Dinner at Eight (George Cukor / U.S., 1933):

The George S. Kaufman-Edna Ferber play gets the swanky MGM veneer, though with the Depression always on the wings of the proscenium. The gathering, really a bourgeois Viking funeral in disguise, is organized by a windup nitwit (Billie Burke) who’s too busy hyperventilating about the hors d’oeuvres to notice her husband (Lionel Barrymore) sweating over clogged arteries and plunging stocks. A penthouse bull (Wallace Beery) embodies the ruthless new corporate era, his "alley cat" doll (Jean Harlow) is a social-climber lolling around in satin and half-eaten bonbons, "I’m going to be a lady if it kills me!" Others on the guest list include Marie Dressler’s ruined stage matron (she was once offered grand-dame roles, "now I wish I’d taken a sandwich") and John Barrymore’s fallen matinee idol, contemplating his descent from star to bit player while holed up in a hotel room. A deluxe flipbook of caricatures, a blatant pageant of studio thoroughbreds, a study of tuxedoed, bejeweled pretense. The characters are unabashed performers, silly and vain and desperate, and George Cukor reveres their histrionic brio: Dressler is still a Sennett bulldozer underneath her furs and veils, the Art Deco whiteness of the boudoir merely heightens the combustible truculence of Beery and Harlow. Best of all is the bitterness and humor John Barrymore mines from a burned-out swain’s struggle to remain lordly through a swamp of broken romances, bottles of scotch, bathrobes, and assorted showbiz indignities. "Go get yourself buried," his agent (Lee Tracy) sneers, Barrymore does so in grandly theatrical fashion, adjusting the mise-en-scène to better capture the sagging aquiline profile. Death and ruination are never far from the wisecracks and ritzy corridors, Cukor’s party is the quivering, lion-shaped aspic platter that goes with Renoir’s mechanical calliope in La Règle du Jeu. With Edmund Lowe, Madge Evans, Jean Hersholt, Karen Morley, Louise Closser Hale, May Robson, and Grant Mitchell. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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