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Dinner at Eight

Dinner at Eight(1934)

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Dinner at Eight (1934)

SYNOPSIS

Status conscious Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke) is throwing a dinner party for an elite group of guests including self-made tycoon Dan Packard (Wallace Beery) and his brassy wife Kitty (Jean Harlow), her husband's ex-lover Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), and a desperate fading movie star (John Barrymore) who is secretly carrying on an affair with their young daughter (Madge Evans), who just happens to be engaged to another man. Meanwhile Millicent's husband (Lionel Barrymore) is suffering serious health problems while his business teeters on the brink of collapse. At this unforgettable dinner party, anything can happen.

Director: George Cukor
Producer: David O. Selznick
Screenplay: Frances Marion, Herman J. Mankiewicz, Donald Ogden Stewart (additional dialogue) Based on the play Dinner at Eight by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber
Cinematography: William Daniels
Editing: Ben Lewis
Music: Dr. William Axt
Sound: Douglas Shearer, Charles Wallace
Costume Designer: Adrian
Cast: 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 Stengal), Karen Morley (Lucy Talbot), Louise Closser Hale (Hattie Loomis), Phillips Holmes (Ernest DeGraff), May Robson (Mrs. Wendel), Grant Mitchell (Ed Loomis), Phoebe Foster (Miss Alden), Elizabeth Patterson (Miss Copeland), Hilda Vaughn (Tina), Harry Beresford (Fosdick), Edwin Maxwell (Mr. Fitch), John Davidson (Mr. Hatfield), Edward Woods (Eddie), Anna Duncan (Dora), Herman Bing (The Waiter), George Baxter (Gustave)
B&W -113 m.

Why DINNER AT EIGHT is Essential

Biting and poignant at the same time, Dinner at Eight is one of the great screen comedies of manners. Thought it's often hilarious, there is always more going on beneath the surface in the interactions of these brilliantly realized characters. It's an elegant mixture of both high and low comedy that delves into the problems of the wealthy when they are faced with the loss of money, power and status.

Dinner at Eight was the first film that both producer David O. Selznick and director George Cukor made for MGM. Selznick especially had something to prove. On the heels of MGM's great success under Irving Thalberg, Grand Hotel (1932), Selznick wanted to show that he was capable of competing with Thalberg and creating a blockbuster of his own. The roaring success of the film established Selznick as a power to be reckoned with at his new studio.

Dinner at Eight has one of the finest ensemble casts of any motion picture in history. Some of MGM's biggest stars including Lionel Barrymore, John Barrymore, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, Madge Evans and Billie Burke do some of their finest work here and remind contemporary audiences of why these actors were great stars.

Marie Dressler, a huge, if unlikely, star in her day, was cast strongly against type as an upper crust former great beauty and woman of considerable means. Despite the risky casting, Dressler's talent is so great that she pulls it off with great aplomb. Her performance is one of the best things in Dinner at Eight, and serves as a reminder to the remarkable talents of this beloved star.

Actress Billie Burke's famous onscreen persona as a flighty flibbertigibbet can be traced back to this film. Dinner at Eight represented Burke's first role as a mature woman, and she was so effective as the high-strung hostess Millicent Jordan that that type of role has become synonymous with her name ever since.

Dinner at Eight was not the glamorous Jean Harlow's first film, but it was the movie that proved not only did she have what it took to be a major movie star, but also that she could act and hold her own in the midst of established professionals like John Barrymore. Her comic turn as Wallace Beery's vulgar social climbing wife nearly steals the picture and established her as the star she deserved to be.

by Andrea Passafiume

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Dinner at Eight (1934)

The play Dinner at Eight has had three productions on Broadway. The first one premiered October 22, 1932 at the Music Box Theater and ran for 232 performances. The second production premiered September 27, 1966 at the Alvin Theater and ran for 127 performances. The third production premiered December 19, 2003 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater and ran for 45 performances.

