Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Second Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon: "Dinner at Eight" (1933)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by George Cukor, Dinner at Eight (1933) revolves around the eminent dinner part hosted by Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke), the snobbish socialite wife of shipping magnate Oliver Jordan (Lionel Barrymore). Millicent is so aggravated about everything going wrong that she is oblivious to Oliver's impending bankruptcy and serious heart condition, as well as her daughter Paula's (Madge Evans) preoccupation about the return of her fiancé, Ernest DeGraff (Phillips Holmes), from Europe. One of the invited guests is Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), a former stage star and Oliver's one-time flame. Also invited are corrupt mining tycoon Dan Packard (Wallace Beery), who is secretly consuming Oliver's business, and his brassy young wife Kitty (Jean Harlow).

On the eve of the dinner, Millicent, short of an extra man for Carlotta, invites washed-up silent movie star Larry Renault (John Barrymore), completely unaware that Paula is having a clandestine love affair with him. Later that evening, Larry is visited by his agent, Max Keane (Lee Tracy), who informs him that his play's new producer, Jo Stengel (Jean Hersholt), wants another actor in the lead, but is willing to consider him for a bit part. Crushed, Larry returns to his old drinking habit. Meanwhile, the Packards have a violent argument that culminates with Kitty revealing to Dan that she is having an affair with Dr. Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe), Olivier's physician and one of Millicent's other guests. When threatened with divorce, however, Kitty tells her husband that she will expose his crooked business if he does not stop his attack on Oliver's line. Just before he is about to leave for the dinner, Larry is again visited by Max and Jo, whom he drunkely berates for insulting him with his pitiful offer. After the two men leave, Larry quietly turns on his gas fireplace and commits suicide. At the dinner, Carlotta, who knew of Paula's affair, privately tells her of Larry's demise and advises her not to break her engagement. At the same time, Millicent learns from Talbot about Oliver's illness and vows to be a better wife. Finally, as the guests are about to go in to dinner, Dan, with prodding from Kitty, tells Oliver that he has put an end to the takeover of the Jordan shipping line.

Kitty Packard: Politics? Ha! You couldn't get into politics. You couldn't get in anywhere. You couldn't even get in the mens' room at the Astor!

Edna Ferber first met George S. Kaufman in 1921, when she became a member of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of New York writers, editors, actors and publicists that he had helped found three years earlier. Although they disagreed in many aspects, Ferber and Kaufman discovered that they worked well together. Their first collaboration was Minick, a comedy based on one of her short stories, which played for five months between September 1924 and January 1925 at the Booth Theatre in New York. Inspired by the illustrious Barrymore family, Ferber and Kaufman next wrote The Royal Family, which opened at the Selwyn Theatre in December 1927 and ran for almost a year. Before their final effort, Stage Door, premiered in 1936, the duo produced Dinner at Eight, a witty comedy in three acts about a group of interrelated people and their tribulations as they prepare to attend a society dinner. Produced by Sam H. Harris, Dinner at Eight debuted at the Music Box Theatre on October 22, 1932 and was an instant hit, running for a total of 232 performances. The ensemble cast included Ann Andrews as Millicent Jordan, Malcolm Duncan as her husband Oliver, Marguerite Churchil as her daughter Paula, Constance Collier as Carlotta Vance, Paul Harvey as Dan Packard, Judith Wood as his wife Kitty and Conway Tearle as Larry Renault.

In February 1933, Joseph Schenck purchased the rights to Dinner at Eight and planned to produce a screen adaptation for United Artists, of which he was the president. However, Schenck soon lost interest in the project and sold the property to MGM, who subsequently decided it would be David O. Selznick's inaugural production at the studio. Formerly employed by RKO, Selznick had been brought to MGM by Louis B. Mayer (who also happened to be his father-in-law) to share producing duties with "boy wonder" Irving Thalberg. Selznick was aware that the right director was essential in making Dinner at Eight a hit. His first and only choice was George Cukor, a colleague from RKO, with whom he had worked successfully on several pictures, including What Price Hollywood? (1932) and A Bill of Divorcement (1932). Through a shrewd deal, Selznick arranged to borrow Cukor from RKO to direct Dinner at Eight. In exchange, MGM agreed to loan Lionel Barrymore to RKO to star in One Man's Journey (1933).

Marie Dressler and Lionel Barrymore
To adapt Dinner at Eight to the screen, Selznick and Cukor engaged Frances Marion, who had won Academy Awards for The Big House (1930) and The Champ (1931), and Herman J. Mankiewicz, who had been a member of the Algonquin Round Table. Mankiewicz had previously written The Royal Family of Broadway (1930), the film version of Ferber and Kaufman's The Royal Family, co-directed by Cukor for Paramount Pictures. Marion had a dislike for chatty scripts and was lukewarm to this assignment. "A picture with so many characters and each individual role equally good could not fail," she wrote in her autobiography. "But it bore the blight of artificiality to me." Despite Marion's reservations, the duo finished the screenplay in four weeks.

Like the star-studded Best Picture-winner Grand Hotel (1932), which Thalberg had produced, MGM wanted only their top actors for the roles in Dinner at Eight. Some of the Dinner at Eight cast including John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore and Jean Hersholt came directly from the cast of Grand Hotel. For the role of Carlotta Vance, a wealthy and flamboyant former actress and great beauty, no one at MGM immediately thought of Marie Dressler. Despite being one of MGM's most popular stars, Dressler was far from a great beauty and was known mostly for playing low comedy. The role of Carlotta was at the opposite end of her usual screen persona. Nevertheless, Dressler was eager to stretch as an actress and wanted the part. "When I learned that Marie Dressler was to play Carlotta Vance," Cukor later recalled, "I said to myself: she is not quite my idea for the part, not the way it was played on the stage by Constance Collier. [...[ But, very shrewdly, Louis B. Mayer contended that Dressler was the biggest thing in pictures, although she looked like a cook and had never played that type of part."

Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery
For the role of Wallace Beery's flashy vulgar wife, Kitty, Cukor wanted bombshell newcomer Jean Harlow. Mayer, however, did not believe that Harlow had the necessary acting skills to deliver a part like that. Cukor, who famously had a way of bringing out the best in actresses' performances, believed that she could do it. "I'd seen [Harlow] in The Public Enemy (1931) and Hell's Angels (1930), where she was so bad and self-conscious it was comic," the director later recalled. "Then I saw Red Dust (1932) and there she was, suddenly marvelous in comedy. A tough girl and yet very feminine, like Mae West. They both wisecrack, but they have something vulnerable, and it makes them attractive." Sold on her potential in Red Dust, Cukor fought to cast Harlow in Dinner at Eight and won.

With an assigned budget of $420,000, Dinner at Eight began shooting on March 16, 1933. Despite the complications of a large ensemble cast to juggle, production went smoothly with no unforeseen problems arising. According to Harlow, the picture was shot as close to chronological order as possible "so we could all feel the dramatic power of the climactic scenes." Determined to make the film a success, Cukor and Selznick also decided to use several of the same talents that had worked on Grand Hotel, including costume designer Adrian, cinematographer William Daniels and set designer Cedric Gibbons.

By all account, Harlow and Dressler developed a close friendship during the making of Dinner at Eight. "Being in the same cast with Marie was a break for me," Harlow explained. "She's one trouper I'd never try to steal a scene from. It'd be like trying to carry Italy against Mussolini. She knows all the tricks and she knows all the answers and she's the best love personage in Hollywood." Marie Dressler was also impressed with Harlow. "It was whispered behind more than one hand that Jean Harlow, Metro's much-advertised platinum menace, was picked for parts that called for more allure than art," she wrote in her autobiography. "And in Dinner at Eight, she had to throw a bomb in the works by proving that she is a first-rate actress! 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!"

Madge Evans and John Barrymore
In contrast, Harlow and Beery detested each other. They had previously worked together in The Secret Six (1931) and had developed a dislike for each other that carried over into Dinner at Eight. Beery thought that Harlow was not experienced enough as an actress and treated her rudely. For her part, Harlow found Beery "a mean son-of-a-bitch." Despite their mutual loathing, Harlow and Berry later reunited in China Seas (1935).

John Barrymore, who bravely took on the role of a fading matinee idol, relished the challenge of a strong character part. "Although [Barrymore] was playing a second-rate actor," Cukor said, "he had no vanity as such. He even put things in to make himself hammier, more ignorant." Barrymore got involved in his part, making suggestions to play up his character such as having him misquote famous writers and botch his own suicide. Cukor was pleased that an actor of such prominence was confident and committed enough that he would be willing to sacrifice vanity for the greater success of the film.

The final scene in Dinner at Eight includes arguably one of the most famous exchanges in classic Hollywood history, but it almost did not happen. An acceptable ending to the film kept eluding the writers. An early draft was nearly verbatim from the play, but Cukor and Selznick considered it too downbeat. Writer Donald Ogden Stewart, who had worked with Cukor in Tarnished Lady (1930) and with Harlow in Red Dust, was recruited for dialogue doctoring. Stewart's contribution resulted in Harlow's stunning revelation that she had been reading a book. "It's all about civilization or something, a nutty kind of a book," she says. "Do you know that the guy says that machinery is going to take the place of every profession?" Dressler looks her up and down, then replies, "My dear, that's something you need never worry about.

Dinner at Eight was shot in a remarkable 27 days, ending in mid-May 1933. "That was a wonderful record," said Cukor. "I owed it all to these marvelous performers; with them behind me, everything seemed possible." Later, Cukor considered his rapid directorial pace on Dinner at Eight as something more like a curse. "It's haunted me my entire career," he said. People ever since, he believed, expected him to deliver all his pictures in that short amount of time.

Dinner at Eight premiered at the Astor Theatre in New York on August 23, 1933. Despite the heavy rain, police had to keep back the crowds who gathered in front of the theatre to see the stars arrive. With a live radio broadcast from the theatre, there was an unmistakable electricty in the evening. Celebrities present included Hoot Gibson, Max Baer, Jack Benny, Una Merkel, Polly Moran, Walter Huston, Richard Bathelmess, Jean Hersholt, Jimmy Durante, Madge Evans and Jack Pearl. In the next morning's New York Times, Mordaunt Hall effused that Dinner at Eight is "a fast-moving narrative with its humor and tragedy, one that offers a greater variety of characterizations than have been witnessed — in any other picture." The film's box-office gross exceed $3 million, a huge sum for the Depression.

This post is my contribution to The Second Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. To view all entries, click HERE.

Marie Dressler: A Biography; With a Listing of Major Stage Performances, a Filmography and a Discography by Matthew Kennedy (1999) | TCMDb (Articles) |

1 comment:

  1. Hi Catia. Thanks so much for joining in on the blogathon, and sorry for the late reply. I've been battling illness of late, and have basically only just came back into the fold. However your post was well worth waiting for. I love the effort you put into all your posts. Thanks again.

    I would also like to invite you to participate in my latest blogathon. The link is below with more details.