Death Becomes Her: The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933)

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A Universal Pictures Production ~ Director: James Whale, Screenplay by: William Anthony McGuire, based on a story by Ladislas Fodor, Art Director: Charles D. Hall,  Costume Designer: Sadly, uncredited

A kiss is just a kiss.  Or is it?

“How did it begin?”

“With a kiss.”

“It always does. But what kind of a kiss?”

“A kiss before the mirror”

James Whale’s smart suspense drama The Kiss Before the Mirror plays with the idea of passion as a sinister force leading to infidelity, insanity, and murder.  It initially attempts to mark a distinction between a murder justified by rage and betrayal, and one committed through planning and premeditation.  In the end it concludes there really is no difference.  Even crimes of passion have their small moments of irrational  premeditation.

An idyllic scene of a beautiful woman in a garden opens the film.  She is meeting her lover, an attractive man who appears smitten, devoted. The air is sweet with promise as they exchange words in anticipation of their time together.  She is seen through the glass disrobing, but the tone changes.  In the dusky twilight, her husband has followed her through the trees and flowers.  He approaches the veiled entryway, hesitates and then shoots her repeatedly through the shattering panes.

 

 

The murderer’s lawyer is a close friend and is prepared to defend him.  He is puzzled by this horrific crime.  He hears the man’s confession and returns home.  Troubled, he reclines in his wife’s boudoir. She pulls a sheer curtain and then sits to do her face.  The attorney struggles to comprehend his friend’s actions, relaying the initial circumstances to his wife.  As he raises his finger the camera follows in a sweeping shot, circling the intimate space, and stopping where his wife sits facing the mirror at her dressing table.  The audience is enveloped in his perspective, sees his wife as he sees her, feels his hurt as she angrily chastises him for kissing her before the mirror. He is re-imagining the killer’s confession. Suddenly he views her dressing and departure with new eyes; she is preparing for a liaison.  Following her he finds his fears are confirmed.  She has taken a lover.  Humiliated, he contemplates clearing his friend as a means of preemptively establishing his own defense, and considers his own crime of passion.

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photo credit: Pre-Code.com

The Kiss Before the Mirror is an early stylish Noir filled with shadows in lamplight, dark insinuations and a tragic aura.  Yet it also has a bit of pre-Code playfulness and dark humor. The dialogue is clever and displays the love for a verbal quip that characterizes many early talking films.  The dual nature of passion is a theme repeatedly touched upon; that which creates love can also destroy those who fall victim to its false perceptions.

The lawyer, Paul, played elegantly by Frank Morgan, is confidently seeking a meeting with his distraught and confessing client Walter, a somewhat overwrought Paul Lukas.  He passes by a barred jail cell and exchanges words with another prisoner, Bill:

“You’ll be out of here soon.”

” I have been out.  I broke out.  Killed the wife and her boyfriend.  Now I’m in for good.”

“That’s too bad.”

” Too bad nothin’.  I’m happy.  Wondering where that woman was all the time used to drive me crazy.”

“Well you know where she is now.”

“I know where I hope she is.”

Women tend to get a bit of a rough treatment here.  Their vanity it seems makes them prone to seduction and an excess of time in front of mirrors.  And there are plenty of those here too.  Characters speak to one another while reflected, their images seeming to mock as they betray and tease one another.  The defendant’s wife’s mirror is adorned with a gilded cupid.  Another cupid sits haughtily upon a mantle. Women it seems are too often guided by Cupid’s whims.

Yet there is a strong female in the bunch too.  Paul has an office manager Hilda, depicted as cynically pragmatic but also ambiguously sexual by a smart Jean Dixon.  She seems to float above the proceedings, amused and yet solemn too.  She introduces herself to the prosecutor as a newcomer to Paul’s team:

“This is my first case.”

“Are you interested in it?”

“A woman has been killed.  That interests me quite a bit.”

Paul interjects, smiling, “for some strange reason, women don’t like being killed.”

A puzzled Paul walks with her after they leave the public prosecutor’s office.

“I can’t understand it.  He adored his wife.”

“He proved that by killing her.”