The stunning white satin gown that Jean Harlow wears to the dinner party in Dinner at Eight was such a fashion hit that the style of dress became known as the "Jean Harlow Dress".

Dinner at Eight was also filmed as a television movie in 1989. It starred Marsha Mason, John Mahoney, Charles Durning, Ellen Greene, Harry Hamlin, Julia Sweeney, and Lauren Bacall as Carlotta Vance.

by Andrea Passafiume

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Dinner at Eight (1934)

According to her March 13, 1940 obituary in the New York Times, American stage actress Maxine Elliott was the original inspiration for the character of Carlotta Vance in the play Dinner at Eight.

There are no exterior shots in Dinner at Eight.

When Marie Dressler took on the role of Carlotta Vance, she was recuperating from serious cancer surgery. The cancer eventually took her life in 1934, soon after the release of Dinner at Eight.

Joan Crawford was among the actresses considered for the part of Paula Jordan.

Clark Gable was among the actors considered for the part of Dr. Wayne Talbot.

Carlotta Vance's dog was originally named Mussolini, but MGM balked at the last minute and had its name changed to Tarzan. In the film, you can clearly see Marie Dressler's lips say "Mussolini" when she refers to the dog, but the name "Tarzan" was dubbed in to cover it.

Dinner at Eight premiered at the Astor Theatre in New York on August 23, 1933.

According to George Cukor, John Barrymore based his performance in Dinner at Eight on a combination of his father-in-law Maurice Costello, his brother-in-law Lowell Sherman and himself.

Famous Quotes from DINNER AT EIGHT

"If there's one thing I know, it's men. I ought to. It's been my life's work."
- Marie Dressler (as Carlotta Vance)

"Politics? Ha! You couldn't get into politics. You couldn't get in anywhere. You couldn't even get in the men's room at the Astor!"
- Jean Harlow (as Kitty Packard), to Wallace Beery's Dan Packard.

"And then I had a restful, nice luncheon... with four lawyers. On the 88th floor of the Watson's building. You know, the sky club. A cloud floated right into my soup plate."
- Marie Dressler (as Carlotta Vance)

"I'll have my double chins in privacy."
- Marie Dressler (as Carlotta Vance)

"I've told you a million times not to talk to me when I'm doing my lashes!"
-Jean Harlow (as Kitty Packard)

"That's the unfortunate thing about death. It's so terribly final."
- Marie Dressler (as Carlotta Vance)

"I was reading a book the other day."
"Reading a book?"
"Yes. It's all about civilization or something. A nutty kind of a book. Do you know that the guy says that machinery is going to take the place of every profession?"
"Oh, my dear, that's something you need never worry about."
- Jean Harlow (as Kitty Packard) and Marie Dressler (as Carlotta Vance)

Compiled by Andrea Passafiume

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Dinner at Eight (1934)

Dinner at Eight began as a Broadway play written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. The play opened at the Music Box Theater on October 22, 1932 and was a smash hit.

The rights to the play were sold first to Joseph Schenck, the president of United Artists. Schenck, however, eventually lost interest in the project and the rights went back up for grabs. MGM, which had just enjoyed a huge success with Grand Hotel (1932), quickly stepped in. Dinner at Eight, MGM decided, would be their next big project with David O. Selznick producing.

David O. Selznick had just left RKO and moved to MGM, the most prestigious studio in Hollywood. Dinner at Eight would be his first assignment for MGM. Irving Thalberg, MGM's top producer, had butted heads with the notoriously difficult Louis B. Mayer, leaving their relationship somewhat shaky. On top of that, Thalberg had recently been experiencing health problems, including a heart attack in 1932, which made MGM head Mayer nervous about Thalberg's ability to take on future projects for the studio. While Thalberg was recuperating in Europe, Mayer worked hard to persuade Selznick, who also happened to be his son-in-law (he was married to Mayer's daughter Irene), to come work at MGM where he could set up his own new production unit. Mayer announced to the MGM employees that Selznick would be coming in to share-not take over--producing duties with Irving Thalberg. Meanwhile, everyone worried about how Thalberg would respond to the news once he returned from Europe. To everyone's relief, Thalberg seemed to genuinely welcome Selznick into the MGM family. Screenwriter Frances Marion remarks in her 1972 autobiography Off With Their Heads! that Thalberg had always liked and respected Selznick. The only conflict that existed, she says, was strictly between Thalberg and Mayer.

