kitty tells Carlotta, “I was reading a book the other day”, will live forever in the annals of great movie moments!
Madge Evans as Paula Jordan
She may not have been as big a name as the others, but Madge Evans, who made her film debut as a child way back in 1914, holds her own as the spoiled teenage daughter Paula Jordan, who’s having a clandestine torrid affair with Barrymore’s much older Larry Renault (the two appeared together on Broadway in 1917, when Madge was eight!). Evans played in several Pre-Codes, including THE GREEKS HAD A WORD FOR THEM, HALLEUJAH I’M A BUM, THE MAYOR OF HELL , and BEAUTY FOR SALE, as well as another all-star film, 1935’s DAVID COPPERFIELD, before retiring in 1939 after marrying playwright Sidney Kingsfield.
Edmund Lowe as Dr. Wayne Talbot
Paula Jordan’s not the only one fooling around in this picture, as Kitty Packard has taken up with her married physician Dr. Wayne Talbot, played by he-man Edmund Lowe , another veteran of the silent screen. Lowe was still a name in 1933, and though his part is secondary to all the commotion going on, he gives a dynamic performance as the philandering husband of Karen Morley – who’s part is even smaller!
Lee Tracy as Max Kane
Who else for the role of Renault’s fast-taking agent Max Kane than Hollywood’s fastest talker, Lee Tracy ! Tracy’s more subdued than usual as the agent desperately trying to get his has-been client a part in a play, but when he finally breaks down and tells Renault the truth, he lets him have it with both barrels, triggering the despondent actor’s tragic suicide.
There are other stars in minor roles, like Jean Hersholt’s producer Jo Stengel, Louise Closser Hale and Grant Withers as Millicent’s last-minute guests, and character actress Hilda Vaughn as Kitty’s avaricious maid Tina, and all get brief chances to shine. DINNER AT EIGHT is movie magic from start to finish, with enough going on to fill a dozen films! Those who have never seen it are missing not only one of the best Pre-Codes, but simply one of the best movies ever made, with a once-in-a-lifetime cast at their peak!
And now for that Famous Final Scene:
More in the “Pre-Code Confidential” Series:
LADY KILLER – KONGO – MAKE ME A STAR – THE MASK OF FU MANCHU – HOLLYWOOD PARTY – THE SECRET SIX – PLAY-GIRL – BABY FACE – BLONDE CRAZY – CLEOPATRA – THE MALTESE FALCON – DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE – FLESH – THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH – THE MAYOR OF HELL – RED DUST – BED OF ROSES – FIVE STAR FINAL – SHANGHAI EXPRESS – SAFE IN HELL – DIPLOMANIACS – GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE – BLONDE VENUS – THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE