Millicent Jordan is pre-occupied with the plans she is making for a high-class dinner party. Her husband Oliver is in failing health, and he is also worried because someone is trying to buy up the stock in his shipping business - even his old friend Carlotta wants to sell her stock. Hoping to get help from businessman Dan Packard, he persuades Millicent, against her wishes, to invite Packard and his wife to the dinner. As Oliver\'s problems get worse, Millicent is increasingly quick-tempered because the plans for the party are not going smoothly. As the time for the dinner approaches, it appears that the hosts and the guests will all have plenty on their minds.
Marie Dressler ... Carlotta Vance
John Barrymore ... Larry Renault
Wallace Beery ... Dan Packard
Jean Harlow ... Kitty Packard
Lionel Barrymore ... Oliver Jordan
Lee Tracy ... Max Kane
Edmund Lowe ... Dr. Wayne Talbot
Billie Burke ... Millicent Jordan
Madge Evans ... Paula Jordan
Jean Hersholt ... Jo Stengel
Karen Morley ... Mrs. Lucy Talbot
Louise Closser Hale ... Hattie Loomis
Phillips Holmes ... Ernest DeGraff
May Robson ... Mrs. Wendel (cook)
Among the great actresses who have helped to illuminate the silver screen, Marie Dressler may be Chateau d\'Yquem – a grand premier cru, in a class all her own. As aging star of the theatuh Carlotta Vance, a living relic of the \'Delmonico\' era in New York, she walks away with an immortal movie, as entertaining a contraption as the studio system ever confected. And she does it effortlessly, despite some very tough competition – the most lustrous talent MGM could summon in the worst year of the Depression, and maybe the best it was ever able to gather together in the many constellations it assembled.
Dressler heads a large ensemble cast, with several distinct but interlocking stories, all leading up to (but never quite making) a posh dinner party at the mansion of Billie Burke, wife of shipping magnate Lionel Barrymore. Desperately trying to snag (the unseen) Lord and Lady Ferncliffe – moldering aristocrats she once met at Cap d\'Antibes – Burke bullies and badgers everybody she can think of to seat a swank table. Worrying about nothing so much as how \'dressy\' the aspic will be – it\'s the British Lion molded out of a quivering gelatin – she\'s oblivious to the human dramas whirling around the people on her guest list.
For starters, her husband is not only seriously ill but close to bankruptcy, to boot. Down in his nautical offices on The Battery, he\'s paid a visit by an old (and older than he) flame, Dressler; a bit down on her luck herself (\'I\'m flatter than a pancake – I haven\'t a sou\'), she wants to sell her stock in his company. Another visitor, one of the sharks circling around to feast on his bleeding empire. is Wallace Beery, a loud-mouthed boor whom Barrymore nonetheless cajoles Burke into inviting, against her snobbish sensibilities. Beery, a politically connected wheeler-dealer, has problems of his own, namely his wife Jean Harlow. She lounges luxuriously in bed most of the day, changing in and out of fur-trimmed bed jackets and sampling chocolates while waiting for her doctor-lover (Edmund Lowe) to pay another house call under the pretext of tending to her imaginary ailments.
Burke\'s and Barrymore\'s young daughter, meanwhile, conceals a clandestine affair with \'free, white and 45\" marquee idol John Barrymore, a washed-up drunk whose grandiose airs can\'t even fool the bellboys he sends out for bottles of hooch (a storyline in the screenplay, co-written by the also alcoholic Herman J. Mankiewicz – from the George S. Kaufmann/Edna Ferber stage hit – that can\'t have been comfortable for the similarly afflicted Barrymore, who\'s even referred to in the movie by his emblematic sobriquet \'The Great Profile\').
Those are the major strands of the story, but there\'s even more talent on board: Louise Closser Hale as Burke\'s pithy cousin; May Robson as the cook in charge of the ill-starred aspic; Lee Tracy, as John Barrymore\'s exasperated agent; and, deliciously, Hilda Vaughn as Harlow\'s mercenary maid.
The goings-on range from the farcical to the tragic, and for the most part, the cast does proud in coping with the often drastic shifts of tone (true, some episodes carry more weight than others, some players less inspired than their colleagues; it\'s an episodic movie, at times dated, from the infancy of talkies when scenes were not a snappily edited few seconds but prolonged and often stagy).
Still, in this starry cast, Dressler shines brightest. A Canadian gal who started in the circus, she worked in vaudeville, theater, and, in the last few decades of her life, in Hollywood. Despite her girth and the delapidations gravity had worked on her face, she\'s never less than transfixing. She tosses off the requisite comedy as effortlessly as that oldest of pros that she had become, yet can draw the camera to her deeply kohled eyes when she imparts some very bad news and turn it into a few seconds of threnody. (Only Barbara Stanwyck commands so boundless a range, which we have the luxury of observing over several decades of her career; what survives of Dressler dates only from her few last years.) Dressler would make but one more movie before her death, but it\'s chivalrous to think of Dinner At Eight as her grand exit.