When Selznick was assigned Dinner at Eight as his inaugural production at MGM, he was determined to prove he could make just as big a hit with it as Irving Thalberg had made with the Oscar®-winning Grand Hotel. He knew that the right director would make all the difference. George Cukor had been a colleague back at RKO with whom Selznick had worked successfully on several pictures. Cukor, he thought, would be perfect to direct Dinner at Eight. Through a shrewd deal, Selznick arranged for RKO to lend Cukor to MGM for the film. In exchange, MGM arranged to loan actor Lionel Barrymore to RKO to star in one picture (One Man's Journey [1933]). All eyes would be watching Selznick to see what he could do at MGM-a lot was riding on the success or failure of Dinner at Eight.

Cukor and Selznick wanted MGM's top screenwriters to tackle the assignment of adapting the play to the big screen, so they enlisted the talents of legendary scribe Frances Marion and Herman Mankiewicz. "It was not an easy job because we had to juggle an enormous cast," says Frances Marion in her autobiography, "but Herman (Mankiewicz) had a razor-sharp mind and we worked together in harmony, aided by George Cukor, who was to direct the picture." The two writers pounded out the screenplay in a mere four weeks. A third writer, Donald Ogden Stewart, was later brought in to write some additional dialogue.

Like the star-studded Grand Hotel, MGM wanted only their top actors for the roles in Dinner at Eight. Some of the Dinner at Eight cast including John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore and Jean Hersholt came directly from the cast of Grand Hotel. For the role of Carlotta Vance, a wealthy and flamboyant former actress and great beauty, no one at MGM immediately thought of Marie Dressler. Despite being one of MGM's most popular stars, Dressler was far from a great beauty and was known mostly for playing low comedy. The role of Carlotta was at the opposite end of her usual screen persona. Nevertheless, Dressler was eager to stretch as an actress and wanted the part. "When I learned that Marie Dressler was to play Carlotta Vance," said George Cukor in a later interview, "I said to myself: she is not quite my idea for the part, not the way it was played on the stage by Constance Collier...But, very shrewdly, Louis B. Mayer contended that Dressler was the biggest thing in pictures, although she looked like a cook and had never played that type of part."

For the role of Wallace Beery's flashy vulgar wife, Kitty, George Cukor wanted bombshell newcomer Jean Harlow. Louis B. Mayer, however, did not believe that Harlow had the acting chops. Cukor, who famously had a way of bringing out the best in actresses' performances, believed she could do it. "I'd seen (Jean Harlow) in The Public Enemy (1931) and Hell's Angels (1930), where she was so bad and self-conscious it was comic," recalled Cukor in a 1970 interview. "Then I saw Red Dust (1932)-and there she was, suddenly marvelous in comedy. A tough girl and yet very feminine, like Mae West. They both wisecrack, but they have something vulnerable, and it makes them attractive." Sold on her potential in Red Dust, Cukor fought to cast Harlow in the career-making part and won.

With a first rate cast in place, Cukor also decided to use several of the same below the line talents on Dinner at Eight that had worked on Grand Hotel including costume designer Adrian, cinematographer William Daniels, and set designer Cedric Gibbons. Cukor, Selznick and all of MGM were determined to make the film a success.

by Andrea Passafiume

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Dinner at Eight (1934)

With an assigned budget of $420,000, Dinner at Eight began shooting at MGM on March 16, 1933. Despite the complications of a large ensemble cast to juggle, the filming went smoothly with no unforeseen problems arising. According to Jean Harlow, the picture was shot as close to chronological order as possible "so we could all feel the dramatic power of the climactic scenes."

