Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Worth Watching: Dinner at Eight (1933)

Title: Dinner at Eight
Director: George Cukor
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

Dinner at Eight is set among upper class Manhattanites during the Great Depression and ends with a dinner party that's not as important as it's made out to be. The substance of the movie is the build-up to the party: the people on the guest list and the comedy and drama of their lives. As the movie unfolds, you wonder who will show up at the end, and in what state (disillusioned, heartbroken, morose, contented). Who will live and who will die? In the movie some characters suffer setbacks, others double-cross their rivals, and a few make peace with their lives. Private, sordid tragedies are gilded with witty remarks and sharp humor.

Most of the characters in this ensemble movie are memorable, in part because of the well-written screenplay but also because of the quality of the actors. Even the ones in the smaller roles shine, like the maid, Tina, played by Hilda Vaughn, who maintains an appearance of regal boredom while blackmailing her equally sneaky employer, Kitty Packard (Jean Harlow).

Jean Harlow alone is a great reason to watch Dinner at Eight, as she plays the kittenish Kitty, who conducts her day-to-day affairs from her bed. Harlow is funny and makes an art form out of lounging around in satin. Though Kitty is an ignorant person in some ways, she's not to be underestimated, as her husband, Dan (Wallace Beery), finds out. Dan isn't such a stellar guy himself - a coarse and unscrupulous businessman who steamrolls people in pursuit of his ambitions. The Packards' antagonistic marriage is one of the most entertaining parts of the movie, mostly because they deserve each other. Their spats are ridiculous and ugly as each tries to get the upper hand over the other.

Both Lionel Barrymore and his younger brother, John, are in this movie, with Lionel playing a more gray and enervated character, Oliver Jordan, whose business is failing along with his heart. John's character, the washed-up film star, Larry Renault, is a more striking figure. Renault used to be famous, more for his handsome profile than for his acting talent, and in the darkest scene in Dinner at Eight he hits rock bottom. It's one of the most brutal depictions of self-sabotage, despair and self-loathing I've seen so far in movies (the brief helpless sobbing noise John Barrymore makes is haunting). But even at the end of that scene there's a faint touch of humor, as he adjusts himself so that his beautiful profile is facing the door.

In a way those who make it to the dinner at the end are survivors. The character who's probably best at surviving is Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), an esteemed stage actress who has weathered fame, shifting fortunes, and numerous male admirers and reached an advanced age where her looks have faded but her strength of mind has not; she's not as self-deluded as some of the other characters. Dressler has a fascinating face, especially her eyes, which sometimes seem to be staring at horrors only she can see. Carlotta's charm and sense of humor keep her afloat, and I love how Dressler delivers her lines, which are among the funniest in the movie; the last word in Dinner at Eight belongs to her.

Carlotta is also a good example of how the characters' lives are interwoven in the movie. She's Oliver Jordan's former love interest and current friend, welcomed by him with sweet happiness no matter what else is going on in his life. She's friendly with his snobbish wife, Millicent (Billie Burke - "Glinda the Good" in The Wizard of Oz), who's throwing the big dinner party. And at one point she becomes the confidante and advisor of his daughter, Paula (Madge Evans), when the young woman desperately needs some guidance.

Dinner parties are great scenarios because of everything that lurks beneath the polite formalities. Appearances must be maintained, and people who despise each other shake hands, embrace and pretend they're friends. People who are crushed have to swallow their pain and look untroubled. In this wonderful movie there isn't a single personal secret that's fully a secret; however none of the guests knows everything about the others. Like all people, they act on a mix of imperfect knowledge and obliviousness.