Thanks to my friend Crystal from In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon is back for a third consecutive year! This is the occasion for us to celebrate this notorious family of actors who developed its talent on more than one generation.
My choice for this year’s edition is Dinner At Eight. As this film stars both Lionel and John Barrymore, we can proudly call it a “Barrymore movie”! But don’t be mistaken, however, John and Lionel don’t play brothers in this flick! The choice was also to my advantage, since, last year, I reviewed a movie with Ethel Barrymore (Portrait of Jennie) and the year before, a film with Drew Barrymore (Ever After). So, I was due to do something about John and/or Lionel. So, why not both?! Plus, Lionel Barrymore is my favourite actor in this family and, neither to say, the one I’m the most familiar with.
When I started watching it for the blogathon (only for the second time in my life), I had completely forgotten it was directed by the one and only George Cukor! Well, we do recognize his distinguished signature with a female cast brilliantly composed. We are introduced to the actors in the opening titles a bit in the same way as we are with 42nd Street or Gold Diggers of 1933. I guess that was fashionable in 1933!
Apart from the two Barrymore, Dinner at Eight also stars Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, Billie Burke, Madge Evans, Lee Tracy, Edmund Lowe, Karen Morley, Phillips Holmes, Louise Closser Hale, Grant Mitchell, Hilda Vaughn and May Robson. Quite a gang.
All these actors are all worth mentioning as they all have their respective importance in the film. You see, Dinner at Eight is one of these pictures having for major quality the composition of the characters.
What we see in this film is everything that happens before the famous dinner. Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke) is organizing a dinner for Lord and Lady Ferncliffe that she had met in England with her husband Oliver (Lionel Barrymore). Through the film, we discover the various guesses and their respective personal problems:
Oliver himself isn’t feeling too well and we discover later that it might be more serious than he thinks.
Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), a one-time great actress, is now broke and dealing with her downhill. Luckily, a great sense of humor keeps her alive.
Mr. and Mrs. Jordan’s daughter, Paula (Madge Evans), is ready to put an end to her engagement with Ernest (Phillips Holmes) as she is now in love with the much older actor Larry Renault (John Barrymore).
On his side, Larry Renault, just like Carlotta Vance, has to struggle with his lack of money and the fact that he is now a washed-up actor. More tragic than Carlotta tho, he finds refuge in alcohol.
Businessman Dan Packard (Wallace Beery) and his wife Kitty (Jean Harlow) are constantly fighting. Kitty has a maid, Tina (Hilda Vaughn) who is the most patient person ever (and who looks like one of the extra-dancers in Hair by the way).
And Kitty is having an affair with Dr. Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe) who is quite lucky to have a wife (Karen Morley), who loves him (despite everything).
Hattie (Louise Closser Hale) and Ed Loomis (Grant Mitchell) are last minute guesses so we don’t dig much into their life. However, Ed would prefer to be at the movies seeing the last Garbo picture.
Finally, Millie has to deal with the obvious problems that come with the organization of such a dinner, and her cook, Mrs. Wendel (May Robson), is having trouble with the lion-shape aspic.
I think, with this kind of film, a presentation of the characters was in order. Apart from the fact that the two Barrymore don’t play brothers in this film, they are actually never seen in a scene together. I must admit, I was a bit disappointed by this aspect (because it would have been epic). They play, however, two very different types of characters.
On his side, Lionel is the wise and patient one who tries to see a positive point to life even in a critical situation. On his side, John is the tragical one, whose life became theatrical just like his profession. Both are great in their respective roles. Dinner at Eight confirms us Lionel Barrymore versatility as an actor as his character is quite different (and much more sympathetical) than Henry Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life for example. If I’m not mistaken, this is the earlier film of his I’ve seen. Actually, it would be Free & Easy, but he only has a cameo scene in this one so it doesn’t really count. Lionel Barrymore’s scenes with Marie Dressler are among the best things in this film. We feel an instant chemistry between those two veterans of the silver screen. Carlotta Vance and Oliver Jordan redefine the meaning of deep friendship. We also witness a very touching scene between him and Billie Burke toward the end of the film. Moral of the story: love is sometimes stronger than anything else.