Though Marie Dressler hadn't fit George Cukor's idea of former beauty Carlotta Vance when she was first cast, she made the part her own with utter believability. "She acquired a peculiar distinction, a magnificence," said Cukor in a later interview. "She was a law unto herself. She'd mug and carry on-which she did in this picture-but she knew how to make an entrance with great aplomb, great effect." Co-star Jean Harlow was in awe of Dressler's talents and praised the veteran actress for her generosity. "Being in the same cast with Marie was a break for me," said Harlow. "She's one trouper I'd never try to steal a scene from. It'd be like trying to carry Italy against Mussolini."

Marie Dressler was also impressed with Jean Harlow. "It was whispered behind more than one hand that Jean Harlow, Metro's much-advertised platinum menace, was picked for parts that called for more allure than art," said Dressler in her 1934 autobiography My Own Story. "And in Dinner at Eight, she had to throw a bomb in the works by proving that she is a first-rate actress! Her performance as the wife of the hard-boiled, self-made politician played by Wallace Beery belongs in that limited category of things which may with reason be called rare. The plain truth is, she all but ran off with the show!"

It was high praise indeed for Jean Harlow coming from Dressler, and Dressler's warmth helped put the actress at ease. Harlow was understandably insecure about holding her own against such immense acting talent, and it was important to her to do a good job with her part. Harlow was an actress who got along with everyone-with one exception: Wallace Beery. She had worked with Beery before in The Secret Six (1931) and the two had developed a dislike for each other that carried over into Dinner at Eight. Beery thought that Harlow wasn't experienced enough as an actress and treated her rudely. Harlow found Beery gruff and boorish. Since the two were playing a husband and wife that can't stand each other, the real-life feelings worked to the comic benefit of the characters.

John Barrymore, who bravely took on the role of a fading matinee idol, relished the challenge of a strong character part. "Although (Barrymore) was playing a second-rate actor," said George Cukor in a 1970 interview, "he had no vanity as such. He even put things in to make himself hammier, more ignorant." Barrymore got involved in his part, making suggestions along the way to play up his character such as having him misquote famous writers and botch his own suicide. Cukor was pleased that an actor of such prominence was confident and committed enough that he would be willing to sacrifice vanity for the greater success of the film.

Dinner at Eight was shot in a remarkable 27 days. "That was a wonderful record," said Cukor. "I owed it all to these marvelous performers; with them behind me, everything seemed possible." Later, Cukor considered his rapid directorial pace on Dinner at Eight as something more like a curse. "It's haunted me my entire career," he said. People ever since, he believed, expected him to deliver all his pictures in that short amount of time.

MGM's faith in Dinner at Eight paid off. Upon its release, it was a huge success with critics and audiences alike. Despite not receiving any Academy Award® nominations, the film endured and is now considered one of MGM's finest films from the '30s.

by Andrea Passafiume

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teaser Dinner at Eight (1934)

Producer David O. Selznick made his bow at MGM with this star-studded 1933 comedy, crafting a hit that would give him a powerful position at Hollywood's most powerful studio. He hadn't wanted to work there at all. Selznick was making great strides as head of RKO Studios and was sensitive about charges of nepotism at MGM since he was married to studio head Louis B. Mayer's daughter. But when MGM production chief Irving G. Thalberg had to take a leave because of poor health, Selznick reluctantly gave in to his father-in-law's entreaties.

He inherited Dinner at Eight (1933) from Thalberg, who had already secured screen rights to the Broadway hit about a high-society dinner that falls to pieces. For Selznick, this was the chance to outdo Thalberg's previous hit with the screen's first all-star picture, Grand Hotel (1932). Of course, he had to fight for some of his stars, not to mention the perfect director for the piece. He had no trouble getting Marie Dressler to play a fading stage star. She was the top box office draw of the day, and her good friend Frances Marion was writing the script. Nor was there much argument about casting Lionel Barrymore, Mayer's favorite actor.

