Warner Home Video presents
Dinner at Eight (1933)
Kitty: I was reading a book the other day.
Carlotta (almost stumbling in disbelief): 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 (looking Kitty up and down): Oh my dear, that's something you need never worry about.- Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler
Stars: Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, Lionel Barrymore, Lee Tracy, Edmund Lowe, Billie Burke
Other Stars: Madge Evans, Jean Hersholt, Karen Morley, Phillips Holmes, May Robson, Louise Closser Hale
Director: George Cukor
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:50m:48s
Release Date: 2005-03-01
DVD ReviewThe all-star film was a new and exciting concept in the early 1930s, and after MGM wunderkind Irving Thalberg (who pioneered the format) hit pay dirt with Grand Hotel in 1932, he quickly began corralling personalities for a follow-up. It took awhile to find a suitable property, but the studio finally settled on Dinner at Eight, an adaptation of the George S. Kaufman-Edna Ferber Broadway hit about a group of disparate society folk invited to a posh dinner party. On its own, the play doesn't amount to much, but producer David O. Selznick cast it perfectly, and with Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, Lionel Barrymore, and Billie Burke chewing the scenery under George Cukor's fluid direction, Dinner at Eight becomes a polished, entertaining romp that effortlessly merges melodrama and social satire with high camp. And with apologies to Garbo, it's even grander than Grand Hotel.
A host of mini-dramas unfold—and ultimately intertwine—against the backdrop of an impending soirée thrown by shipping magnate Oliver Jordan (Lionel Barrymore) and his flighty, self-absorbed wife, Millicent (Burke). To Millicent, England's Lord and Lady Ferncliffe are without question the social season's most coveted catch, and after craftily securing the couple for dinner, she labors to build a splashy party around them. She hopes only the cream of New York society will attend, yet Oliver (who dismisses his nagging chest pain as "indigestion") throws a crimp in her plans by asking her to invite the visiting Carlotta Vance (Dressler), an eccentric grande dame actress for whom he long ago romantically pined, and crass, nouveau riche businessman Dan Packard (Beery), who secretly endeavors to take over Oliver's financially strapped company. Packard's guilty conscience tells him to decline Oliver's dinner invitation, but his "common" wife Kitty (Harlow) won't hear of it, as she's dying to mingle with and be accepted by the penthouse set.
Also on the guest list are alcoholic actor Larry Renault (John Barrymore), whose career hit the skids with the advent of talkies and who just happens to be carrying on a clandestine affair with Oliver and Millicent's engaged daughter, Paula (Madge Evans); and Dr. Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe), a serial adulterer who's beginning to tire of his latest diversion, the wanton Kitty Packard. Tangled webs, indeed.
Although the plot shows its age, Dinner at Eight is all about the performances, and there's not a dud in the bunch. With her rubbery face, double chins, and plus-size figure, it's hard to imagine 67-year-old Marie Dressler as one of the era's top box office stars, but to watch her is to fall in love. Few actresses get more mileage out of a line or look, or play comedy and pathos with equal aplomb, but Dressler always strikes just the right balance, and as the larger-than-life, slightly daffy Carlotta, she files one of her finest portrayals. Her priceless facial expressions steal every scene in which she appears, and though she grabs the lion's share of laughs (including the flat-out guffaws that always follow her immortal final remark—one of the most famous and quoted in movie history), she also exhibits a touching tenderness and compassion that helps give Dinner at Eight its heart. (Sadly, Dressler would die of cancer the following year, and Dinner at Eight marks her penultimate film appearance.)
Cukor once said John Barrymore had no vanity, and the legendary actor proves it with a brave performance that eerily foreshadows his own destiny. As the egotistical actor who lets booze and arrogance unravel his life (a definite forerunner to Norman Maine in A Star Is Born), Barrymore paints a sad portrait of a man on the skids clinging to the last vestiges of fame. His brother Lionel—minus the mannerisms that would later consume him—also impresses as the ailing Oliver, while Burke is an absolute delight as the dizzy, hopelessly stressed Millicent. Whether obsessing over the guest list, fretting about a ruined aspic, or having a conniption after a string of calamities, Burke so completely nails her screwball character she rarely was cast as anything else for the rest of her career.