Later, Paul’s wife, Maria,  is inquisitive about her choices:

“You’re a funny creature.  What are you, a lawyer or a new kind of woman?”

 “By day I’m a lawyer. By night well…you might be surprised.”

 “Why don’t you get married?”

 “Well, being single has its points – at least no one will ever murder me.”

Marriage is portrayed as a risky game with the potential for deceit and a deadly outcome for infidelity. The line between love and hate can be a thin one indeed.

The screenplay’s dry gallows humor is reminiscent of Hitchcock; it finds charm in the even the deadliest of proceedings and marriage a fertile playground for exploring the dark side of wedded bliss.

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Paul’s young, beautiful wife is played by Nancy Carroll, a sensuous Kewpie doll enjoying a double life. She admires and loves her husband but she loves to play too. There’s a phone that’s always ringing, suspicious outings, an air of guilt and deception. It is only when she begins to suspect that her husband is wise to her that she tries, unsuccessfully, to ditch her lover.  Later when Paul begins to reject her and refuses her kiss she suspects he may find a way to not only leave her but mimic his friend in murder.  She drapes herself in fox-tails as they proceed to leave their home for the trial and notes the strain the case is causing him.

 “Oh promise me when all of this is over you’ll go away on a vacation.”

 “Go away…?  That’s not a bad idea.  Will you come with me?”

 “It’ll be best if I stay here.”

 “Alone?”

 “Naturally.”

 “And will you remain true and in love?” he asks, epectantly.

 “Yes,” she smiles sweetly.

She is almost believable. Perhaps she is being sincere in her own way, with what really matters.  But then the phone rings. Again. And Paul knows the truth. Just before he leaves he pockets a gun.  Paul’s feelings of pain and rage spill over in a courtroom scene. His client’s defense: momentary insanity induced by jealousy.  An acquittal for Walter would mean an acquittal for himself.

The film has a weary wizened character, Schultz, an additional assistant to Paul.  An aging alcoholic, he occasionally spouts wisdom disguised as nonsense.  His presence speaks to Paul’s big heart as he’s hired the has-been attorney despite his downward slide.  He delivers a telling line: Is there or is there not, freedom of the will? Disturbingly, the jury has its own ideas, our attorney thankfully another. Ultimately, he chooses to shatter his illusions and the looking glass, kissing before a broken mirror.

Whale makes the most of his Viennese setting, gorgeous art deco sets, and prison dungeons borrowed from his earlier Frankenstein.  He is assisted by cinematographer Karl Freund who plays with dark and light, mirrors and reflections, shattered glass and perspectives.  Morgan is quite good in the lead, intelligent and thoughtful, thoroughly convincing as an accomplished lawyer, anguished by the actions of his younger wife.  Nancy Carroll is a treat, tempering her flirtatiousness with warmth and dimension, and Jean Dixon even more so as the subversively tailored associate.  Gloria Stuart is showcased in the ethereal early scene in the garden, a specialty of Whale’s, and her lover is nicely played by a young and handsome Walter Pidgeon.

Recommended for Whale, the sophistication and you know, murder.

This post is a part of the ‘Till Death Us Do Part: To Love, Honor…and Murder blogathon hosted by the lovely Theresa Brown over at CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. For more please click the image below:

