Dinner at Eight is an early George Cukor film that came recommended. I’m not too familiar with Cukor’s filmography, but I do know works like The Philadelphia Story, Gaslight, Adam’s Rib, and Born Yesterday, all of which range from good to excellent, and all of which are better than Dinner at Eight.
To be fair, what Dinner at Eight suffers from – staginess and dated performances – may have much to do with when it was made and the fact that it’s based off of a stage play. The best part of the film is easily John Barrymore as Larry Renault, a washed up, drunken actor who refuses to believe that his best days are behind him. Not only does Barrymore come the closest to giving a performance that still feels relevant, but he also has the two best and most subtle scenes, including one where Cukor shows him gathering up anything of value in his hotel room, implying (but never directly stating) that he’s going to try to pawn it to get his hands on some booze.
Jean Harlow as Kitty Packard, a social climber, and Wallace Beery as Dan Packard, her entrepreneurially scheming husband, are also very good and quite funny. It’s Billie Burke as Millicent Jordan, the woman putting on the titular dinner party who really overdoes it the most, and while Marie Dressler has some good moments as another washed up actress, Carlotta Vance, she has plenty of scenes that are much hammier than they need to be.
Here’s a good example of a short scene that doesn’t quite sing the way Cukor’s later stuff that I’ve seen does. At the party Millicent (frame left) talks with Dan and Kitty. Dan is distraught to find out that the rich people he was hoping to meet won’t be attending, which leads to a medium close-up of Kitty laughing:
So far, so good. Cukor cuts to Dan’s reaction shot as he gives her a look:
This is where things go awry, even though it’s only a small detail. Cukor cuts back to Kitty. But at this point, the real joke is what the other guests are thinking about this outburst and exchange. By not cutting to Millicent or someone else’s reaction he both misses a better punch-line and also slows the pace to a weird crawl (what is everyone else doing during these medium close-ups? Are they just staring, waiting for them to end? Are they awkwardly looking elsewhere?):
By the time he finally cuts back to the initial wide, it’s too late. The back and forth between Kitty and Dan has taken a full 8 seconds or so, which in conversation film-time, is damn long. It feels odd and not in a good-funny kind of way:
It’s a small nitpick, sure, but much of Dinner at Eight is filled with these moments that, in this specific case, could’ve been fixed with a tighter edit (cut back to the wide – or to someone else’s reaction – right after Dan’s medium CU, then back to Kitty, then back to a new reaction or back to the wide. Also, shorten the individual shots). I get it though – it’s 1933. Cukor’s shots generally linger for a bit too long in this film, the scenes feel a bit too long (thanks, theater), and the actors generally play out towards the camera just a bit too much. It’s nothing he won’t get past a few years on.