I haven't done a Weekend Cinema post in quite a while, but I'm inspired to do so after watching Dinner At Eight again tonight, not because I don't have the flowers to post (I do!), but because it's such a great example of that elusive Depression-Era genre, the big ensemble social tragicomedy. (Think Grand Hotel, its most immediate predecessor and winner of the 1932 Best Picture Academy Award.)
They just don't make them like this anymore (well, at least since Robert Altman died, and maybe Paul-Thomas Anderson will one day fill those shoes) ... and this one has become one of our favorites, especially because it was such a fun role for Jean Harlow, our favorite of all the sultry early 30's divas. So, whenever it shows up on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), I have to record it and watch it again, and after tonight, I think I'm going to leave it on the DVR for a while, because I want to go back a few more times to savor its multi-layered cinematic pleasures. This film has a lot to say about American society during the Great Depression, although it is firmly couched in the then emerging screwball comedy genre ... which is perhaps an unfair label to pin on this film because it is so much more than just a 30's genre film. If you've never seen this gem, keep an eye out for it (for reasons I'll explain below), but for now, take a look at the original trailer (it's about 3 minutes long).
It's obvious that MGM clearly thought they had the sure-fire successor to Grand Hotel here, given this kind of treatment in the trailer (don't even try to count the superlatives!), but I'd argue that ultimately it is a much better film, at least in terms of how it depicts its contemporary society in the first years of the Great Depression. In many respects, it's a classical comedy of manners with many of its "stock" characters: We have the once rich business family on the verge of bankruptcy, a couple of penniless has been actors, (one of whom still carries on delusionally), a hopelessly philandering physician, a frustrated socialite hostess and a brash, coarse and colorful couple of Nouveaux riches. All the elements are clearly in place for an epic culture clash during a high society dinner honoring some foreign socialites who never show up, thus throwing the whole elaborately constructed party into chaos.
Yes, it was certainly an "all star cast" of its time, with Marie Dressler, Jean Harlow, two Barrymores, Wallace Beery and perhaps the most recognizable voice of any actress of her time, Billie Burke, the future Glinda, the Good Witch of the North from The Wizard of Oz. Though much of the film is devoted to the exposition of the characters' backstories leading up to the climactic dinner, that's where the true interest and richness of the comedy emerges with its subtly delivered barbs and wry social commentary ... as we learn more about each of these characters, we gradually realize that they are all (in today's term) losers for one reason or another, cast adrift in an uncertain economic time where they are struggling to survive.
Inevitable comparisons with our own contemporary economic situation come to mind ... we have a long established family businessman on the verge of being bought out in a stock sale manipulation, two past their prime actors bereft of their previous celebrity (and wealth), and most of all, a predatory business shark (who in today's terms would be a venture capitalist or M&A specialist). What keeps this film's serio-comic depictions relevant is the fact that we all clearly recognize these types, and whether or not we find them particularly engaging or sympathetic characters, we find them entirely believable. And that's what gives this film great resonance for our own times, some 76 years later, as we face an equally uncertain economic future.
I think there are still important lessons here that we can learn: unbridled greed and avarice are not good things, overly affected pretension is a waste of time and effort, humility and staying true to one's own self are much more important concepts, whether we realize it or not, and perhaps most saliently, self-reliance is crucial to survival. There are definitely winners and losers here (and one ends in a suicide), there are survivors as well as those who will eventually adapt to their circumstances and perhaps emerge as better persons. For me, part of this film's brilliance is in its non-judgmental attitude toward all of the characters ... it's left up to the viewer to make these decisions, just as it is in "real life." And that's what makes great comedies of manners (think back as far as Moliere) speak to us across the divide of time: recognition and perhaps identification as useful social correctives.
Lest I make this film appear way too serious in its intent, there are a multitude of comic moments throughout, and if one pays particular attention to the clever script, there are many "zingers" sprinkled throughout its albeit madcap preparations for the big "dinner at eight." All the fun is getting there, as we learn these lessons along the way, all the while we are prompted to think about our own personal situations in the particular moment in which we live. These may be characters frozen in time from 1933, but they still speak to us in our times and have a lot of important things to say.
This final clip contains what may well be one of the all time great one-liners delivered on the screen (in this instance by the inimitable Marie Dressler) with the joyful participation by Jean Harlow. Its ironies are rich and still speak to us today as clearly as they did way back in 1933, during the first term of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Make of that comment as you will....