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Notes and Extras

  • Kiss started out as a play by Ladislas Fodor, a Hungarian playwright, was translated and then developed into a screenplay. So it’s tough to blame Whale for its rather tough stance on women and marriage as a source of all things heartbreaking and deceitful.  Or assign credit for its clever conversation.
  • Perhaps the witty dialogue shouldn’t come as a surprise. Fodor was the author of the story that later became a pre-Code favorite of mine, Jewel Robbery.  He continued to write professionally until his death in the seventies, primarily for movies and later television, much of the time in Germany.  After a promising start he mostly ends up in Bad B Movie-land.
  • This film was one of numerous collaborations between producer Carl Laemmle Jr. and director James Whale, the most famous being their classic Universal horror films of the thirties. Laemmle the younger was a busy man in 1933, producing twenty-three films including another favorite of mine, the pre-Code courtroom drama Counsellor-at-Law.  Farran Smith Nehme has a beautiful piece on the producer, The High Times and Hard Fall of Carl Laemmle Jr. at filmcomment.com which provides a taut overview of his brief career.  It seems he was involved in another favorite gem, My Man Godfrey, before he was tossed aside at the tender age of twenty-eight.
  • The sometimes fickle Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times, liked this one too, calling it “an intelligently conceived story”. As he relates, “a very impressive sequence is that in which [Paul] delivers his summing up speech in the defense” of Walter.  Kiss definitely falls into the categories of not just Noir, pre-Code and psychological thriller but also solidly within the genre of the  courtroom dramas that were so popular at the time.  Hall refers to Frank Morgan’s performance as a bit histrionic but in my mind it suits the theatricality of the premise and art direction.
  • Speaking of art, this film has some fantastic posters.  Here’s my favorite:
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  • Danny Reid at Pre-Code.com shares another cool poster as well as his thoughts about the movie, which he liked, in his review.   It includes this succinct observation:

Human relationships are more complicated than simple revenge can properly encapsulate, and the film’s ending, where Paul and Maria forgive each other for their baser desires, is remarkably heartfelt. The movie is more interested in finding the underpinnings of these characters and seeing how far the coarseness in their souls will take them rather than arguing simple gender politics.

  • I love it when I get to see Morgan display his dramatic range in these early talking movies. Unfortunately, at least in my book, we don’t get to see it much following his career-defining Wizard in what else, The Wizard of Oz.  He’s on my short list of men displaying charm and yes, intelligence in the early thirties.  And I can never get enough of that.
  • Morgan and Nancy Carroll play cute together in this one. I found Carroll quite enchanting. Reportedly receiving more fan mail than any other star of the early thirties, her career was nevertheless limited.  Paramount released this charming actor from her contract by the middle of the decade, apparently tiring of issues with feisty non-compliance.  Too bad.
  • Oh – Be sure to take note of the glittering beauty of Gloria Stuart in the opening sequence. She retained those lustrous eyes for 1997’s Best Picture winner Titanic. For her portrayal of the aging Rose, she was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress in a Supporting Role, the oldest actor ever to receive a nomination.  The film won an incredible eleven Academy Awards and brought Stuart’s light and luminosity once again into cinematic imaginations.  Stuart died in 2010 at the amazing age of one hundred.
  • One more slightly eerie note stands as a testament to the detail shown in the making of this film. When Morgan emerges into the bright sunlight following his conversation with the prosecutor, music plays faintly in the background, echoing from the city streets. The melody is that of a Viennese and German folk song whose tune was later taken up in later nineteenth century America as ‘Did You Ever See a Lassie’.  These lyrics nicely echo the male dilemmas in this film:

Did you ever see a lassie,

A lassie, a lassie?

Did you ever see a lassie,

Go this way and that?

Go this way and that way,

Go this way and that way.

Did you ever see a lassie,

Go this way and that?

Imagine it sung in chilling children’s voices and you’ll get the full effect. Sleep tight and watch out for the shattering glass. X

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Of Devotion and Decency: When Ladies Meet (1933)

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A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Production ~  Director: Harry Beaumont and Robert Z. Leonard, Based on a play by Rachel Crothers, Screenplay by John Meehan and Leon Gordon, Art Director: Cedric Gibbons,  Costume Designer: Adrian

What a clever movie this is, made by a clever group of people.  By emphasizing tasteful costumes, set designs and repartee, it comfortably explores the sometimes tawdry complications between the sexes without the slightest hint of vulgarity or tacky dis-ease.   It is a fine example of the sometimes sophisticated adult nature of early 1930’s film.

When Ladies Meet offers some witty dialogue to elucidate the relations between men and women and marriage.  Disguised initially as light banter the script soon reveals itself to be a crackling social commentary on sex outside of marriage particularly that within the confines of infidelity which turns out to be just as constricting for the women involved as marriage itself. Careful viewing reveals a multitude of sexy double entendres.

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Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy~When Ladies Meet, personal collection

Robert Montgomery plays journalist and man about town Jimmy, smitten with author Mary, portrayed with determined naiveté by Myrna Loy.  Mary’s heart is committed to her editor, Rogers, a measured and middle-agedly handsome Frank Morgan, working against type as an intelligent yet shallow married man who enjoys variety in his relations with women. He is married to Clare, depicted by a solid, yet poignant Ann Harding, a bright, pragmatic and supportive spouse who has tolerated his affairs thus far. His dalliances are long-lasting but short-term and if that seems a contradiction it is; Morgan’s Rogers is a man whose true character is hidden from the women with whom he nurtures bonds, playing upon their loyalty and love to keep his own world an interesting one.  The inherent selfishness in his maneuvers only becomes clear once the extent of his deception and truth about his intentions is laid bare.  Jimmy has his number all along.

Jimmy is an interesting one too.  It is a testament to Montgomery’s appeal that he is able to say lines like the following and still retain the audience’s sympathy:

Mary:  You don’t know anything about women.

Jimmy:  Oh yes I do. All kinds, good and bad, straight and loose.  Some of the loose are the best; they’re honest anyway.  A woman pretends to be decent and isn’t, she’s just a so and so. When she’s good she’s good, when she’s bad she’s bad and that’s all there is to it.

Mary: Oh that’s just Victorian bunk.  You’re even out of touch with your own sex Jimmy.

Jimmy: Would you do what that girl in your book does?

Mary: A book’s a book.

Jimmy:  A man wants a decent woman to stay decent.  And if she doesn’t he bawls her out for doing the one thing that he’d always told her was the greatest thing a woman can do: giving him all for love.  Your girl ever did what she’d wanted to do the guy’d get so sick of her in about a year he’d poke her in the nose.  Gosh, I’ve persuaded so many women and hated ‘em afterwards.

Montgomery delivers these last lines with a bit of skillful staging.  Loy has her back to him as she deftly arranges a vase of flowers, precluding her from having to react, and sparring us the reaction shots that would overemphasize statements that are slipped in casually yet pointedly.  We are left then with our own reactions and glimpse into this man’s double standards, as he proceeds with what seems at times to be a monologue.  These sentiments were not unusual but what was unusual was that they were generally left unspoken.  This scene begins stripping away the romanticism of this tale before it has even begun.  But this exchange also underscores the motivation for him to essentially rescue Mary from a compromising affair with Rogers.  It’s not just that he’s in love with her.  It’s that he perceives her as one of the decent ones and despite her resolute devotion to Rogers he is determined to keep her on the good side of morality. Montgomery’s playfulness thinly veils the worldly cynicism of a man who has ‘lived,’ (hence the journalist occupation, which we never actually see him perform), and able to discern the motivations of another sophisticated man.

The film is based upon a stage play by Rachel Crothers who empathizes with her female characters and the situations that may develop due to their trusting natures.  Crothers’ women as shown here are straightforward, forthright and unabashedly honest, even regarding matters of sexual liaisons.  They expect the same from their men but don’t always get it.

The film retains some of its stage bound confines, primarily due to the heavy reliance upon dialogue.  There is little if any action but much is implied.  The plot moves by way of situations and arranged meetings, some by chance, some by deliberate machination.  The conversation above takes place in a beautiful enclosed garden with the couple then moving to a sunny terrace.  There we meet our comic relief Bridget (Alice Brady), a modern woman with a knowing way with a bon mot, a raised eyebrow and a man.  She punctuates scenes with humor and adds sardonic irony in a manner that sometimes makes us wonder if she fully knows the true import of her statements.  My guess would be she does.  She has a companion who seems to be little more than a bedmate, Walter (“Well I’m going back to bed. Come along Walter!”), played with amused youthful ambiguity by Martin Burton, who she dominates. His presence further breaks up this film’s dramatic moments, which come fast and furious as the film progresses.

The country house where the final half of the movie takes place is beautiful, with a lovely attention to detail, and a relaxed elegance that perfectly fits its characters and cast.  It is not surprising to find that Cedric Gibbons was nominated for an Oscar for Best Art Direction for When Ladies Meet, one of thirty-eight such nominations.  His sumptuous set design keeps the eye busy, despite the constraints of the confined cottage, which mirrors our characters predicaments.

