Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Dinner at Eight


This is one of my favorite social comedies. It’s based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, screenplay by Frances Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz (who wrote Citizen Kane, no matter what Orson Welles might tell you), directed by the legendary George Cukor. It reminds me of Grand Hotel from the previous year, in that it takes a series of intersecting lives, telling several stories all bound together by, in the first case, living in the same hotel, and in this one, attending a formal dinner. When I first saw it I was waiting anxiously for the dinner itself, thinking it would a doozy of a disaster. But we never see it. The last scene is of the people going into the dining room. And I realized we didn’t need to see it; we all knew how it would go.
As in Grand Hotel, the idea was to assemble a huge cast of the best and most famous actors in Hollywood, and give them great parts to inhabit. That was unusual at the time, when the ideal cast was one big male star, a love interest, and supporting players. But when you can put names like John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, Billie Burke, and Marie Dressler on the marquee, people will come to see it. It all revolves around a dinner party being held by Billie Burke, an aging flibbertigibbet who can see nothing other than her social whirl, is completely blind to where all the money comes from, and blissfully unaware that her husband, Lionel B., is losing his shipping line and dying, or that her daughter is breaking up with her fiancée because she is in love with a washed-up, alcoholic actor, John B. “You think you have problems, with your silly business deals?” she shrieks. “The maid dropped the aspic, the butler is in jail, and Lord and Lady Ferncliffe are not coming! It’s the worst day of my life!” She has no idea that much worse days are soon to come.
Then there are crass millionaire Beery and his hard-as-nails platinum blonde (guess who?), who bicker all day and night and cordially hate each other, but can’t get along without each other because each knows how to destroy the other one.

The best story of them all is John Barrymore, in a brave and poignant part. Brave, because the story of this has-been is so close to his own story. (Twice his “great profile” is mentioned; in real life he was always known as The Great Profile.) He was on the steep downhill slope of alcoholism, unable to perform like he used to except for this, a sort of last hurrah. The actor is humiliated in many ways, reminded of his former greatness, and at last can’t take it anymore. (Maybe he could do the part so well because he knew how it all felt.) He doesn’t show up at the dinner because of a previous engagement with a gas pipe. R.I.P.

But the best of the bunch is Marie Dressler. I adore her. She may have been the best comic actress of her time, though she could do drama, too. She did two great films with Wallace Beery, Min and Bill (where she won the Oscar) and Tugboat Annie. Physically, she had an unfortunate resemblance to Winston Churchill, but her face was so mobile it might have been made of Silly Putty. She could have played the fat lady in any opera. She would heave into a scene like a ship under full sail. In this one she is wrapped in so many minks with the heads still on she might be a fur trader. Her character, Carlotta, was a grand actress in her time, but like so many, she’s lost most of her money in bad investments hurt by the Depression. She is able to be perfectly polite in her responses to someone, and yet her face tells you she is thinking exactly the opposite of what she’s saying. (She would be dead within a year of this film.)

She and Harlow have the last scene, and she has one of the greatest last lines in cinema. She has already taken the measure of Harlow, the brassy opportunist, knows Harlow is sly and street-smart, but hardly educated, and they are walking together into the dining room:

Harlow: I was reading a book the other day.
(Dressler almost stumbles at the fantastic idea of Harlow reading a book, but recovers.)
Dressler: Reading a book?
Harlow: Yeah, it’s all about civilization or something. A nutty kind of book. Do you know, the guy says machinery is going to take the place of every profession?
Dressler: My dear, that is something you need never worry about.

Dialogue doesn’t get much better than that.