Dinner at Eight (1933)

+++ Millicent Jordan is excited. She has landed a big catch for her next dinner invitation: a genuine British aristocrat and his wife. Now all she needs to do is to invite a number of people from her social circle to the same dinner, so that she can show off her prize guests. The small guest list comes together in bits and pieces. Dr Talbot and his wife, friends of the Jordans. Carlotta, a famous, ageing actress who is an old friend of Mr Jordan. Ernest, the fiancé of the Jordans’ daughter. Dan Packard, a newly-rich man Mr Jordan needs to impress. Kitty, Packard’s trophy wife. And finally Larry Renault, a washed-up former silent-movie star – because Mrs Jordan insists on evening out the numbers of male and female dinner guests.

What the Jordans do not realise is that many of their guests are actually connected to each other through overlapping relationships or interests. And as the date and time of the dinner draws closer, and as Millicent is trying to regain control as a flood of minor catastrophes threatens the success of her dinner, the film presents us a series of loosely connected scenes in which we witness the drama and the tragedy in the life of each of the guests. +++

I had never seen this George Cukor classic, even though I had the DVD lying around for years. And I must say this film is absolutely outstanding. The cast is very well chosen, and some of the performances are magnificent. But what intrigues me most is this interesting concept of working towards a dinner we are not going to witness, while almost exclusively presenting us those loosely connected scenes in the days and hours leading up to it – scenes which almost exclusively feature only two of the core characters at a time. This could very easily lead to a very disjointed story, or a very disorienting viewing experience. But the opposite is the case. And this might be the film’s greatest achievement. Somehow Cukor and his editor Ben Lewis managed to knit these pieces together into a whole that feels greater than the sum of its parts.

The core cast is slightly larger than you might normally see in a film, but not excessively large by any means. And the fact that all these characters get their own scenes and backstory means that the film can easily absorb this slightly larger number of characters.
All these core characters belong to the upper ranks of society, or are at least adjacent to them. But staying in these elevated positions is a constant struggle for some, as they all have their own issues and troubles that threaten their social standing. These troubles can be professional or financial, or they can be relationship troubles. But a lot of additional stress is caused by the fact that all the while they all have to save face and keep up appearances.

And here the other genius element of this film comes into play. While it is a social satire, or a merciless social study, and while it is full of personal drama and tragedy, this film manages to keep a comical tone almost throughout and to keep things on the light side. There is no tonal clash here, no dissonance, despite the huge chasm between the tragedy and the comedy in this film.

Again, this is thanks to the talents of the people involved, Cukor and Lewis. But I can’t judge how much we should also credit the writers of the original stage play, George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, as well as Frances Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz who adapted the screenplay.
It would be interesting to know how all those two-character vignettes worked on stage (if they existed) – at least the stage does not seem the ideal medium to jump from character to character over a course of days and hours.

While the creatives behind this film did a great job holding the tonal balance, the other big element of this film’s success is the outstanding cast. Lionel Barrymore and Billie Burke excel as the Jordans, as do Wallace Beery as Mr Packard and Marie Dressler as the aged Carlotta. Jean Harlow is an absolute force of nature as Kitty Packard; and there is, of course, John Barrymore, who – according to Cukor – forged his tragic character (the washed-up actor Renault) based on his and his relatives’ experiences in the business.
The list goes on: Madge Evans, Phillips Holmes, Edmund Lowe, Karen Morley, Louise Closser Hale, Grant Mitchell, Hilda Vaughn, Lee Tracy, May Robson, and Jean Hersholt.

I’ve rarely seen a film that seems to come so close to perfection. And the combination of comedy and heartbreak is impressive to witness. Dinner at Eight should be a fixture on any “recommended viewing” lists of classic films.

Rating: 8.5 to 9.0 out of 10

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