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As expected by the title, Rogers women come together in a meeting of the minds, discussing the novel alluded to above in such a way that Clare begins to understand that the book is not entirely fictional. Harding is heroic and knowing, sometimes a bit too focused on the distant horizon with her delivery but able to quietly convey a strong woman whose world is falling apart while she does not. Loy is unabashed and perfectly natural in her part, seeming to channel her true self and her own clear-eyed Midwestern idealism.  It’s always a delight to find Morgan playing the straight man.  His true acting abilities shine, generally through eyes that convey resignation,  irritation, detachment or a mixture of all three.  He conveys a great deal in a quick glance.  It is fun to see this smart group of people play off one another.

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As sometimes is so, Montgomery is the smartest one in the picture.  Weaving deftly between his fellow actors, his expressive face handles comedic moments with a bit of exaggerated emphasis, reminding one of a narrator in a centuries old play.  Montgomery can be a bit of a scene-stealer without detracting from the film.

There’s some unpredictability in this little pre-Code number that sets it apart from many films of the Golden Age, and a fresh sensibility regarding women and the hazards of sexual freedom in a world still managed by men. It is this type of film whose loss I sometimes mourn the most with the advent of the strict enforcement of the Production Code.

Recommended, especially for lovers of language and melodrama.

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This post is a part of “The TCM 2016 Summer Under the Stars” Blogathon hosted by Kristen Lopez of Journeys in Classic Film

 

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Notes and Extras

  • This film is available through Amazon as a part of Warner Archive Collection’s Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 9.
  • Mick LaSalle has some discussion regarding this one in his outstanding book Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, relishing in the movies frank and refreshing approach to marriage.  LaSalle notes that the movie “remains on the side of the women – both women – while the philandering man is the villain”.  This is indeed one of the delights of this film.
  • Movies were made very quickly in the 30’s, particularly in the early years.  While saying little about the actual making of this movie, Myrna Loy notes in her fascinating autobiography Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming, that she, Montgomery and Alice Brady “became a little coterie of three, occasionally going to [Brady’s] house or having something to eat after work.  That kind of easy camaraderie is rare in pictures”.
  • Harding and Loy had previously worked together in The Animal Kingdom, with the male lead being Leslie Howard, and Myrna again playing the other woman, yet with an entirely different outcome. Loy writes that although When Ladies Meet gave them several scenes together, Harding was a withdrawn person, a wonderful actress lacking a star temperament, a good quality in a co-worker but a very private woman.
  • Director Harry Beaumont directed a multitude of silent films, including the Joan Crawford break-out film, Our Dancing Daughters (1928).  His first sound film The Broadway Melody (1929) won the Best Picture Oscar in 1930. There were sixteen more films, four with Joan Crawford before this one, with eleven more movies to follow.  He helmed a whopping ninety-nine films during his lengthy directorial career.
  • Playwright Rachel Crothers was known as the leading female playwright of her time.  Additional work adapted for the screen included the Norma Shearer pre-Code, Let Us Be Gay (1930), another film about a husband’s infidelity and a wife’s response.  Interestingly enough, the film was first a play, later adapted by  Lucille Newmark and Francis Marion, both women, infusing this successful Shearer starring vehicle with a female-centric point of view.  Similarly to Crothers’ achievement in the theater, Marion would become known as the premier female screenwriter of the Golden Age of Hollywood, if not the 20th Century.
  • Loy and Montgomery maintained a casual life-long friendship only slightly inhibited by their later political differences.  While Myrna was a  politically-active liberal and friend to Eleanor Roosevelt,  Montgomery switched parties sometime after the war, later becoming a great support to Eisenhower, so much so that he had his own office in the White House.  He was in essence the first presidential media consultant in the new age of television, a revolutionary in his time.  In their patriotism and commitment to the United States, they had very much in common.  Loy described him as witty, silly and just as great fun offset as he was on screen. Loy later wrote how she wished she would’ve had more opportunities to work with him – “there were so many other things we could’ve done together”.  How wonderful that would’ve been for us!