I’m less familiar with John Barrymore, having seen only two of his films, but I’ve noticed how he has such a strong on-screen presence. In a scene, he is the center of attention and he doesn’t need to do much to be so. Simply by standing there, he emits an incredible charisma. And that profile! I think we all agree, it’s one of the most famous profiles of cinema history. Of course, we never lose an occasion of seeing it. Just before his first scene, Billie Burke is talking about him with Louise Closser Hale and this one praises his “most heavenly profile” and then, the next shot is one of him standing in a hotel room, his iconic profile to the camera. What is fascinating about John Barrymore in this film is to see the evolution of his character and how he chooses to act according to it. His performance is more and more intense as the film evolves. Remember this scene when he looks at himself in the mirror after his agent told us that his career is over? Mirror scenes are often a symbol of existential questions such as “what will become of me?” in movies.
There’s no need to say that 1933 was a strong year in cinema with movies such as this one, but also Gold Diggers of 1933, 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Little Women or The Private Life of Henry VIII. Movies of the 30s had a sort of class that could never be topped and Dinner at Eight is one of the best examples. I love all the fancy high society set of the whole thing with dreamy designs and costumes to die for. I bet you won’t be surprised if I tell you that these were designed by Adrian! I think the most impressive gowns are Jean Harlow’s ones. By the way, her character in this film kind of makes me think of me for the reason that staying in bed all day while eating chocolate is totally my style (I’m lazy). But back to Adrian. What I love about his costumes, is how light they seem to be. He also manages to keep it simple, but yet, immensely divine. And boy! I have a friend whose favourite colour is white. That may seem weird, but when I see Adrian’s costumes that glorify this colour, I completely understand why!
The script of this film is interesting. It was based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. However, screenwriters Frances Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz, and director George Cuckor managed to give it a cinematographic dimension by making it dynamic enough for a movie. I like how the scenes alternate telling us what’s becoming of each character. As a matter of fact, except at the end, we rarely see a scene with more than three characters or so. The film also contains some memorable lines such as:
1 -Kitty: [Final lines] I was reading a book the other day.
Carlotta: [Nearly trips] Reading a book?
2- Miss Copeland: You were wonderful!
Carlotta Vance: Yes, that was the last thing I did.
Miss Copeland: I remember it as plain as if it were yesterday.
Carlotta Vance: Hmm.
Miss Copeland: Though I was only a little girl at the time.
Carlotta Vance: How extraordinary!
Miss Copeland: Oh, it’s wonderful, seeing you like this.
Carlotta Vance: Yes, it ’tis. You know, we must have a long talk about the Civil War sometime. Just you and I. (Poor Mrs. Vance!)
3-Dan Packard: Remember what I told you last week?
Kitty Packard: I don’t remember what you told me a minute ago.
4- Larry Renault: Listen to me old-timer. I’m drunk, and I know I’m drunk but I know what I’m talking about.
5- Hattie Loomis: [responding to Millicent Jordans’ upset about a dinner guest cancelling] I never could understand why it has to be just even, male and female. They’re invited for dinner, not for mating.
6- Carlotta Vance: Remember? They named everything after me: cigars, racehorses, perfumes, battleships!
7- Dan Packard: That’s no elevator. That’s a birdcage!
8- Hattie Loomis: Ed hates anything that keeps him from going to the movies every night. I guess I’m what’s called a Garbo widow.
9-Dr. Wayne Talbot: Oh, she’s not really sick, you know, woman with a lot of time on her hands, I prescribed a sedative, but she doesn’t really need anything.
Mrs. Lucy Talbot: How about an apple a day?
These are just a few examples. Of course, there’s all the fuss about the famous aspic too. Delightful.
So, Dinner at Eight is one hell of an intriguing film, and if you like the Barrymore, I highly recommend you to see it (the rest of the cast is pretty swell too!).
Last August 15, we celebrated Ethel Barrymore’s birthday, so I’m wishing her a very happy heavenly birthday one more time! 🙂 The Barrymore are legendary. Respect.
A big thanks to Crystal for hosting this blogathon again!
Don’t forget to read the other entries of course. 🙂