Rumor has it Harlow and Beery detested each other, but their mutual disregard only enhances their portrayal of battling marrieds. Their dialogue crackles with insults and put-downs (Beery: Remember what I told you last week? Harlow: I don't remember what you told me a minute ago.), and in a no-holds-barred brawl, the two punctuate their rebukes with such poetic endearments as "you big gasbag!" (hers) and "you poisonous little rattlesnake!" (his). Few movie arguments can top theirs, and the pair's down-and-dirty sniping adds a welcome crudeness to the film's upper crust tone. A particularly memorable Harlow tirade unfolds thusly: "Who do you think you're talking to, that first wife of yours out in Montana? That poor, mealy-faced thing with a flat chest that didn't have nerve enough to talk up to you? Washing out your greasy overalls, and cooking and slaving in some lousy mining shack! No wonder she died!"
As the social-climbing tart who treats her maid like dirt, Harlow brings plenty of comic attitude to her portrayal, and more than holds her own with established pros like Beery and Dressler. And sewn into a skintight white satin dress—which perfectly matches her platinum hair—she's a sultry vision at the climactic dinner party. (Reportedly, the gown was so form-fitting, Harlow couldn't sit down between takes for fear of busting the seams, and had to recline against a specially constructed cushioned board in order to relax!) Beery is also at his blustery best, and seems to relish manhandling Harlow and calling her a "little piece of scum."
Cinematically, Dinner at Eight possesses minimal style, often employing a static camera to record the action, as if it were transpiring on stage. But what might seem like directorial apathy on the surface becomes an inspired choice by Cukor, who was smart enough to realize nothing should detract from his stars' potent magnetism. His understated technique marvelously exploits their aura, and allows us to savor every arched eyebrow, polite grimace, and broad double-take.
Few directors could handle such a plethora of egos, but Cukor thrived in the rarefied atmosphere and completed the film in an astonishing 24 days. Like a master chef, he manipulates all the ingredients, adjusts the seasoning, and turns Dinner at Eight into a deliciously satisfying, signature dish. Bon appétit!
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 - Full Frame|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: Dinner at Eight is 72 years old, but Warner's surprisingly clean and vibrant transfer shaves decades off its age. Sure, a number of specks and scratches are visible, but they're fewer and fainter than one initially expects. Ditto the grain, which is far less heavy than usual in films of this vintage; there's enough to maintain the film-like feel, but it never overwhelms the image. Blacks lack the depth and richness of more recent films, but there's enough variance in the gray scale to produce good contrast and clarity. While a full-scale restoration would have been a dream come true, Warner honors this classic movie with another superior effort, sure to delight its faithful following.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: It's practically impossible to erase all the surface defects that plague audio tracks from the early 1930s, but Warner does a good job masking Dinner at Eight's imperfections. Faint hiss remains a background staple, but it never intrudes on the action, nor do the errant pops and crackles that occasionally crop up. Voices sound a bit tinny (thanks to the primitive recording equipment), but the marvelous dialogue is always easy to comprehend, and no noticeable distortion could be detected.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 26 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
- Comedy short, Come to Dinner
Other studios rarely satirized their rival's product, but the runaway success of Dinner at Eight inspired a razor sharp parody called Come to Dinner, produced by Warner's Vitaphone division. The 22-minute short features an array of talented mimics impersonating the film's stars and spoofing various plot points. Jordan Shipping now makes toy boats instead of massive steamers, while Dan Packard's last name is changed to Chevrolet, Carlotta Vance becomes Carlotta Prance, and Larry Renault evolves into Larry Revolt, a particularly vain actor who—in a send-up of John Barrymore—forever favors his famous profile. The actors portraying Dressler, Lionel Barrymore, and Burke nail their respective idiosyncrasies and mannerisms, and obsessive Golden Age fanatics will notice a very young Clinton Sundberg—who more than a decade later would become a recognizable character actor in such films as Easter Parade, Annie Get Your Gun, and In the Good Old Summertime—as Revolt's fast-talking agent (played by Lee Tracy in Dinner at Eight). Though often silly, Come to Dinner is a fun novelty with a hilarious ending, and previews the slapstick old-movie parodies comedienne Carol Burnett would perfect on her 1960s and 70s variety show.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsAs sumptuous as a four-course feast, Dinner at Eight is a delectable comedy-drama featuring a gallery of icons hamming it up to the hilt. Stargazing has never been so much fun, as Dressler, Beery, Harlow, the Barrymores, and the rest of the MGM gang put the gold in Hollywood's Golden Age. Nothing can tarnish this antique gem, and Warner's marvelous transfer and fine extras pile on additional gilt. They certainly don't make 'em like this anymore, but Dinner at Eight makes us wish they did. Highly recommended.
David Krauss 2005-04-21