Dinner at Eight (1933)

220px-Dinner_at_Eight_cph.3b52734Dinner 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.

4/5 Stars

Grand Hotel (1932)

GrandHotelFilmPosterGrand Hotel is the epitome of a Hollywood superstar ensemble, and it would set the bar for all the films that would try to imitate and surpass it. Thanks to Irving Thalberg and the studio with more stars than there are in the heavens, MGM delivered a film that was a smash hit and after well over 80 years, it still remains an important visual relic.

The cast was beyond a contemporary viewer’s wildest dreams. It was that good. You had Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Lionel Barrymore, and Wallace Beery among others. Nowadays many of these names do not carry as much clout (I must admit even to me), and the idea of a film starring numerous big names seems almost mundane. Just take a look at Oceans Eleven or The Avengers. But we must understand that at that time it was a stroke of genius because usually only one or two stars were set aside to be in a certain film. It was seen as the most commercially viable philosophy at the time.

Then came Grand Hotel: As Dr. Otternschlag (Lewis Stone)  muses it’s “always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.” It’s counter-intuitive but in some ways, that’s what makes this film so much fun. People love stories with fun vignettes that criss-cross and weave in and out. It’s even better when the stories contain the likes of Garbo and the Barrymores. Not to mention Joan Crawford.

It’s a fun world and a lasting tradition that many films have attempted to replicate because honestly, most audiences love these types of realities that they can escape to and in turn, be a part of. In this case, it’s this opulent hotel in the heart of Berlin full of bustling bellboys,  lavish suites, and all the pleasures life could afford.

Furthermore, the guests come from every walk of life imaginable making it all the more enjoyable to watch their intermingling and chance encounters. There is the prima ballerina (Greta Garbo), who has recently gotten cold feet and even canceled a show in her melancholy. It allows for Garbo to utter her famous line, “I want to be alone.”

Then there’s the baron (John Barrymore) who is also in desperate need of money. You might label him a cad because he resorts to theft several times, but if he is a thief he also has a heart of gold befriending and comforting nearly everyone he meets. He especially makes Ms. Grusinskaya very happy and it allows for some amorous scenes between John Barrymore and Garbo.

Next comes Mr. Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) who is the lowest of all the individuals in the hotel, but since his imminent death is ahead, he is finally going to live a little and he finally gains some of the friends and respect that he has always wanted. On the other hand, Wallace Beery plays Preysing the big magnate who is trying to swing an important deal to keep his company afloat.  Mr. Kringelein is one of his nameless underlings who keeps his books. Preysing has little concern for the “little man,” until he is desperately in need of help.

Last, but not least, is a radiant and spry Joan Crawford as the stenographer. She’s far from the star, but she does seem to steal many of the scenes that she pops up in. Also, despite all the ups and downs, she gets the happy ending she deserves.

I must admit that Grand Hotel takes a little time to set the scene and pick up steam, but when it does it’s a lot of fun. You know it’s a special film when the two Barrymore brothers are acting together, playing two so very different individuals. Yet underlining every scene they share together is the indisputable fact that they are related.  You also have Garbo and Crawford in the same film without either sharing a scene with the other! For an updated take on this type of story give some attention to Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel. Otherwise, this lavish 1930s production is worthwhile, because it really does feel like you’re watching film history.

4/5 Stars