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Take Your Place At the Table: Dinner At Eight*

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An MGM Production ~ Director: George Cukor, Screenplay:  Francis Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz from the stage play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, Art Director: Hobe Erwin and Frederic Hope, Costume Designer: Adrian

Dinner At Eight is a movie that sneaks up on you. I found myself taking an interest in the characters right away and yet the association between many of these players is oh so slowly established, at least for a pre-Code film. I believe that speaks to the array of talent that parades across the screen. It seems like every time someone opens a door or answers the phone a new star enters the picture. MGM threw the stable at this one and ended up with a gem.

The movie takes place in a series of vignettes with characters and stories intersecting on- and off-screen in sometimes relatively separate ways until the final few scenes. There are as many stories here as there are seats at the table and a number of smaller side ones that intersect.  Tantalizingly we hear about a dinner party throughout this entire film which never occurs in front of our eyes. The promise is held before us. Time and time again it is referenced and yet we never experience it for ourselves.  One central character doesn’t even make it to the table. Once the remainder of our main players do the door is shut. We are not privy to their stories as they continue to unfold and yet there is no doubt that they do. Dinner at Eight is about the punches that life throws you as our stories unfold and the ability to either roll with those punches or take those hits to head and heart and fall.  Some of us get hit a little harder than others.

In the tradition of Grand Hotel the star-studded cast consists of the brothers Barrymore, Lionel and John, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, Billie Burke, Madge Evans, Lee Tracy and more.  I’m sure great debates could take place as to who is the central character in this film and I’m sure they have.  With an array of talent this stunning it would be tempting to say there is no primary story or star.  In many ways this is truly an ensemble piece, one that lets each actor and actress shine.  There’s a supportive spirit to this production that may not indicate camaraderie so much as the edge and grace that comes with competitiveness; each actor and actress appearing at the top of their game, even with the smaller roles.  George Cukor used his directorial magic to bring out the best in his dazzling cast (as we shall see him do again with The Women and other productions where he brilliantly juggles stars). Yet despite the ensemble nature of this film, John Barrymore’s performance, due to its sheer courage and his tremendous talent, is central to capturing the movie’s essence.

Cukor and Barrymore shared a wonderful camaraderie that underscored the director’s respect for the theatrically-trained actor, and performers in general.  As Larry Renault, the aging, dissipated and failing actor, Barrymore admitted to basing the betrayal not only on Lowell Sherman and Maurice Costello (film actor and father-in-law to John) but also himself.  He shrewdly added lines and details to the characterization to bring the portrayal closer to his own life.  It cuts so wickedly close to the heart of Barrymore’s troubles, aging and rapidly so as his excessive alcohol consumption eroded his talent, personal life and finances, that it is breathtaking.  Yet Barrymore is able to expand upon this and give us a larger performance that illuminates the inner struggles of a man much closer to desperation than himself, one so true in its depiction of emotional pain that his ultimate decision makes perfect sense as the only perceived solution for this man, at this time.  Renault takes one hit after another, swinging wildly from mood to mood with increasing inebriation, yet he leaves on his terms, not in the dark but in the spotlight, the only spotlight he can still muster.

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As the traditional, old fashioned and fading businessman Oliver Jordan, Lionel Barrymore struggles with change and impending failure but more importantly with affliction and the pain of disease, doing so with greater grace and dignity than Renault.  Jordan keeps the knowledge of his severe health issues entirely private even from his wife and daughter, until his doctor breaks confidence (something that would never happen today).  Interestingly troubles with health mirror this Barrymore’s own real life hits as well.  Lionel was able to cope far better than his brother John but did so despite suffering through physical limitations and the unending pain caused by two falls resulting in a severely broken hip.  Some say he contended with arthritis as early as the late 1920’s and it was the combination of both the arthritis and the falls that led to hourly injections of painkillers during filming from 1938 onward.  Lionel Barrymore’s disability was so great that it required him to be wheelchair-bound for his most enduring role as Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life as he was so confined by this time in his own life. In Dinner At Eight while John’s Renault was not able to roll with the punches, Lionel’s Jordan is able to do so.  He was in fact also there for John in real life during some of his brother’s weaker moments.

