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Dinner at Eight

Perhaps the most well-known moment in George Cukor's all-star classic Dinner at Eight (1933) comes just before the film ends. As the movie's ensemble of well-dressed New York socialites heads for the dining room to take their places for the titular meal, ditzy social climber Kitty Packard (Jean Harlow, at her sex-kitten best) off-handedly remarks to aging theater diva Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), "I was reading a book the other day." Carlotta's visible start to the unexpected announcement is one of Hollywood's funniest reaction shots and is often featured in highlight reels and montages. Yet Dinner at Eight isn't exactly the screwball comedy that that moment would seem to suggest. Sure, it has plenty of laughs (most of them courtesy of Dressler, who is a true delight as the tart-tongued Carlotta), but at its poignant heart, it's a character drama about the interwoven lives and loves of a small cross-section of 1930s upper-crust Manhattanites. The event that brings them all together is a dinner in honor of visiting English nobility — guests whose prestige has flighty Park Avenue hostess Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke) in such a tizzy of nerves and excitement that she doesn't notice her husband Oliver's (Lionel Barrymore) increasing worry over his business and his health, or her daughter Paula's (Madge Evans) indifference to her eligible fiancé. As the rest of the people on the guest list are introduced — among them rough-and-tumble nouveau riche schemer Dan Packard (Wallace Beery), fading film star Larry Renault (John Barrymore), and womanizing Dr. Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe), as well as Kitty and Carlotta — it becomes clear that dinner could end up being a lot more interesting than Millicent suspects. Tying everything together is Frances Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz's intelligent, witty script, which was based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. It may be clichéd to say so, but they really don't make them like this anymore … so give thanks to the movie buff gods that Warner Home Video has finally released this classic on DVD. Presented with English mono audio in a full-screen transfer from a source-print that unfortunately shows its age in some spots (graininess, inconsistent "color" in the black-and-white cinematography shifting from greenish undertones to purplish ones), the Dinner at Eight disc includes a couple of extras that cinephiles are sure to enjoy. "Harlow: The Blonde Bombshell" is a detailed, 47-min. Harlow biography hosted by Sharon Stone, and "Come to Dinner" is a vintage 22-min. parody of the film (complete with musical numbers). Also included are the theatrical trailer and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. Keep-case.
—Betsy Bozdech

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