Dinner at Eight [1933]

Director: George Cukor
Stars: Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, Lionel Barrymore
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Runtime: 111 minutes

MGM originally promoted Dinner at Eight by touting the "all-star cast," but this is no run-of-the-mill omnibus picture. On the contrary, rather than cramming as many big names as possible into a lumbering vehicle, the movie's impeccably crafted script (by Edna Ferber and Herman J. Mankiewicz) and direction (by George Cukor) gave some immortal screen luminaries a chance to shine. For sheer bravery, John Barrymore's achingly poignant performance as Larry Renault, a washed-up matinee idol who has "outlived everything but his vanity," is unmatched. Barrymore's brother, Lionel, is equally touching as shipping magnate Oliver Jordan. Oliver vainly tries to save his family's century-old firm, at the same time hiding his financial and health troubles from his wife, Millicent, played to hysterical perfection by Billie Burke. The Great Depression is presented in microcosm as Millicent frets about throwing the ultimate society dinner, oblivious to the world tumbling down around her. She is forced to invite to her precious party such undesirables as crass financier Dan Packard ("He smells Oklahoma!"). Even worse in Millicent's eyes than Packard (Wallace Beery, doing an impressive steamroller imitation) is his social-climbing wife, Kitty (Jean Harlow, never funnier than she is here, malingering in bed gobbling chocolates, or braying at her husband: "I'm gonna be a lady if it kills me!"). Be sure to watch for Harlow's brief encounter with Marie Dressler, who brings an extraordinary winking wisdom to the role of aging star Carlotta Vance. As the two enter the dining room in the film's final scene, Harlow makes an offhand remark that elicits from Dressler one of the great screen double takes of all time. Like so much of Dinner At Eight, the moment is priceless. --Laura Mirsky

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