“Listen to me old-timer. I'm drunk, and I know I'm drunk but I know what I'm talking about.”
One of my favorite ways stories are told in either films or TV shows is where there are a bunch of different characters with different stories in different places and either during or at the end of the film or TV show all those different people with their different stories come together. For some reason that way of telling a story never gets old to me. I just really enjoy it. Plenty of films in Old Hollywood used that way of storytelling including Dinner at Eight from 1933.
The story begins with the Jordan family. The family is wealthy due to Oliver’s (Lionel Barrymore) shipping business. Millicent (Billie Burke), like many high society women during the early 20th century and before then, is concerned about mingling with all the well known upper class sets from America and Europe. She has finally gotten a British lord and his wife to come to dinner while they are in America. She sets the dinner date for the following Friday at eight o’clock. Oliver and their daughter Paula (Madge Evans) could care less about a dinner date for the following week. Olivier is only looking forward to it because Millicent has invited an old friend of his an old actress named Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler). Oliver is worried about his shipping business and Paula is a bunch of nerves over her fiancé coming back but not in a good way.
At the office Oliver announces that one of their ships is not going to be able to leave on time because there is not enough cargo. It would be the first time in sixty years since his grandfather started the business that one of the company’s ships is not leaving on time. There is nothing Oliver can do someone else is taking away their business. Carlotta comes to see Oliver at the office. She tells him she is broke but she does not want to give anything up she is from the old set with traveling and knowing people and a certain lifestyle and she does not want to give that up and live permanently in America. The two reminisce about when they were younger. Oliver had proposed to her when he was twenty-one and she broke his heart. She explains that she was so much older than him but it broke her own heart as well. As Carlotta is leaving a man named Dan Packard (Wallace Beery) comes in for a meeting. Dan is wealthy business man that Oliver is looking to sell some stocks to. Dan does not want to take the stocks because Oliver’s company is old and on its way out. Secretly Dan wants to buy out the business. Oliver calls Millicent to say to invite Dan and his wife to their dinner party the following week. Millicent does not really like Dan but she obliges and gives the wife a call.
Dan has a young wife named Kitty (Jean Harlow). It is obvious right from her first scene that Kitty only married Dan for his money. She claims to be sick and needs to stay in bed all day while waiting for the doctor to come. As she waits she eats a lot of boxes of chocolate, puts on makeup, and tries on a new hat. When Dr. Wayne Talbot comes to the house Kitty puts an act of sickness on but as soon as her maid walks out of her room she gets mad at him for not having come by to see her in days. She says she loves him and that he is the only one who loves her and that she is bored when he does not come around.
When Dan comes home Kitty tells him that they have been invited to the dinner party. Dan refuses to go especially because he wants to buy Oliver out. They have a huge blow up which comes to an end when Kitty tells him that the British lord will be there. Dan has been trying to get in touch with the lord for two years about some business ventures.
The following week comes along. Millicent’s perfect party begins to fall apart. The British lord and his wife have decided to head down to Florida to fish. The dinner the cook had made after she dropped it on the floor when she had to break up a vicious fight between the butler and the driver. One of her fill in guests calls her telling her he is very sick and cannot make the party. Millicent’s sister suggests inviting another old actor named Larry Renault (John Barrymore) so he can keep Carlotta company. When Millicent calls Larry he is entertaining, of the people in the world, Paula. Larry is the one that has been causing Paula some confusion and nerves. She loves him more than she loves her fiancé and would rather be with him. He tries telling her that he is all washed up, he is a drunk who cannot get any work, and all three of his wives had severe issues. Paula does not care about any of that no matter how much he tries to make her. She leave when Larry’s manager comes to the room. He is trying to get Larry a part in a new play but no one really wants him since his reputation is not what it used to be. Later on Larry completely ruins his career by yelling at a theater manager who was willing to give him a second rate part. Larry’s manager has it out with him and says that he was never a good actor and no one will want him now that he is a total drunk. Unable to handle the truths and where his life has come to Larry kills himself.
Oliver meanwhile is not feeling well. He goes to Wayne’s office. He tells Wayne he had had a weak moment at his office after Dan had left. The prognosis is not good Oliver is dying from a thrombosis. Before the party starts that night Oliver stays in his room leaving Millicent to welcome the guests. Wayne and Millicent go up to Oliver to check on him. He lest Millicent know the truth about her husband and how he does not have much time left. Millicent is obviously upset but she makes the best of it. When Oliver tells her they are broke she immediately starts downsizing and being supportive. They walk down to the dinner party together arm in arm.
There was so much going on in this film that I cannot possibly write because it would confuse you reading it since I am not good with getting points across in a coherent way and also not to give too much away. Now you have to go and watch Dinner at Eight!
Dinner at Eight was a very good film. I enjoyed how all the characters were connected and what brought them to the party. I think I can officially say that I now see what so many film historians and film critics really like Jean Harlow. I am not a fan of Harlow’s but I really liked her character in this. Kitty was very funny and very tough and Harlow did a great job with being both. The story was written by Frances Marion along with a few others. I like Marion as a storyteller she wrote some of my favorite Mary Pickford films. George Cukor directed and his direction is always flawless he always knew how to get the best out his actors.
I am very happy I finally watched Dinner at Eight. I usually see it on lists for Pre-Codes or best films of the 1930s. Dinner at Eight is absolutely worth taking the time to watch.