Besides Alfred Hitchcock, the other important director of American films whose centenary arrived in the final year of the 20th Century was George Cukor, and during the first year (of several) in which he got nominated for a directing Oscar (for Katharine Hepburn’s Little Women), he also did a remarkable all-star movie that could nearly stand as a time capsule for the state of popular U.S. cinema circa 1933: DINNER AT EIGHT (available on DVD). The nation’s number one box office attraction, for the fourth consecutive year, was the pug-faced, rotund and aging character actress Marie Dressler, here in her penultimate film. She would be dead from cancer within a year, and this was her last brilliantly personable performance, though not a typical role since she usually played working-class types rather than society women.
Two years before, she had won the Best Actress Oscar for Min and Bill opposite another top favorite, the raspy-voiced and hefty character man Wallace Beery, who also appears memorably in Dinner at Eight, but he plays most of his scenes with Dressler’s antithesis, the original platinum blonde bombshell herself, Jean Harlow, in probably her best, least guarded, and funniest portrayal, as Beery’s equal in gauche and deliriously grasping nouveau-richedom.
This pair is the picture’s comedy highpoint, but the movie has its potent dramatic moments, too, as the excellently constructed screenplay (by legendary pros Frances Marion, Herman J. Mankiewicz and Donald Ogden Stewart, based on the George S. Kaufman-Edna Ferber stage success) steers adroitly from one engrossing character to another, all of them being invited to a fancy dinner party by wealthy businessman Lionel Barrymore (touchingly low-key) and his dizzy social-climbing wife Billie Burke (at her nagging peak). What Billie doesn’t know is that Lionel has developed a serious heart condition, plus his company is in bad trouble.
In even worse shape is the former matinee idol-movie star, on his last legs, and superbly incarnated by Lionel’s younger brother, the great John Barrymore (Drew’s grandfather), in one of his most naked and totally unsentimental performances. Equally convincing is the actor’s fast-talking agent done by Lee Tracy, whose edgy scenes with Jack (as everyone called him) Barrymore are riveting. And this Barrymore’s concluding sequence, when he prepares to commit suicide, is unforgettable, aided in no small measure by Cukor’s superb directional touch of having the character trip and fall badly while going about these desperate final acts. Among other familiar faces in the fine ensemble cast are Edmund Lowe, Jean Hersholt and May Robson.
Produced by David O. Selznick, Dinner at Eight is exactly the kind of literate, civilized, urbane and people-oriented material to which George Cukor was drawn and which he illuminated so beautifully throughout his long career. Born in New York City, and having been attracted to the stage as a young man, he made a name for himself as a Broadway director before being coaxed to Hollywood with the arrival of sound, when suddenly the studios decided that anybody who had directed people talking knew more than any silent master. They soon discovered their error, but Cukor was one of the few “dialog-experts” who succeeded. Nevertheless, he started directing movies at a considerably older age than most of his more cinematically inclined contemporaries, but he also lasted longer, his final film being made when he was 82.
Known for an amazing alchemy with actors, Cukor was responsible for some of the most notable performances in picture history, such as Garbo’s Camille and Judy Garland’s A Star is Born; he introduced Katharine Hepburn to films (and her career made her still the longest-lived star-actor in movies), as well as Jack Lemmon, Judy Holliday, Angela Lansbury, Shelley Winters, Aldo Ray, and others. His pictures tend to hold up better than the work of many more flamboyantly filmic directors, and Dinner at Eight was among the first in a long line of favorites that include (beside those already mentioned): David Copperfield, Holiday, The Women, The Philadelphia Story, A Double Life, Adam’s Rib, Born Yesterday, Pat and Mike and My Fair Lady, for which—after five Nominations as Best Director and seven for Best Picture–he finally won his Academy Award. Notoriously, he was fired off Gone With the Wind for not being macho enough to please Clark Gable, but continued to closely coach Olivia de Havilland and Vivian Leigh (who won Best Actress for this).
In my soon-to-be-forthcoming Best American Pictures of 1933, Cukor’s Dinner at Eight stands within the top three, and, as I said, it’s the same year he had released his peerless version of Little Women, with Kate Hepburn at her youthful freshest as Jo. As if that weren’t enough, the same year saw the release of yet another Cukor work, his impeccably mounted film of Somerset Maugham’s sophisticated comedy of errors, Our Betters, with Constance Bennett. And this was only George Cukor’s fourth year as a picture director. How far quicker and richer filmmaking was then! Well, of course, there was a system that worked in those days, unlike the current madness.