Dinner at Eight
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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 starsJohn 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