A gorgeous, high-gloss deco mosaic, overloaded with star power, and a curious triumph over all by the electroplated Venus, Jean Harlow. DINNER AT EIGHT was the second all-star vehicle from MGM (after GRAND HOTEL) and did much to establish Selznick as a producer to be reckoned with. The
script, expertly adapted from the Kaufman-Ferber stage play by Frances Marion, Herman Mankiewicz, and Donald Ogden Stewart, polished the comedy elements of the original to further balance the existing melodrama. The MGM constellations twinkle as Gotham strata of society are invited to dine by
Lionel Barrymore and Billie Burke. Underneath the patina of luxe, hearts break, plans go up in smoke, dreams are dashed.
This is the beginning of the end for John Barrymore, playing a has-been that had been patterned after him; it's a bitchy casting idea, chilling to watch. Other good parts would follow but DINNER AT EIGHT would mark the point where he began careening into parody. Burke and Barrymore turn in
definitive portrayals of their star personas. Dressler's shrewd grande dame in decline (based on Mrs. Patrick Campbell) is a textbook of brilliant comic business, and Beery turns in his usual workmanlike despisable grizzly.
But it's Jean Harlow who elevates herself to the big guns here. Her gold-digging, amoral little hussy, spitting out the chocolates she doesn't like back into her fancy candybox, is just as self-centered as the others. But despite the whinny voice, rock candy cosmetology and bratty manipulation,
she still manages to infuse heart into her characterization. Cukor, who expertly directed, claimed she did it on her own; it's proof positive that the legendary sex symbols always have an undeniable element of humanity. (It may have helped that she and Beery hated each other's guts.) Madge Evans
plays the ingenue, a role Joan Crawford pulled out of at the last minute, wisely, given the Harlow victory. Devotees of Hollywood costume design should enjoy the platinum blonde's outrageous costumes, the last word in Adrian vulgarity.
The Breen Office took exception to DINNER AT EIGHT (Joseph I. Breen being the West Coast assistant to Will Hays, who headed the censorship board affixing production codes to films at the time). Breen told Selznick that he seemed to have a predilection for suicide in his movies, citing such films
as ANNA KARENINA and WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD. To calm the censors, the scene where John Barrymore actually turns on the gas was cut. The producer would remain forever proud of this film, taking particular delight that the chic set decorations of the movie (especially Harlow's bedroom set) helped
popularize art deco in the early 1930s.
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