Pre-Code Crazy: Dinner at Eight (1933)
As much as I love, and as many times as I’ve seen, Dinner at Eight (1933), I was astonished when I realized that I’d never written about it here. So when I was reviewing TCM’s pre-Code offerings for June and spied this first-rate feature on the list, I instantly knew that it would be my choice for this month’s Pre-Code Crazy. Even if you’re like me and you’ve seen it over and over (and over), you deserve to treat yourself to Dinner at Eight.
A whole lotta stuff goin’ on!
The title event serves as Ground Zero for the film’s various goings-on, and all of the guests invited to the dinner party have a connection with one or more of the others in some way. First, we have the host and hostess, Oliver and Millicent Jordan, played by Lionel Barrymore and Billie Burke. The owner of a shipping business who’s struggling to keep his company afloat (if you will), Oliver was in love years before with stage actress Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), who’s in town to raise some much-needed cash by selling the stock she owns in Oliver’s company. And Carlotta is staying at the Versailles Hotel, which happens to be the site of an illicit affair between Oliver’s (soon-to-be-wed-to-someone-else) daughter, Paula (Madge Evans), and washed-up, alcoholic actor Larry Renault (John Barrymore).
Oh, and back to Oliver – the stock in his company is being secretly purchased by local businessman Dan Packard (Wallace Beery), whose wife Kitty (Jean Harlow) is having an affair with the doctor, Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe), who is treating Oliver for a heart ailment. Flitting around the edges of this circle are Millicent’s snarky cousin Hattie (Louise Closser Hale), Dr. Talbot’s long-suffering wife, Lucy (Karen Morley), Larry’s hard-working agent, Max Kane (Lee Tracy), and Paula’s oblivious fiancé, Ernest (Phillips Holmes).
It’s so great!
Directed by George Cukor, Dinner at Eight seamlessly weaves together comedy and drama, and the film is fairly chock-full of memorable scenes. I love the scene where the Jordan’s cook, Mrs. Wendel (May Robson, in an hilarious performance), breaks some bad news to Millicent, which starts out with a bad tooth and ends up with the chauffeur in jail after stabbing the butler. And the one where Jean Harlow’s character turns on her sexy-baby charm to coax her husband into taking her to the Jordans’ dinner (“Dan-ny,” she coos in a singsong voice. “Kitty wants to go see all the great big lords and ladies in the big, booful house!”). And the scene where Carlotta pops up unexpectedly at the Jordan house, just hours before the dinner is to begin, asks Millicent for a whiskey and soda, kicks off her shoes, and shares her exhausting day. When the maid shows up with the makings of her drink, Carlotta allows her to pour a half a glass of whiskey before stopping her, and when the maid starts to add the soda, Carlotta pushes the bottle away: “Oh, my dear, wait a minute,” she says. “Don’t spoil it.” (A clip from the entire scene is below. You’re welcome!)
Speaking of great scenes, those scenes are brimming with some equally great lines. Here are some of my favorites:
“Politics? Ha! You couldn’t get into politics. You couldn’t get in anywhere. You couldn’t even get in the men’s room at the Astor!” – Kitty Packard (Jean Harlow)
“You’re a corpse, and you don’t know it. Go get yourself buried!” – Max Kane (Lee Tracy)
“One thing I shall always remember. The day you were 21, you asked me to marry you, Oliver. I thought it very sweet of you. You see I was 30-ish. I remember I went home and wept a little. They didn’t often ask me to marry them.” Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler)
“Who do you think you’re talking to, that first wife of yours out in Montana? That poor, mealy-faced thing with the flat chest that didn’t have nerve enough to talk up to you? Washing out your greasy overalls, and cooking and slaving in some lousy mining shack? No wonder she died! Well, you can’t get me that way – you’re not going to step on my face to get where you want to go, you big windbag!” Kitty Packard (Jean Harlow)
“I wouldn’t trust that man as far as I could throw a bull by the tail.” Fosdick (Harry Beresford)
“Ask that common little woman to my house? And that noisy, vulgar man? He smells Oklahoma.” Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke)
“If there’s one thing I know, it’s men. I ought to – it’s been my life work.” Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler)
“Ed hates anything that keeps him from going to the movies every night. I guess I’m what’s called a Garbo widow.” Hattie Loomis (Louise Closser Hale)
“Freddy Hope! My extra man, he’s got pneumonia. Well, of all the thoughtless, selfish – on the day of my dinner party, too!” Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke)
“I never could understand why it has to be just even, male and female. They’re invited for dinner – not for mating.” Hattie Loomis (Louise Closser Hale)
“The minute I see Oliver, I’m going back to my hotel, and pop myself into bed, and I’m not going to get up until tomorrow at noon. Thank goodness I don’t have to go to one of those dreadful dinners tonight.” Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler)
