Tonight: Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Lee Tracy, Edmond Lowe and Billie Burke in Dinner at Eight, a film produced by David O. Selznick and directed by George Cukor.
When they made this MGM blockbuster in 1933, Dressler was the most popular star in Hollywood. Meanwhile, Beery and Harlow ranked fifth and sixth in a motion-picture popularity poll taken that year—right ahead of Clark Gable.
Dinner at Eight is a cinematic masterpiece in which Cukor pieces together the intimate tales of an unusual assortment of dinner guests. All the principals perform their roles to perfection.
Barrymore suffers from failing health; Burke bubbles idiotically; Tracy wisecracks cynically; and Dressler is magnificent as the theatrical dowager gracefully struggling to preserve her slipping lifestyle and image.
In many of the parts, art seemed to be imitating life. For example, Barrymore’s intense and poignant role, many suggested later, was patterned after Barrymore himself—a fading movie star destroying himself with drink. He died in 1942 of acute alcoholism.
Harlow was considered a mediocre actress until she joined MGM and made Red Headed Woman in 1932. In this film, she shows her unusual flair for comedy.
Her personal life was something else again. Her husband Paul Bern, who had brought her to Metro, had killed himself soon after their marriage in 1932.
By 1933, she was in love with William Powell, but that romance ended tragically in 1937 with her unexpected death of kidney failure at the age of 26.
Harlow’s popularity was as great off-screen as on, but she didn’t get along with co-star Beery. Their hilarious on-screen battles had their off-screen counterparts. He was, she said, “…a mean son of a bitch whose grave I’d love to piss on!”
This was MGM’s second all-star film—prompted by the success of Grand Hotel the year before.
It was Selznick’s first film for MGM, after his father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer, lured him away from RKO to strengthen the MGM production muscle after Irving Thalberg suffered a heart attack and took an extended leave of absence.
Gable was originally cast as the doctor, but Mayer vetoed the choice because Gable fans hadn’t liked him in his role as a physician in Strange Illusion the year before. It was Cukor who suggested Lowe for the part.
Similarly, Joan Crawford had originally been cast in the role that eventually went to Madge Evans.
Burke had been in films for two decades, but in Dinner at Eight she played, for the first time, the type of character for which she is best remembered—the silly, feather-brained society woman. This is ironic because, at the time, Burke was facing a major personal tragedy—the death of her husband—Flo Ziegfeld, who died while the film was in production.
Top billed in this constellation of stars was Dressler. In 1914, she had co-starred with Charlie Chaplin in Tillie’s Punctured Romance—the first feature length comedy ever made. By 1930, she was the most popular star in Hollywood—the biggest box-office attraction in the country for four years in a row. Somehow, however, she is largely forgotten today. She made only one more movie after Dinner at Eight—dying in 1934.
Another member of the cast who is similarly forgotten is the wise cracking Tracy, who literally pissed away his career. On Broadway, he had created the part of the fast-talking Hildy Johnson in The Front Page. He co-starred with Harlow in Bombshell in 1933.
After Dinner at Eight, he was scheduled to begin shooting Viva Villa with Wallace Beery in Mexico. Production was delayed by a Mexican holiday, during which Tracy got very drunk and stood naked on his hotel room balcony, pissing on a passing parade of Mexican soldiers. He was arrested and jailed. MGM managed to get him out of the country, but it cost him his MGM contract—and his career never recaptured its early promise.
Edward Woods has a small part in the picture. He was originally scheduled to star in Public Enemy, with Jimmy Cagney and Harlow in secondary roles, in 1931. But after looking at the first week of rushes, Cagney was given the lead, and the rest is history.
Dinner at Eight was originally a Broadway play written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. The screenplay was written by Frances Marion and Herman Mankiewicz.
Shooting dates ran from March 27 to May 12, 1933. Principal photography took just 24 days, but retakes were needed.
Dressler called her dog “Mussolini” in the film, but the name was changed to “Tarzan” on the soundtrack so as not to offend the Italian government.
Dinner At Eight opened at the Astor Theater in New York on August 23, 1933 and went into general release on January 12, 1934.
Variety announced: “Story grips from beginning to end with never relaxing tension, its somber moments relieved by lighter touches. … Acting honors probably will go to Dressler and Harlow, the latter giving an astonishingly well balanced treatment of Kitty, the canny little hussy who hooks a hard-bitten unscrupulous millionaire and then makes him lie down and roll over. … Wallace Beery is at home as the millionaire vulgarian. … Marquee speaks for itself. It spells money and couldn’t very well be otherwise.”
Despite its all-star cast, Dinner At Eight cost just $387,000 and grossed more than $3 million in its initial release—a real blockbuster!
So now—from 1933—Diner at Eight.