Dinner at Eight is another all-star slug fest from MGM meant to capitalize and top the success of Grand Hotel from the previous year. This time around, well to do wife, Millicent Jordan is setting up a charming dinner party for a wealthy English couple Lord and Lady Ferncliffe who are traveling to New York. The hostess is frantically trying to figure out dinner guests for the big occasion because everything must be perfect. Observant viewers will notice that the high strung lady of the house is played by Billy Burke (more widely known as the Good Witch Glenda). Her husband Louis (Lionel Barrymore) is a kindly shipping magnate, who was hit hard by the depression, and his health is also failing as a result. Their daughter has problems of her own since she does not really love her fiancee and has fallen for the much older, and washed-up alcoholic actor Larry Renault (John Barrymore).
Next on the list of probable invitees is Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), the formerly prominent actress, who is now still in the twilight years of her career, but she still carries on a lavish lifestyle with furs and all. She is old friends with Louis, and she is always ready and willing to reminisce, fish for compliments, and offer a little sage advice on the side. She’s a character we like.
The most dynamic pair is most certainly Wallace Beery and Jean Harlow. They play the gruff, crooked businessman and his equally feisty wife, Dan and Kitty Packard. They’re hardly together because he’s working and she’s buying up clothes and caught up in an affair. When the two of them finally are together in the same room, they are constantly at each other’s throats. No punches or barbs are spared. And yet on the invitation to the Jordan’s they both pull their act together. He wants to meet the highly prestigious Ferncliffes, and she wants a chance to get dressed up. They’re quite the match.
With a title like Dinner at Eight, you expect the drama to take place around the table with the guests all seated together. However, that would be rather stuffy, I suppose, and instead, the dinner only acts as the culminating event to push the plot along. We actually never see the guests at the table, only the action leading up to it. Millicent is in a tizzy, especially when she hears the Ferncliffes have a change of plans. Her husband’s health is slowly deteriorating at the same rate as his company. The arrogant actor Larry Renault bickers with his agent about his next role. Honestly, this was the most unsatisfying of the threads, and it did ultimately end in tragedy. However, I’d be interested to know how close this parody actually came to John Barrymore’s actual life, because sometimes it’s hard to know how to parse the fiction from the reality when they seem to overlap.
Once all the guests are assembled it’s a rather ragtag group, but it is a fun mix of characters, and Millicent gets her cousin Hattie to attend along with her Garbo-loving husband who is unenthusiastic about the whole affair. It’s a satisfying overall result and an enjoyable enough ensemble that George Cukor directs with relative ease.