“Listen, you piece of scum, you. I’ve got a good notion to drop you right back where I picked you up in the checkroom of the Hottentot Club, or wherever the dirty joint was. And then you can go back to that sweet-smelling family of yours, back of the railroad tracks in Pasaic. And get this – if that sniveling, money-grubbing, whining old mother of yours comes fooling around my offices anymore, I’m going to give orders to have her thrown those 60 flights of stairs. So help me!” Dan Packard (Wallace Beery)
“At a time like this, you talk to me about a business thing, and feeling rotten. This is a nice time to say you’re feeling rotten. You come to me with your – and you, whimpering about Ernest. Some little lovers’ quarrel. I’m expected to listen to Ernest and business and headaches, when I’m half out of my mind! Do you know what’s happened to me? I’ve had the most ghastly day anybody ever had. No aspic for dinner. And Ricky in jail, and Gustave dying, for all I know. And a new butler tonight, and that Vance woman coming in. And havng to send for crabmeat. Crabmeat! And now, on top of everything else, the Ferncliffs aren’t coming to dinner. They call up at this hour, the miserable cockneys. They call up to say they’ve gone to Florida. Florida! Who can I get at this hour? Nobody. I’ve got eight people for dinner. Eight people isn’t a dinner. Who can I get? And you come to me with your idiotic little . . . I’m the one who ought to be in bed. I’m the one who’s in trouble. You don’t know what trouble is, either of you!” Millicent (Billie Burke)
- The screenplay was written by Frances Marion and Herman Mankiewicz, from a stage play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman. The play opened at the Music Box Theater on October 22, 1932 and was a smash hit.
- This was the first film produced by David O. Selznick for MGM.
- The film introduces the cast in the opening credits by showing the major players as part of a formal place setting. Each performer’s face can be seen smack in the middle of a dinner plate.
- Keep an eye out for some wacky editing in the very first scene. One second Billie Burke is facing the seated Lionel Barrymore, standing just an arms-length from him, and the next, she’s several feet away, facing in a different direction.
- Carlotta Vance has a tiny dog that she sometimes carries around with her. Originally, the dog’s name was Mussollini, but the political climate of the day led to a change in his name to Tarzan. Watch for the scene where Carlotta shows up with the dog at the dinner party. If you listen carefully and watch Dressler’s lips, you can tell that the name “Tarzan” was dubbed in later.
- Billie Burke, perhaps best known for portraying Glinda, the Good Witch, in The Wizard of Oz, was married to famed Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfield. Burke was played by Myrna Loy in The Great Ziegfeld (1936). Dinner at Eight was released a year after Ziegfeld’s death.
- Marie Dressler underwent cancer surgery shortly before accepting the role of Carlotta Vance. She died from the disease in 1934, not long after the release of Dinner at Eight.
- Joan Crawford was among the actresses considered for the part of Paula Jordan, and Clark Gable was one of the actors considered for the part of Dr. Wayne Talbot.
- Dinner at Eight didn’t receive any Academy Award nominations, but it was number 85 on the American Film Institute list of the top 100 comedy movies of all time in American cinema, and it was named one of the 10 best films of 1933 by the New York Times and Film Daily.
- Lee Tracy was filming another MGM picture, The Nuisance (1933), at the same time he was making this film. The Nuisance also featured actress Madge Evans, who played Lionel Barrymore’s daughter in Dinner at Eight.
- Dinner at Eight was one of five films in which both Lionel and John Barrymore appeared. They didn’t share any scenes together in this feature, though.
- In one scene, Dan Packard makes a crack about the age of Oliver’s office: “Say, who put up this building,” he asks. “Peter Stuyvesant?” Stuyvesant was the Director-General of the colony of New Netherland from 1647 to 1664, when it was renamed New York.
- Marie Dressler and Jean Harlow had quite a mutual admiration society after working on Dinner at Eight. Harlow said that being in the cast with Dressler was “a break for me. She’s one trouper I’d never try to steal a scene from. It’d be like trying to carry Italy against Mussolini.” And Marie Dressler said of Harlow, “Her performance as the wife of the hard-boiled, self-made politician played by Wallace Beery belongs in that limited category of things which may with reason be called rare. The plain truth is, she all but ran off with the show!”
Dinner at Eight airs on Monday, June 27th on TCM. If you’ve never seen it, mark your calendar and don’t miss it! You will not be sorry. And if you’ve seen it more times than you can count, give it another rewatch.
You only owe it to yourself.
(Thanks to Danny at Pre-Code.com, from whom I swiped some of these great images!)
Don’t forget to pop over to Speakeasy to find out what pre-Code gem Kristina is recommending for the month of June!