April 9, 2019

Dinner at Eight (1933)
Grade: 64/100

Director: George Cukor
Stars: John Barrymore, Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler

What it's about. Grand Hotel was the ensemble film of the year (1932) for MGM. It made a mountain of money for the studio, and won the Oscar for Best Picture. The following year, MGM naturally tried to replicate their success with Dinner at Eight.

Ostensibly, the two movies have no characters in common, but share four actors. In both films, Beery is a dislikable businessman, and Lionel Barrymore is terminally ill. The plot centers around the guests for a dinner party held by drama queen socialite Billie Burke. She is married to kindly Lionel Barrymore, a shipping magnate burdened with heart disease and a failing business. Burke's early 20s daughter, Madge Evans, is infatuated with the much older John Barrymore, a former matinee idol now reduced to unemployment, alcoholism, and debts. Barrymore's hard-working agent is Lee Tracy.

Lionel's poor health is made worse by business worries. His family business is about to be bought out by ambitious and greedy Wallace Beery. Jean Harlow plays Beery's sharp-tongued trophy wife. Another shareholder in Lionel's company, elderly former stage star Marie Dressler, has fallen on hard times and sells her holdings to Beery.

Lionel's doctor, Edmund Lowe, is having an affair with Harlow on the premise of making house calls. Lowe is nonetheless a joyless individual, and his all-knowing wife Karen Morley is equally bereft of humor. Unhappily married elderly couple Louise Closser Hale and Grant Mitchell round out the significant cast.

How others will see it. Unlike Grand Hotel, Dinner at Eight was not nominated for any Academy Awards. But it performed well at the box office, and enjoyed long runs as a Broadway plan.

Today at imdb.com, Dinner at Eight has less than half the votes of Grand Hotel, as it lacks the much-parodied Greta Garbo line "I vant to be alone." Nonetheless, 7K user votes is a respectable total for a film from 1934, and the user rating of 7.8 out of 10 exceeds Grand Hotel's 7.5. The user ratings praise the cast, all famous moviestars in their day, with Jean Harlow and Marie Dressler particularly lauded. Wallace Beery is as hissable as ever as the ambitious and grasping businessman saddled with a sharp-tongued golddigger wife.

How I felt about it. 1933 was the worst year of the Great Depression. The Dow Jones had lost 90% of its 1929 high, and times were so bad that even purportedly wealthy and famous film characters suffered. Here, John Barrymore has the worst of it, but financial ruin lurks for his brother Lionel, and Marie Dressler as well.

But fiction was not far from the truth for John Barrymore, who became an alcoholic and watched his career decline by the late 1930s. He died in 1942, but nonetheless outlived Jean Harlow, who died unexpectedly at the age of 26 in 1937, and Marie Dressler, who would die the very next year in 1934. Dressler would have only one more film credit, Christopher Bean, a MGM comedy also starring Lionel Barrymore. That movie has all of 18 user votes at imdb.com, which demonstrates the obscurity of most movies from the 1930s.

It is impossible not to compare Grand Hotel to Dinner at Eight, since the success of the former influenced the latter. It is surprising that neither classic film had any Oscar nominations for its cast, direction, or script, especially given that both movies were commercial successes. But there are reasons for this.

Edmund Lowe is able to diagnose Lionel's thrombosis by listening to his chest for a moment. I suggest getting a second opinion. Why would Lowe have an affair with Harlow when he apparently isn't attracted to her, nor does he like her. Perhaps he needs the money. It is also odd that Madge Evans keeps throwing herself at John Barrymore, who pushes her away even as her family's presumed wealth is the only solution to his dire financial situation. One also wonders why Beery would have married Harlow when she obviously detests him, and insults him at every turn.