Movies I Need To See Before I Die: DINNER AT EIGHT (1933)

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(This is a column where I review movies that I have never seen, but SHOULD have.  Being a film Geek, I have seen a ton of films.  But life is also very short, and for one reason or another, there are quite a few flicks that I have never got to.  Sure, it probably doesn’t matter if I ever see a movie like PARENTAL GUIDANCE, but a movie like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA…. well, I should have seen that already.  I’m a film geek for God’s sake!  I have now decided that I should get on that before I get too old.  I have compiled a list of films that I WANT or NEED to watch, and am going to start watching them when I have spare time.  So I will randomly be posting reviews of movies that I have always wanted or needed to see.  Enjoy!)

I never heard of this movie until the American Film Institute announced this as one of the 100 best comedies, about 13 years ago.  Since then, it’s been on my list to see.  I’m working on seeing films of the early 30’s (probably the decade I know the least about), and I’ve seen some pretty good ones over the past few years, including another ensemble piece called GRAND HOTEL. I was in the mood for something lighthearted this afternoon, so I plopped it in.

Like I said, this is an ensemble piece with quite a few characters to keep track of.  At the center of the story is the Jordan family.  Oliver (Lionel Barrymore) heads a shipping company that is on its way under, and his health isn’t so good either.  His wife Millicent (Billie Burke) is all about hob nobbing and decides to host a dinner party when it’s announced that some royalty will be in town for a visit.  Their daughter Paula is supposed to marry a guy named Ernest, but she’s having an affair with a washed up actor played by John Barrymore.  Also invited to the dinner is a dear friend and has-been actress Carlotta (who used to be in love with Oliver), a crooked business man (Wallace Beery), and his fiery young trophy wife (Jean Harlow). 

Of course, the movie isn’t really about the dinner itself, but events leading up to the big event as we peer into the private lives of these people.  People are lying to each other, having affairs, and other such things.  It has all the makings of an overblown melodrama.  Well, this certainly does have elements of that, but there’s also some much-needed humor to be found too.  It’s not of the slapstick variety, but the laughs come from the behavior of these eccentric characters. 

I admit that it took a good 15 minutes or so for me to get into the film, but once Jean Harlow makes her first appearance, I found it to be quite watchable.  The actors are what elevate this from being a typical melodrama (kind of like GRAND HOTEL, though I think this is even better).  Let’s start with Harlow.  Every scene her character is in is very entertaining.  A few weeks ago I saw the fantastic THE PUBLIC ENEMY with James Cagney.  I loved that movie, but thought that Harlow’s hallow acting nearly drug the picture down.  But she steals every scene here.  She’s a terrific ball of fire as she argues with her husband.  The scene when she tries to make up with him by using “baby talk” had me in stitches.  Hilarious!  I also liked the scenes with John Barrymore’s alcoholic actor.   At first it was a pretty funny performance, but as the picture goes on, and he gets drunker, it’s a sadly pathetic portrayal of a man who’s at the end of his rope.  He’s very good here. 

Lionel Barrymore is effectively understated, Wallace Beery is positively hammy (in a good way) and Marie Dressler as Carlotta is a hoot.  But for me, the heart of the film is Billie Burke as Mrs. Jordan.  You might know her best as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North from THE WIZARD OF OZ.  She turns in an excellent performance as the compulsive wife who MUST have everything just right for the dinner party.  At the beginning of the picture, she’s very warm and calm, but as the stress escalates throughout the picture, her anxiety builds and builds until a wonderful scene when she has a humorous breakdown. 

George Cukor helmed this, who went on to make the masterpiece ADAM’S RIB and MY FAIR LADY.  He still seems to be finding his footing technically.  There are some shots that don’t match and at times the camerawork is a bit stale.  The script is occasionally too melodramatic, taking away from the lighthearted moments.  I also thought the movie was a bit too short, as nothing was really resolved by the end of the movie.  But I did like the final line (which was spoiled by the AFI special). 

I was underwhelmed at first, but as the movie progressed, the variety of characters began to grow on me.   It had me smiling often and I even laughed out loud a few times, but, it’s hardly one of the best comedies every made (sorry AFI).  It’s a little rough around the edges, but the performances from these legendary actors really make this movie worthy of your time.  Overall, I’m glad I attended this dinner party.  ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

– Not Rated but contains some mild innuendo and thematic elements.  Maybe would be a PG today?

– Running time: 1hr 50min.



Categories: Austin Kennedy, Movies I Need To See Before I Die, Reviews

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