Dinner at Eight (1933)

23 03 2014

One could accuse this Cukor effort, based on a stage play penned by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, of being too theatrical. However accurate the accusation may be, it seems to miss the point: this is a film whose stylistic proximity to its stage origins help create the sort of nervous tension that such a narrative requires. Cukor himself isn’t trying to salvage something “cinematic” (which is more commonly  and erroneously used to describe a camera moving) but instead reveling in the theatrical nature of the work. He’s not the only director to make a “theatrical” film, nor is he the only one to make a film with a lot of talking and little camera movement. It might not explode out onto the screen, and the character might not be particularly complex and rich, but that doesn’t mean Cukor hasn’t sculpted a dense and worthy drama. Maybe it’s not his film, but it’s still a good film.


With the economy collapsing, the wealthy Jordans want to ensure their stockholders that everything is perfectly fine. Millicent plans a dinner party, while Oliver desperately tries to hide both the poor health of himself and his shipping company from his acquaintances. An old flame and former movie star, Carlotta, stops by to mention that she’s considering selling her stock. Oliver, recalling their romance of the past, persuades her to hold off for the time being and suggests she comes to dinner. Meanwhile, businessman Dan Packard is struggling to deal with his much younger wife, Kitty, who refuses to show him affection or any interest in his budding career as a politician in Washington. Olivier convinces Millicent to invite them, and washed up movie star, Larry Renault to the dinner as well. Renault, desperate for parts has been secretly seeing Millicent and Oliver’s daughter, Paula. Paula herself is expected to marry Ernest, who is much closer to her age, but her feelings for Renault begin to grow deeper. At the same time, all the preparations for the dinner itself seem to fall apart.


The issue with a script with as many characters as this is that they’re never really given the substantial amount of time needed to be fleshed out. Weirdly, the film feels like a looser, less dense warmup for Jean Renoir’s classic The Rules of the Game. It’s hardly a criticism of Cukor to say that his characters feel a little flat next to one of the most celebrated films of all-time. Still, the issue remains and if there’s anything particularly “off” about Cukor’s film it’s that he seems more deeply invested in some characters, while only having a passing interest in others. In keeping with the “theatrical” style, the performances tend to be broad to begin with, which does suggest the film might just be a wild miscalculation. On the surface, it’s probably too simplistic, both in pen and performance, to really work as a human drama.


There are some sincerely tender moments in the film, though. The most fascinating character in the film might be Larry Renault, a washed up actor played by John Barrymore. By 1933, Barrymore himself would have been able to relate to his character. Even if the script itself calls for him to chew the scenery, he does so gracefully. A bitter old man fueled by alcohol and disappointment might seem like its courting something schmaltzy, but Barrymore’s performance stings in its similarity to the actor’s own life. Sunset Boulevard is a fair comparison, but where as Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond fall from stardom is contextualized in an exciting mystery, the audience here must sit in Barrymore’s hotel room, one that is expansive but appears increasingly crowded with his dirty clothes and empty bottles of whiskey. His romance with Paula suggests something that would give him energy and motivate him to continue on with whatever is left of his career, but he essentially says that their love does the opposite. It drains him, and his low point might be a hokey, maudlin mess in an other director’s hands but it plays beautifully and tragically with Cukor’s touch.


Barrymore’s Renault character is an anomaly, though. Interestingly, Cukor revisits the “gold-digger” discourse of Girls About Town but he has far less interesting things to say here. Instead, Jean Harlow’s Kitty is lazy and needy. To be fair, one should acknowledge that the film wisely views the doctor she has an affair with more harshly. After all, his marriage is one that seems completely fair and loving. The film might sympathize with Kitty’s infidelity by showing her marriage as not just loveless and unfair, but one that anticipates violence. Of course, the pathos of that never appears in Cukor’s frame because the explanation is that both parties in the Packard marriage are pathetic. This is a little unsettling, but the film at least gives Kitty the last laugh, quite literally.