Saturday, January 10, 2009

The greatest ensemble cast?

I don't think I've devoted a whole post yet to the 1933 classic Dinner At Eight, which is airing on TCM at 8:00 PM ET on January 10, kicking off a night of movies starring the great Jean Harlow.

Harlow isn't the star here; she's only one of the stars -- but a bit more on that later. The plot of the story involves ditzy socialite Millicent Jordan (wonderfully played by Billie Burke), who decides that she wants to have a dinner party at her house in honor of some British aristocrats who are soon to arrive in New York. The movie, however, isn't about the dinner party itself; it's about the lives of the hosts and invited guests. And those lives all have some rather serious problems. First, there's Millicent's husband, Oliver (played by Oscar-winner Lionel Barrymore). He's the head of an old shipping company that's fallen on hard times thanks to the Depression; this is the first time in a century that a Jordan Line ship's leaving port was cancelled. Worse, Oliver soon learns that he's got a heart condition that is in all likelihood fatal. Not that that gives him a respite from his business. One of the major stockholders, old and now-going-bankrupt actress Carlotta Vance (there's another Oscar winner, Marie Dressler) wants to sell some of her stock. She gets invited to the dinner party largely because Oliver used to have a crush on her back in the day.

Hovering over all of this is dishonest businessman and Friend of the Roosevelts Dan Packard (the third Oscar winner: Wallace Beery). He sees that the Jordan Line is in trouble, and is willing to "help" -- but in a way that's only going to help him. He's got a troubled marriage of his own, to wife Kitty (the aforementioned Harlow), whom he clearly married because she's a trophy wife. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of love going on, because she's making out with her doctor (Edmund Lowe). The Packards get invited to the part largely because Oliver wants it. Millicent wouldn't have any part of the "vulgar" Packards: she's really a snob, and they're too common for her.

The final intended guest, intended as a partner for Carlotta, is fellow struggling thespian Larry Renault, played by John Barrymore. Renault is now an alcoholic, reduced to trying to do anything to get a drink, and get a part, although he thinks he's still good enough to get any part he wants. He's currently got a love interest -- Millicent and Oliver's daughter, who is actually engaged to another man, but intends to leave that man for Renault. Not that Millicent and Oliver know anything about this, though.

All of these personal tragedies go on without Millicent knowing anything about them. Despite the fact that everybody's got their own tragedies, Dinner at Eight is really a comedy, and a great one at that. The contrast between Millicent's ditziness and the other characters' problems is perhaps best shown in a scene where Oliver comes home ready to tell his wife he's going to die, at the same time that their daughter comes home to tell her parents she's going to break off the engagement. Millicent stops both of them, because her problem is more important: the maid (Oh -- that's May Robson, who would receive an Oscar nomination the same year for Lady For a Day) dropped the aspic, which was supposed to be the pièce de résistance of the dinner, and the other servants were fighting. The way Millicent brushes off her husband and daughter, acting like a Stepford Wife on the fritz, is absolutely hilarious. And it may not be the funniest moment in the movie, either. Watch for the end, when Kitty Packard tells Carlotta that she's been reading a book.

The cast of Dinner at Eight is filled with one star after another. Harlow, in fact, is billed behind both Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery, who had been stars at MGM for longer, and John Barrymore. Surprisingly, despite the fact that Lionel Barrymore had already won an Oscar, he gets billed after Harlow. And there are more character actors I haven't even mentioned. Lee Tracy appears as Larry Renault's long-suffering agent; Karen Morley plays the doctor's wife; and Grant Mitchell appears briefly at the end as the husband of Millicent's cousin, pressed into service as a dinner guest when the guests of honor skip out on the dinner.

Despite this massive star power, every member of the cast gets his or her moment. The cast shines, both individually and together, making Dinner at Eight one of the great movies of all time. It's available on DVD too, as it rightly deserves to be.

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