As Dinner At Eight winds down, the aspic never makes it to table, nor do some of the expected guests. But life plods on, if capriciously and unfairly. Burke, at the end of her tether, utters a plangent cry that sums up man\'s impotence against the cruelty of fate: \'Crabmeat...CRABMEAT!\'
When you gather together the great stars of the early 30\'s, give them a great script, a great director and let them have their head, you get \"Dinner at Eight\". This is a delightful film which bridges the gap between comedy and drama. Granted, it is a little dated but that it only a minor inconvenience to those of us who love this movie.
You would be hard pressed to find another actress who could play the part of Carlotta Vance with such panache as Marie Dressler.......she is magnificent. She may give the best performance in the film but she has stiff competition from the rest of this star-studded cast.
I find John Barrymore\'s performance particularly good as it seems to mirror his own career and problems with alcohol. Arranging himself in the right light to capture the great profile one last time is poignant. I am not a Wallace Beery fan but he is spot on as the vulgar, grasping business man with wonderful Jean Harlow as his slutty wife. She is a treat and of course, no one can forget her exchange with Dressler at the end of the film when she announces that she was reading a book! The lovely Billie Burke, who made a film career out of dithering society women (although she was a former Follies beauty and wife of Flo Ziegfeld)is a delight. Lionel Barrymore plays it pretty straight as her long suffering, tragically ill husband. Edmund Lowe passes muster as the philandering doctor and the rest of the supporting cast is as good as it gets.
They don\'t make \'em like this anymore. It\'s a movie lovers paradise!
The movie Dinner at Eight is one of the best comedies ever made in Hollywood. Any reviewer who has claimed that it isn\'t a comedy needs to re-examine the picture. Although undeniably dark in its tone, the film is undeniably hilarious, especially when certain actors are on-screen. It could be called a dark comedy, even a black comedy, but a comedy it is nonetheless. There are eight `above-the-title\' stars in this picture.
Billie Burke, except for the scene in which she discovers her husband is ill, is a parody of the society woman. Every line of hers, emphasizing her scatterbrain-ness and her lack of priorities, reeks of hilarity. Her role is pure comedy.
Lionel Barrymore, playing a sickly business tycoon, has a less comedic role. His opening lines about `Australian mutton\' are hilarious. The way he watches his wife planning the party is also quite comedic. His dramatic moments juxtapose alongside his wife\'s to create some of her funniest moments. His part is almost split down the middle between comedy and drama.
Wallace Beery, portraying a ruthless, uncouth business man, is hilarious. His vulgarity contradict everything Mrs. Jordan views as ideal. He screams, yells, and has a violent temper. And, boy, is he funny to watch. Anyone who tries to label his performance as anywhere near dramatic should have his or her head examined. He gives the funnies male performance in the film. The role is almost all comedy.
Jean Harlow, as his slutty, common, vixen-of-a-wife gives the finest comedic performance of her entire career. She snarls, changes her voice in different conversations, manipulates, and lies, all to comedic perfection. Just the sound of her voice, saying the most outrageous dialogue to boot, triggers the laughs. This is the most comedic role in the picture.
John Barrymore, as an aging silent matinee idol, is the film\'s most dramatic performance. Although he has some comic moments (very few), and some ironic and satirical actions (when he kills himself, for example, he positions the light perfectly to capture his profile), for the most part, his scenes give the film their most dramatic moments. The performance is about 90% drama.
Edmund Lowe, playing a doctor-cum-playboy having a tryst with Harlow, has his part split down the middle. He is often funny, never reaching the sheer hilarity of some of the others, but, also, never quite elevating to the heights of histrionics either. His views on extramarital affairs are pretty funny, but when he has to tell a patient of impending illness, its drama. The fact that he specializes in `bedside manner\' is just funny, and his first embrace with his `patient\' is a scathing critique of corrupt society. Just as Lionel Barrymore\'s role, Lowe\'s is split fifty-fifty, right down the middle.
Lee Tracy, as John Barrymore\'s agent, is simply hilarious. His vocal fluctuations were his trademark, and the part seems tailor-made for him. Although he has many dramatic moments, he is very funny most of the time. His reactions and gestures are wonderful. In all, this part is about 60% comedy, 40% drama.
Marie Dressler, as a grand dame of the 1890s, is priceless. She all-but steals the picture from her co-stars. Sprinkled among her part are dozens of comic innuendos and perfect double takes. She is perfect and absolutely hilarious at all time, with the exception of the one scene in which she must explain to a young woman that her lover has committed suicide. The rest of the time she goes traipsing about making a perfect spectacle of herself, and she is the greatest asset to the film, acting-wise. Her part is 99% comic, except for that one scene.
The supporting actors, particularly Louise Closser Hale and Grant Withers, are comedic perfection. With the exception of the scenes in John Barryore\'s room at the Hotel Versailles, almost every supporting role is meant to be funny. The sets and costumes poke fun at the times too, and in the last analysis, the picture is a dramatic comedy, but a comedy bien sûr!
* As originally filmed, Carlotta\'s dog was named Mussolini but due to changing political climate, his name was post-dubbed as Tarzan, even though Marie Dressler\'s lips are clearly saying the first name.