Where Selznick hit his first brick wall was in hiring George Cukor to direct. Selznick had helped build his career at RKO and knew the stage veteran had the perfect touch for the witty, sophisticated material. He just had to get the gay director past Mayer's ardent homophobia. Fortunately, the studio head's convictions rarely went further than the box office. Just as Mayer was happy to cover up for gay stars with strong fan followings, when Dinner at Eight became a hit, it marked the start of a long association between Cukor and the studio.

Mayer also objected to casting two of the film's biggest stars—John Barrymore and Jean Harlow. He was worried about Barrymore's drinking and erratic behavior, but Cukor assured him that they had developed a good working relationship on A Bill of Divorcement (1932). On the set of Dinner at Eight Barrymore was cooperative and helpful. Far from resisting comparisons between himself and his character, a fading matinee idol succumbing to alcoholism, he suggested playing up the similarities. At his instigation, Marion and co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz added references to his profile and his three wives. On the set, he even improvised imitations of faded actors he'd run into in New York.

When Selznick proposed Harlow to play Wallace Beery's brassy, wisecracking wife, Mayer thought she wasn't a good enough actress to hold her own against the all-star cast. Cukor came to the rescue again. He had recently seen Harlow's comic performance in Red Dust (1932), which convinced him she would be perfect for the role. Harlow always credited him with helping her find herself as a comedienne. Cukor said that all it took was harnessing her greatest comic gift, the ability to deliver lines as though she didn't quite know what they meant.

Dinner at Eight made Harlow a bigger star than ever. Her all-white bedroom, designed by Hobe Erwin and Fred Hope, helped popularize the Art Deco style of the '30s, while her white satin evening dress became a fashion rage, referred to as the "Jean Harlow dress."
Best of all, however, was the laugh she and Marie Dressler got at the film's closing. The original play had ended on a somber note, but Selznick wanted to go out with a bang. He turned to playwright Donald Ogden Stewart for help, resulting in Harlow's stunning revelation that she's been reading a book. "It's a screwy sort of book," she says, "all about the future. This man thinks that someday machines will take the place of every known profession." Dressler looks her up and down, then warbles, "My dear, that's something you need never worry about."

Director:George Cukor
Producer:David O. Selznick
Screenplay:Herman J. Mankiewicz, Frances Marion, Donald Ogden Stewart, Edna Ferber (play), George S. Kaufman (play)
Cinematography:William H. Daniels
Art Direction:Hobe Erwin, Fredric Hope
Music:William Axt
Cast: Marie Dressler (Carlotta Vance), John Barrymore (Larry Renault), Wallace Beery (Dan Packard), Jean Harlow (Kitty Packard), Lionel Barrymore (Oliver Jordan), Lee Tracy (Max Kane).
BW-112m. Closed Captioning. Descriptive Video.

by Frank Miller

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Dinner at Eight (1934)

AWARDS AND HONORS

In 2000 the American Film Institute named Dinner at Eight number 85 on its list of the top 100 Comedy Movies of all time in American cinema.

Dinner at Eight was named one of the 10 best films of 1933 by both the New York Times and Film Daily.

