Pre Code Confidential #25: The Stars Are Out for a Delicious DINNER AT EIGHT (MGM 1933)

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

Cleaning Out the DVR #20: ALL-STAR PRE-CODE LADIES EDITION!



I know all of you, like me, will be watching tonight’s 89th annual Major League Baseball All-Star G
ame, and… wait, what’s that? You say you WON’T be watching the All-Star Game? You have no interest in baseball? Heretics!! But I understand, I really do, and for you non-baseball enthusiasts I’ve assembled a quartet of Pre-Code films to view as an alternative, starring some of the era’s most fabulous females. While I watch the game, you can hunt down and enjoy the following four films celebrating the ladies of Pre-Code:

DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON (Paramount 1931; D: Lloyd Corrigan) – Exotic Anna May Wong stars as Princess Ling Moy, an “Oriental dancer” and daughter of the infamous Dr. Fu Manchu (Warner Oland)! When Fu dies, Ling Moy takes up the mantle of vengeance against the Petrie family, tasked with killing surviving son Ronald. Sessue Hayakawa (BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) plays Chinese detective Ah Kee, assigned to Scotland Yard to track down the last of Fu’s organization, who falls in love with Ling Moy. This was the last of a trilogy of films in which Oland portrays the fiendish Fu (1929’s THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCH, 1930’s TH RETURN OF FU MANCHU), and though he perishes early on, honorable daughter Wong is just as devious as dear old dad! Director Corrigan and cinematographer Victor Milner do some interesting work with shadows and light, overhead shots, and camera angles; though Corrigan is best remembered today as a character actor, he directed 12 features (and one short) between 1930 and 1937, and is quite good behind the camera. A film that’s structured like a serial, with secret passageways, sadistic tortures, and definite horror undertones, fans of Anna May Wong won’t want to miss it. Fun Fact: Bramwell Fletcher, who plays Ronald, was the actor who “died laughing” in 1932’s THE MUMMY .


MILLIE (RKO 1931; D: John Francis Dillon) – For a brief, shining moment in the early 1930’s, sad-eyed beauty Helen Twelvetrees was one of the Pre-Code Era’s most popular stars, gaining fame in a series of “women’s weepies”. MILLIE was my first chance to see this actress I’d heard so much about, and she excels as Millie Blake, who we first meet as an innocent college girl who marries rich Jack Maitland (Robert Ames), has a child, then discovers he’s a cheating cad. Getting a divorce (and giving up custody in the process), Millie’s next beau also turns out to be a two-timer, causing her to declare her independence from men and become a wild party girl. Years pass, and her now 16 year old daughter (Anita Louise) is almost compromised by one of Millie’s ex-lovers (John Halliday ), whom Mama Bear Millie shoots, leading to a scandalous trial. Joan Blondell and Lilyan Tashman are on hand as Millie’s golddigging pals (see picture above), and director John Francis Dillon knew his soapy stuff, having also guided Pre-Code ladies Ann Harding (GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST), Evelyn Brent (THE PAGAN LADY), and Clara Bow (CALL HER SAVAGE). MILLIE’s a bit dated (okay, more than a bit) and slow going in places, but Miss Twelvetrees made it all worthwhile. Fun Fact: Edward LeSaint plays the judge, and made a career out of magistrate roles; Three Stooges fans will recognize him from their 1934 short DISORDER IN THE COURT.

THE STRANGE LOVE OF MOLLY LOUVAIN (Warner Brothers 1932; D: Michael Curtiz ) – “I’m a pretty bad egg”, says Molly, but Ann Dvorak (SCARFACE, THREE ON A MATCH, HEAT LIGHTNING) is a pretty good actress, starring as poor working girl Molly, who gets pregnant and jilted, gives up her child, and hits the road with small-time crook Leslie Fenton. She leaves the bum to work in a dance hall, encountering naïve young Richard Cromwell. Fenton shows up, steals a car, kills a cop, gets shot himself, and Molly and the starry-eyed kid take it on the lam. Dubbed “the beautiful brunette bandit” by the press, Molly dyes her hair blonde, and the pair lay low… until fast-talking reporter Lee Tracy makes his appearance! There’s great chemistry between Dvorak and Tracy in this racy, double entendree-laden little movie, with a dynamite twist ending I did not see coming. It’s also packed with Familiar Faces: Ben Alexander, Louise Beavers, Richard Cramer, Guy Kibbee , Hank Mann, Frank McHugh , Charles Middleton, and Snub Pollard all pop up in small roles. This lightning-paced entry is an unjustly neglected Pre-Code gem that deserves a larger audience! Fun Fact: A newspaper headline misspells Molly’s last name as “Louvaine”.

SMARTY (Warner Brothers 1934; D: Robert Florey ) – Queen of Pre-Code Joan Blondell is back, and therapists would have a field day with her character of Vicki, a manipulative minx who equates being hit with being loved. Before you jump out of your skin, this is a romantic comedy – now you can jump! S& M overtones abound, and sexual innuendoes fly freely, as Joan’s incessant teasing of hubby Warren William (including a reference to “diced carrots”, obviously a penis size dig) leads him to slapping her face at a bridge party, and Joan winding up married to her divorce lawyer, Edward Everett Horton , who she also tortures into smacking her – but it’s a ploy to get back together with Warren! The censors must’ve been apoplectic viewing SMARTY, one of the last films in the Pre-Code cycle, as Joan also appears in various stages of undress, a voyeur’s delight. Despite the kinky subject matter, the movie is quite funny, with solid support from Claire Dodd, Frank McHugh, and Leonard Carey. Let me be clear: hitting women is NOT funny, but you’re doing yourself a disservice in letting that stop you from watching this outrageous screwball comedy. Fun Fact: Look fast for Dennis O’Keefe in one of his early, uncredited parts as a nightclub patron.

