Old Movies: Dinner At Eight turns 90

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George Cukor’s comedy drama Dinner At Eight is 90 years old – we’ve been taking a look at the Pre-Code classic…

Every so often you watch a film that’s really good. It’s a comedy that sparks with hilarity and snappy dialogue. It’s a horror that chills you to your very bone. It’s a thriller that twists and keeps you guessing. It’s a romance that has you swooning completely.

Then the ending hits and it instantly turns a good film into an exceptional one. Think Keyser Söze walking slowly out of the police station or Jigsaw stumbling out of the cell, dooming his victim forever. That kind of exhilarating final moment that cinches the film as one of your favourites.

Well, Dinner At Eight has such a dynamite final line, it’s impossible not to squeal with delight. To celebrate its 90th anniversary this week, I’m looking at one of my favourite Pre-Codes.

George Cukor’s drama comedy Dinner At Eight is adapted from Edna Ferber’s 1932 play of the same name. It revolves around social butterfly Millicent Jordan who is attempting to pull together a dinner party filled with esteemed guests, especially when she hears that Lord and Lady Ferncliffe – the richest couple in England – have accepted her invitation. Cue trying to organise the guests, who are all battling their own different set of circumstances.

This is possibly one of the greatest Pre-Code casts ever assembled, rivalling that of Alice In Wonderland (1933) and Grand Hotel (1932). Speaking of the latter, this does feature that great acting brother act – Lionel and John Barrymore – here as Oliver Jordan, the husband of Millicent, and down-on-his-luck actor Larry Renault respectively. The film also includes Wallac Beery, Jean Harlow, Billie Burke, Edmund Lowe, Phillips Holmes, and Marie Dressler.

Truly, each cast member does an exceptional job here weaving through both the drama and the comedy. The crux of the former comes from most of the characters struggling financially yet having to heave through appearances and the pressures that the upper echelons of society experience. On top of this, poor Olivier is dying, and his wife Millicent is too focused on the hysterics of organising the dinner – including a wobbly lion jelly centrepiece – to take notice. There are affairs – both intense and comedic and each character unravels before the clock can strike eight.

The biggest blue character is John Barrymore’s Renault. The actor (with a ‘heavenly profile’) is struggling to regain his stardom after being an acclaimed silent movie star. An alcoholic suffering from near poverty, his one last hope is a bit part on stage. He is also dabbling in an affair with the Jordans’ young daughter Paula, a young woman who is far younger than him. Renault’s storyline is dark, yet Barrymore plays him with such a gravitas that you are absorbed into his tale of woe. You want things to get better for this embittered man and, alas, it ends so very tragically for him.

Cukor’s direction through the penthouses and hotel suites, alongside Frances Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz script, balances this tightrope of comedy and melodrama. The tension mounts with each ticking second as the dinner fast approaches. Marriages are lost, hearts are broken, and people are tested – all while the jelly lion wobbles precariously.

The comedy comes mostly from Jean Harlow’s conniving but brilliant gold-digger Kitty. Her opening scene as she lounges in bed, feigning illness so she can be spoiled (and conduct an illicit affair with her doctor), sparks with plucky ingenuity. She knows the Achilles’ heel of her scheming husband Dan (Breery) and will use it to her advantage. Blonde bombshell Harlow is electric here, stealing every scene that she is in.

Well, all except one, the final scene, with the immutable Marie Dressler. I don’t want to spoil the final quip, which is juicy and delicious, hitting you with a final stab of hilarity. But Dressler’s delivery, whilst looking Harlow’s character up and down with a graceful expression of disdain, is impeccable.

Dinner At Eight is an incredible film filled with scintillating dialogue, utterly exquisite performances, and an anxious plot that will have your toes curling.

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