Saturday, May 15, 2010

Review: Dinner at Eight (1933)

All the women pretty much steal this one. The men are given very little to do, except stand around, looking handsome in a sort of aged way. They all bumble around, spurting out dialogue about how much trouble they're in financially, and how much the Great Depression hurt them. Oh yeah, I'm sure it was a big comfort to the millions of jobless people living in Hooverville that the people directly responsible for causing the Wall Street Crash with their complete lack of long term planning were suffering too - they might not be able to afford a table at the society benefit, and they might be forced to sell off their holiday home! Okay, yes, by the end of the film the big American bully guy (the guy we're supposed to think is really responsible for the crash, because of how much of an asshole he is) has learnt a small, tiny, miniscule amount of restraint, but is it enough?

Yes. In this film it is enough, because nobody's really paying attention to the men anyway. Nobody cares, when you have three of the funniest performances from three of the funniest actresses working in Hollywood at the time. Jean Harlowe is hysterical as Wallace Beery's disgruntled and manipulative wife. Marie Dressler is charming and endearing as the aging actress who both encourages and ridicules men's remembering her as she was in her prime. But the show is really stolen by Billie Burke in full on maniac mode, who spends the whole film worrying about the seating arrangements of a society dinner, when everyone around her's lives are turning to shit.

And it is because of these three wonderful central performances that the rest of the film works so well. I mean, none of the men are given particularly interesting characters or storylines, but we care about them inasmuch as they act as foils for the women. Harlowe uses Beery like Gracie Allen uses George Burns, or Jerry Lewis uses Dean Martin. You don't necessarily notice them when they're there, but you'd notice if they left. And the reason that Billie Burke's performance is so funny is because Lionel Barrymore's was so serious - he was losing his business and dying of heart failure, while his wife screamed at him because they didn't have the required number of guests. And Marie Dressler's performance is so endearing because you can tell that her self esteem is based almost exclusively on the adulation of men - now that she is old and wrinkled, the adulation has become confused with memory, and so she feels the need to trade on her former glory, while pretending she is perfectly content with herself as is.

George Cuckor, the director of the film, did a superb job - we care when he wants us to care, we laugh when he wants us to laugh. There are a few plots that seem a bit too melodramatic and pointless (the romance between the fading actor and the young woman engaged to someone else is somewhat irrelevant, and its conclusion is super-rushed,) but on the whole this works as a superb serio-comic portrayal of the lives of the rich during one of the bleakest economic times in American history.

1 comment:

  1. All the women pretty much steal this one. The men are given very little to do, except stand around, looking handsome in a sort of aged way.

    I find this hard to accept. I get the feeling that you're confusing John Barrymore's role with all of the other male characters in this movie.