Pre Code Confidential #14: THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH (RKO 1932)

Director Gregory LaCava is remembered today mainly for a pair of bona fide classics: MY MAN GODFREY and STAGE DOOR. LaCava, who started his career in early silent animation, was also responsible for THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH, a Pre-Code screwball comedy begging to be rediscovered. It’s a crazy, innovative, pedal-to-the-metal farce headlined by fast-talking Lee Tracy and “Mexican Spitfire” Lupe Velez as a pair of carny con artists who work their way up to The Great White Way in grand comic style.

Tracy does his rapid-fire spieling schtick as a carnival barker promoting hot-tempered tamale Lupe, a hootchie dancer who spends most of the movie wearing next to nothing. Together with pal Eugene Pallette , they leave the carny life behind (with the law on their tails!) and head for Broadway, where Lee promises Lupe he’ll make her a star. The trio pawn Lupe off as Turkish Princess Exotica (with Tracy pawning off an unwitting Pallette as a eunuch!), and set their sights on Broadway impresario Merle Farrell, played to perfection by the perpetually befuddled Frank Morgan. Tracy’s promotional stunt includes importing a lion named Stamboli straight from Coney Island!

Soon hustler Tracy has Lupe under contract to Merle Farrell’s Follies, where the former hootchie becomes a Broadway sensation singing and dancing to the double entendre laden “The Carpenter Song”. She then dumps the loquacious Lee for old goat Morgan, causing him to promote a new find, hotel maid Gladys, redubbing her Eve, Queen of the Nudists! The hustling huckster also manages to snap a photo of Morgan and Lupe in a compromising situation, which he proceeds to plaster all over the producer’s office. Morgan’s no fool, so Lupe gets dumped, and Eve gets her follies spot. Lee misses his spicy little enchilada though, and a riotous scene finds every noise he hears reminding him of “The Carpenter Song”. The unhappy Tracy decides to chuck it all and return to carny life, where he finds his pal Pallette running the old show, and little Latin Lupe doing her hootchie thing once again. And they lived happily ever after!

Lee and Lupe make a great screen team, their styles meshing perfectly amidst all the zaniness going on here. Morgan and Pallette’s comic talents add to the merriment, and Shirley Chambers’ dumb blonde turn as Gladys/Eve holds her own with the star quartet. Franklin Pangborn is on hand as (what else?) the hotel manager, and “Queen of the Extras” Bess Flowers has a larger than usual part playing Tracy’s secretary. Max Steiner contributes the music, and even appears as the conductor at the Follies! We also get Teresa Harris (Barbara Stanwyck’s BABY FACE companion) in a brief bit as Lupe’s maid.

LaCava and Corey Ford’s screenplay is full of sharp, sparkling dialog, off the wall comedy situations, and blazing banter between Lee and Lupe. THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH is a Pre-Code delight, a forgotten little gem waiting to be savored by movie buffs. So what are you waiting for – go find it!

Read more “Pre-Code Confidential”!

LADY KILLER (1933)

KONGO (1932)

MAKE ME A STAR (1932)

THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932)

HOLLYWOOD PARTY (1934)

THE SECRET SIX (1931)

PLAY-GIRL (1932)

BABY FACE (1932)

BLONDE CRAZY (1931)

CLEOPATRA (1934)

THE MALTESE FALCON (1931)

DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE (1931)

FLESH (1932)

Remembering Lionel Atwill: DOCTOR X (1932) and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933)

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When film fans think of their Mount Rushmore of horror stars, a few names immediately come to mind. Boris Karloff. Bela Lugosi. Lon Chaney (Sr & Jr). Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee. One name usually omitted is Lionel Atwill. Which is a shame, because the actor was front and center at the beginning of the horror cycle of the 1930s. While hard-core horror buffs certainly know his work, Atwill is best remembered today for his supporting role as the wooden-armed Inspector Krough in 1939’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. But at the dawn of the Golden Age of Horror, Lionel Atwill starred in two of the earliest fright classics, both produced by Warner Brothers: DOCTOR X and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM.

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DOCTOR X is more along the lines of an “old dark house” mystery, with dashes of the new horror genre added for extra spice. Dr. Xavier (Atwill) is called in by the police in the matter of the “Moon Killer” murders, involving a cannibalistic madman. The cops say these murders could only be caused by a special scalpel used at Xavier’s academy. The doctor, worried about bringing bad publicity to his research, asks for 48 hours to investigate on his own. Meanwhile, nosy reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) is snooping around trying to get a sensationalistic scoop. We’re introduced to Xavier’s faculty, and they’re an odd lot indeed: one-handed Dr. Wells (Preston Foster) is an expert on cannibalism, Dr. Haines (John Wray) a brain surgeon once shipwrecked in Tahiti under mysterious circumstances, and Drs. Duke and Rowitz (Harry Beresford, Arthur Edmund Carewe), studiers of astronomy. Taylor goes to Xavier’s estate to dig up some info, where he’s thrown out by Xavier’s lovely daughter Joanne (scream queen Fay Wray). He manages to find out Xavier is bringing his faculty out to Cliff Shoales manor, and follows along.

Continue reading “Remembering Lionel Atwill: DOCTOR X (1932) and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933)”

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