June 1st, 2007


Dinner @ 8

Last night's Netflix feature was the 1933 B&W classic Dinner At Eight, which I had rented after reading the sensationalist biography Harlow: An Intimate Biography by Irving Schulman. I think I bought this at a BASFA auction. The book harps on Jean Harlow's total lack of acting skill, and while it does say her breasts were only a size 34, the book constantly made out like she was overly well-endowed. The book listed this movie as one of her minor roles, so I thought I would start small on my Jean Harlow film festival.

The book was wrong on all counts. This film is extremely well-acted, Harlow does a great job. Not surprising, as this was her 30th film. Her voice is fine, not harsh and grating as Schulman claims. She doesn't wear a bra because she doesn't need one - size 34 sounds generous to me.

It's a complicated plot, moreso than most George Kaufman/Edna Ferber vehicles, but the superb cast carries it off well. MGM billed this as more star-studded than Grand Hotel, and they may be right:
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 Stengel
Karen Morley ... Mrs. Lucy Talbot

Though by 1933 Marie Dressler had a face which could stop Big Ben, she stole the show. Fine, fine acting. This is a woman who was made famous as one of Charlie Chaplin's silent film gamins, but her strong suit is her line delivery. One Chaplin-esque move on her part made the whole movie for me. At the end of the film, as they are going in to dinner, Harlow says to her "I was reading a book", and Dressler does a stop-take which had me ROFLing.

One thing which did have a ring of truth in the book - Schulman says Harlow hated Wallace Beery. He plays her loutish husband in this film, but the anti-chemistry seems to go well beyond acting.

Both Barrymores live up to their star billing, though Billie Burke wins a membership in Overactors Anonymous for her way over the top portrayal of the high strung society wife whose dinner party plans are falling apart at the seams. It's a very different performance from good witch Glinda in The Wizard of Oz.

Madge Evans is quite the knock-out in her own right, and MGM used her in 8 other pictures in 1933. A child actress (staring at 5 years old) in the silent era, IMDB shows 95 acting credits for her, including TV, a career spanning 54 years!

Photography is good, sets are a little plain, considering the opulence the script calls for. I kept thinking it looked like the community theater version. Of course this was shot during the Depression, so the budget may have been modest. Costumes are somewhat muted, except for Harlow's silver satin outfits. No special effects, lighting is even, but nothing challenging, there are no outdoors scenes. Sound is excellent, and the DVD is made from a clean print.

Also on the DVD is a spoof short called Come To Dinner which features a cast who are almost dead ringers for the originals, plus what was missing from the original - a bevy of pretty chorus girls and a couple of musical numbers. The spoof is very clever, and worth the disk space.

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