Dinner at Eight

If all you know of Billie Burke is the goody-two-shoes Witch of the North, Glinda, you’ve missed one of the great comediennes of 1930s cinema.DinnerAtEight38 In “Dinner at Eight”—a delightful adaptation of the risqué George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber play, directed by George Cukor, she plays a chirpy society matron worrying about having the right number of people around the table.

She’s going to have a lot worse problems than that. It starts with the aspic (in the shape of a lion, in honor of the British guests of honor). The cook had to throw it on the floor to break up the fight between the valet and the butler. One’s been stabbed and needed to have his eye stitched up, the other’s been arrested and it all had to do with the flirtatious  housemaid. And then the guests of honor up and went to Florida. Watch Burke at the end of her tether and you’ll never confuse her with Glinda again.

But Burke isn’t the only treat. You get both Lionel and John Barrymore, the latter playing a washed-up actor whose decline is quite riveting. Here’s his poignant admission to his infatuated young lover, right before he sends her back to her fiancé:  “You want to know the truth Paula?  I love you as much as I can love anyone. But it isn’t real love anymore. There have been too many.”

“Dinner at Eight” also features Jean Harlowharlow as the sexy, manipulative, and cheating wife of a crooked businessman. You won’t believe what a bad girl she is!

My favorite character is the aging actress, Carlotta Vance, played by the magnificent Marie Dressler. She’s a hoot in every scene, but she’s also the film’s moral center. Back in the days before the Hays Code, you didn’t need a goody-two-shoes in that role. Someone like Carlotta, who’s seen it all, done it all, and regrets not one minute, is just right for the part.

Holiday

For a Cary Grant fan like myself, the prospect of watching him and Katharine Hepburn together was not to be missed this Memorial Day weekend.  “Holiday” was made in 1938, the same year as the pair’s much better known romantic comedy, “Bringing Up Baby.” This one’s a romantic comedy too, but it’s got an edge. A sad undercurrent that lends the film depth.

Hepburn plays Linda Seton, the older sister of the woman Grant’s character (Johnny) loves. The Setons are a wealthy family with the usual skeletons in the closet. In this case, it’s a younger brother with a drinking problem. Ned Seton has given up his love of music to go into business and his quiet self-destructiveness broke my heart.

It’s New Year’s Eve, and Linda has just realized that she’s in love with Johnny.katharine-hepburn-cary-grant-holiday-black-gown-2 She’s too high-principled to steal him away from her sister — nobody does high-principled better than Hepburn — even though we can see that she’s just his type.

So Linda asks Ned to pour her a glass of champagne.

“What’s it like, to get drunk Ned?”

He considers this seriously. “How drunk?”

“Good and drunk.”

“Grand!”

“How is it?” Linda persists.

“Well…” He pauses to refill his glass. “To begin with it brings you to life.”

“Does it?” she asks, brightening to the idea.

“And after awhile you begin to know all about it. You feel… important.”

“That must be good!”

“Yes.” He beckons her closer. “And then pretty soon the game starts.”

“What game?”

“A swell game. A terribly exciting game. You see, you think clear as crystal but every move, every sentence is a problem. It gets pretty interesting.”

Linda’s face falls as understanding dawns. “You get beaten then, don’t you?”

“Sure, but that’s good too. Then you don’t mind anything. Not anything at all. Then you sleep.”

“How long can you keep it up?”

“A long while. As long as you can last.”

“Oh, Ned. That’s awful.”

“Think so? Other things are worse”.

“Where do you end up?

“Where does everybody end up?” He says this matter-of-factly. “You die.  That’s alright too.”

Shades of the bitter disillusionment of “Dinner at Eight,” which George Cukor also directed from a stage play. The romance is lovely, right up there with “The Philadelphia Story” (another Cukor gem). But the dialogue lends this film a darker tone.

Many thanks to E. H. for recommending it to me.

The Women

This one’s a weeper.  Norma Shearer’s straightforward and endearing heroine, Mary, is surrounded by ill will.  Her so-called friends can’t wait for her to discover that her husband’s having an affair—and not with someone in their set, but with a scheming shopgirl played by Joan Crawford.  The humiliation is simply too much to bear!

 

Mary’s mother tells her to swallow her pride.  They didn’t call it an open marriage in 1939, but that’s what a woman in Mary’s position was expected to put up with, to keep her home intact.  Men have their appetites, you know?

But Mary goes ahead and confronts her cheating husband, takes herself off to Reno and gets a divorce.  Only after it comes through does she admit to herself that she still loves the scoundrel.  And Crawford’s character is such a bad girl.  There she’s got Mary’s husband right where she wants him, he gives her everything she asks for, and she’s cheating on him?  Talking all lovey dovey to her new beau on the phone while taking a bubble bath?  How wicked can you get?

When Mary finds out, she decides to fight back.  “I’ve had two years to grow claws,” she tells her mother, brandishing her newly-manicured fingernails.  “Jungle red!”

So have yourself a good cry.  You’ll be smiling by the end.  Between the catty dialogue and the stellar performances (don’t miss Rosalind Russell!), “The Women” is another George Cukor gem.

The Philadelphia Story

Kate is in fine form in this picture.  Of course, she got everything she wanted:  George Cukor for her director, Cary Grant for her leading man, cary-grant-and-katharine-hepburn-the-philadelphia-storyJames Stewart as the reporter she gets drunk with, and fine supporting performances from Ruth Hussey and Mary Nash.  You can tell they’re all having the time of their lives.

Kate’s character has painted herself into a corner. She’s got such high standards, no mortal man can measure up.  She’s about to marry a stuffed shirt who worships the ground she walks on—the polar opposite of her first husband (Grant).  Rosalind Russell nearly made the same mistake in “The Front Page.”  How any woman could divorce Grant is beyond me, but Kate’s character is awfully confused when the picture opens.  She thinks she wants to be worshipped.

Fortunately for Kate, she’s got Stewart to remind her how to be human.

But life isn’t only champagne and kisses.  The uptight fiancé cares only for appearances, and things look pretty bad.  He’s ready to defend his bride’s honor, but Grant beats him to it.  Maybe he’s a wee bit jealous, too.

Of course he wins Kate back.  About time she came to her senses!