Today’s film is adapts the successful stage play directed by George Cukor. It’s a Who’s Who of actors telling a story about the society…and yet I was left bored. I’m all for high-society ensemble films but Dinner at Eight is like a long-winded play filled with characters I had little interest in. Harlow plays a scheming adulteress, and while it’s pre-Code it’s not nearly as risque nor does it revel in its own debauchery like Red Dust. Instead, the end plays like a cautionary tale about the rich and famous.
Society Queen, Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke) is hosting a dinner for visitors from England. As her husband Oliver (Lionel Barrymore) copes with losing his business various characters deal with their own issues before the party including Millicent’s daughter Paula (Madge Evans) quibbling over whether to leave her fiance, and an unhappy couple (Wallace Beery, Harlow) dealing with marital strife.
The film does a decent job of blending the harsher elements of the Depression with the grand opulence of the wealthy dinner. I assumed this was going to be a Grand Hotel-esque ensemble, which it is, but it also discusses every problem the idle rich have, from infidelity to poverty. At times I just wanted someone with no problems to explore the situation as a conscientious objector, but that wouldn’t work in this film. Being an adaptation of a Broadway play the film’s excessive dialogue and constant entrances and exits of characters remind you of its staged origins, for good or ill. The sheer abundance of storylines – I counted six, at least – left me exceedingly bored and had me reminding myself who was who, how they were related, and what their story was. Keep in mind, this is a movie you have to devote all your attention to or risk losing the story threads.
Harlow’s story is good, but she’s as despicable as the majority of the characters. Her character, the infamous Kitty Packard, is having an affair with her doctor, but you wouldn’t know it for all the emphasis placed on Kitty talking in a baby voice. It’s odd how childlike her character is, and while it’s intended to make her husband do what she wants…it’s creepy nonetheless because it’s presumed to be their sole attraction to each other. Her relationship with her husband, Dan tries to be funny by the end but I never felt anything for them. I didn’t really feel anything for any of the characters, overall. Sure, it’s sad when characters start committing suicide or are found to be terminally ill but by the end, I felt it was trying to squeeze sympathy out of the audience among the morass of awful people in a melodramatic fashion.
I think that’s what I disliked most about Dinner at Eight; it’s bad melodrama. I’m all for making fun of the rich in screwball comedies, but melodrama about how sad and empty the lives of the wealthy are make me angry (Sofia Coppola’s recent output comes to mind). It’s okay if you like grand ensembles, but it’s pretty dull otherwise.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.