THE CRITIC'S CORNER - DINNER AT EIGHT (1933)

"The story grips from beginning to end with never relaxing tension, its somber moments relieved by lighter touches into a fascinating mosaic for nearly two hours...Acting honors probably will go to Miss Dressler and Miss Harlow, the latter taking hold of her fat role and making it stand out, even in this distinguished company."
- Variety

"It lives up to every expectation. It is one of those rare pictures which keeps you in your seat until the final fade-out, for nobody wants to miss one of the scintillating lines."
- The New York Times

"As a frame for juxtapositional drama of the type that came into fashion with Grand Hotel [1932], a fashionable dinner party is ideal. As a frame for one of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's all-star casts, the play by Edna Ferber and George Kaufman which was produced in Manhattan last winter was even better. The actors in Dinner at Eight selected by MGM's new producer David Selznick, make the cast of MGM's Grand Hotel, produced by Irving Thalberg, look like a road company, make the picture-less biting but more comprehensive than the play-superb entertainment. Under Director George Cukor, John Barrymore (Larry Renault), Lionel Barrymore (Oliver Jordan), Marie Dressler (Carlotta Vance), Jean Harlow (Kitty Packard), Wallace Beery (Dan Packard), Lee Tracy (Renault's agent), Billie Burke (Millicent Jordan), Edmund Lowe (Dr. Talbot) and Karen Morley (Mrs. Talbot), supported by such $1,000-a-week celebrities as Phillips Holmes, Jean Hersholt, Madge Evans, Grant Mitchell and the late Louise Closser Hale, perform brilliantly and avoid each others' toes."
- Time Magazine

"...a great picture-you can't afford to miss it...among all these great performers it is little Jean Harlow who stands out...Harlow is magnificent."
- New York Daily Mirror

"Jean Harlow, with her bee-stung pucker and her tinny voice, at her comic best. George Cukor directed this witty, much improved version of the Edna Ferber-George S. Kaufman play..."
- Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies

"The acting, camerawork, and sets are faultless. This is one of Cukor's strongest and most memorable films."
- Georges Sadoul, Dictionary of Films

"...one of the best Hollywood films of the early thirties, notable for the ingenious construction and deft exposition of its multi-stranded story, the brilliance of its dialogue and characterizations, with virtuoso performances by some of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's top stars, and the skill of Cukor's direction."
- The Oxford Companion to Film

"A great serious-at-the-core comedy, masterfully directed by George Cukor and performed by a once-in-a-lifetime ensemble...despite the presence of great male stars, Burke, Harlow, and especially Dressler steal the film - their performances are comic gems."
- Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic

"Artificial but compelling pattern play from a Broadway success."
- Halliwell's Film & Video Guide

"The laughs are mainly at the expense of the nouveau riche couple, a comedy of manners in which Harlow reveals her natural gift for humour and Beery confirms his status as the definitive boor. But the film also reflects the vagaries of the 1930s social scene, and John Barrymore virtually plays himself as the all-time lush. Perfect viewing for a wet Saturday afternoon."
- TimeOut Film Guide

"...Many of Cukor's most revered movies have a problem or two that often go unmentioned, perhaps because that would spoil the fun...In Dinner at Eight, it's the strain toward drama that doesn't pay off. Dinner at Eight offers economic ruin, ill health, and suicide amidst the champagne-spritzed repartee, but the drama stands apart because it is not of the equivalent excellence of the movie's social comedy...It doesn't diminish the joy of watching Dinner at Eight to suggest that its many parts don't always mesh. It is ultimately a triumph of type casting the crme de la crme....MGM had stars, and knew how to use them. "
- Matthew Kennedy, Bright Lights Film Journal

"The proscenium arch that marks the difference between theater and film doesn't get obliterated in George Cukor's Dinner at Eight, where most scenes take place in static medium shots that follow actors around as they gobble through reams of dialogue. Multiple narratives are thrown together like a cinematic mix tape involving guests preparing for a high-class soiree thrown by Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke). It's immediately apparent which of these stories Cukor is interested in. The others fall flat, and he merely ploughs through them indiscriminately. If the viewer regards each subplot as short films unto themselves, adding up to a potent final scene that strings them taut, the experience will prove more engaging. Dinner at Eight is a treasure hunt for great scenes, or banal scenes with occasionally great moments."
- Jeremiah Kipp, Slant Magazine

Compiled by Andrea Passafiume

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