George Cukor’s tragi-comedy Dinner At Eight (1933) is a remarkable thing. Not least because the dinner itself never actually happens. It is all about the intertwining lives of the guests in the days leading up to it, ending right after they walk into the dining-room.
Being an ensemble movie – and being a Cukor movie – it’s all about the performances: Billie Burke and her permanent ditziness as the socialite and hostess of the titular dinner, Lionel Barrymore as her husband with a failing business and failing health, John Barrymore and his tragic descent into despair as he realizes he’s a has-been, and, of course, Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery as the couple who can’t stand each other. But to me, Marie Dressler is the stand-out. And in a movie whose cast includes the Barrymore brothers and arguably the most beloved blonde bombshell of the 1930s, that’s quite a feat.
In her first scene, with Lionel Barrymore, her over-the-top entrance precedes her larger-than-life performance. Carlota Vance (Dressler) is a retired stage actress, who is now broke and looking to sell her stock. She and Oliver Jordan (Barrymore) are old friends and she confides in him that she has no money, in what can only be described as a scene-stealing moment, for no other reason than her extraordinary expressions. I mean, what a face! She had the perfect face for comedy and she knew how to use it. And on top of that, what does it for me in this film is that she slips between comedy and drama seemingly without any effort, so naturally, that it only hits you a few seconds after she’s done it. Her scene with Paula (Magde Evans) towards the end is a good example of this. It’s a tender, heartfelt moment that starts off as anything but. It’s actually probably my favorite scene in the film and it’s because of Marie Dressler.
Her crowning moment, and the film’s most iconic one, is her scene with Kitty (Jean Harlow), in which she delivers one of the best putdowns in 1930s comedy and one of the funniest closing lines ever. Marie Dressler was perfect in this and rightfully got top-billing. In the original Kaufman and Ferber play, however, Constance Collier played Carlota and when you read things like that, you can’t help but think that the two of them would have been absolutely hilarious in a film together. I almost feel cheated that we didn’t get to see that. But hey, we’ll always have this and that’s good enough for me.