A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Dinner at Eight (George Cukor, 1933)

It has always struck me as odd that Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932) won the 1931-32 best picture Oscar, when Dinner at Eight, a similarly constructed all-star affair, was shut out of the nominations for the 1932-33 awards. Dinner at Eight is much the better picture, with a tighter, wittier script (by Frances Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz, with additional dialogue by Donald Ogden Stewart) and a cast that includes three of the Grand Hotel stars: John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, and Jean Hersholt. Granted, it doesn't have Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, but it has Jean Harlow and Marie Dressler at their best, and a director who knows how to keep things perking. (Cukor was, at least, nominated for Little Women instead.) It also has one of the great concluding scenes in movies, when everyone goes in to dinner and Kitty (Harlow) tells Carlotta (Dressler) that she's been reading a book, bringing the formidable bulk of Dressler to a lurching halt. (You've seen it a dozen times in clip shows of great movie moments. If not, go watch the movie.) Granted, too, that Dinner at Eight is not quite sure whether it's a comic melodrama or a melodramatic comedy, dealing as it does with the effects of the Depression on the rich and famous, with marital infidelity and suicide (both of them in ways that the Production Code would soon preclude -- as it would Harlow's barely there Adrian gowns). And there's some over-the-top hamming from both Barrymores. In fact, the performances in general are pitched a little too high, a sign that Cukor hadn't quite yet left his career as a stage director behind and discovered that a little less can be a lot more in movies. Nevertheless, it's a more-than-tolerable movie, and a damn sight better than the year's best picture winner, the almost unwatchable Cavalcade (Frank Lloyd).

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