Tragically life had a surprising blow in the wings for another of the stars of this film, Jean Harlow.  It is always so interesting to watch Harlow in retrospect, so full of life, sass and sweetness. Here Harlow engages in plenty of name-calling of spouse and servants, of the type rarely heard today and used in particular to delineate the true nature of the marriage of Dan and Kitty Packard (Beery and Harlow). As he also does in Grand Hotel, Beery plays overbearing and conniving well. It is certainly convincing that he would’ve married Harlow out of lust alone; his business model is also a crass and crude affair signifying the vulgarity of the nouveau riche. As it is clear that he had this relationship with little respect for her it seems perfectly fitting that she should have no respect for him. Their contempt for one another is believable yet played unbelievably for comic effect. Such was Harlow’s gift that we enjoy her outrageous comedic wrath and dishing back to the high-handed pompousness that is epitomized by Packard. While the movie ends with the promise that life has much in store for Kitty, as film lovers we know that is not the case for Harlow as she is cruelly hit by life’s capriciousness just four years later.

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There’s great contrast here between the impetuousness of youth and the weariness and wisdom of aging, the healthy and the well, new business models versus harsh newer methods, those whose lives are just beginning and those whose stories are coming to a close, with some unable to appreciate what they have and those aging or ill left to handle life’s blows or succumb.  The young daughter of the Jordan’s, Paula (Madge Evans), just 19, is in love with Renault, a man dying from the battering of life, yet having the whole of hers still ahead of her. As he tells her: “You’re young and fresh and I’m all burned up.”  Shortly  her lover is verbally assaulted with the words “You’re a corpse and you don’t know it. Go get yourself buried” by his own agent (Lee Tracy), a man who should, for all intents, be in his corner but has become exasperated by the behavior of his ‘talent’.  Paula is engaged to Ernest (Phillips Holmes), a fitting name, yet finds the prospect of marriage to him a monotonous bore.  When Paula finally attempts to break off her engagement, the burning fireplace in the background reminds us of the cold fireplace in  Renault’s room, imparting death as the fire framed by the two of them roars with life, intimating that love could still be passionate between these two although Paula is oblivious to the possibilities. Nevertheless when her attempt to escape the strictures of upper-class life comes to an end she is heartbroken but wisely guided by Marie Dressler to open her eyes and embrace the love that is there before her with Ernest, advising “he won’t want to know anything about your past, as long as you keep it in the past”.

I love Dressler but I can sometimes find her distracting with her exaggerated facial mannerisms persisting into the talkies. I do tend to favor the melodramatic acting style of the 30’s and 40’s but so many of her expressions sometimes appear to be holdovers from the work she did in silent films, distracting from her inherent depth and warmth.  But here the comedic effects are a nice touch in a movie that is heavy on dramatic situations.  Never a beauty, she makes a pragmatic and powerful supporting player, as an aging, formerly glamorous star, fittingly pulling this tale together.  “That’s the unfortunate thing about death. It’s so terribly final.  Even the young can’t do anything about it” declares a wild eyed Dressler.  Once again the movie casts the actor in a role which mirrors life itself. Dressler died one year later from cancer.

As Millicent Jordan, Billie Burke’s histrionics regarding the setbacks she endures in planning and executing this dinner party are comical yet pivotal.  Her extreme exasperation in the face of truly minor set-backs and trivial frustrations (the kind we all experience), underscores the tragic depths of the circumstances of others.  As her plans are thwarted I was reminded of the saying regarding the best laid plans, some of which are long past their time, or poorly conceived affairs from the start. All of these characters have plans and aspirations, few of which come to fruition. Stalled and stalemated at every turn, they are oblivious to the struggles of others. How little Millicent knows of the desperateness of those in her own house, let alone those in the outside world. Such is life.

I adored this film, though it may not be for everyone. But if you like your deeper meanings and profound truths interspersed with sweet and sassy one liners and innuendo, you may enjoy this one too.

This movie had its beginnings in the stage play scripted by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman, (as adapted by Francis Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz), as is readily apparent from the sparkling dialogue and steady stream of quips. For those who love language these types of films are a treasure trove that hold up well, in fact demand repeated viewing. This is a movie I could watch over and over.  There are layers of meaning and multiple interpretations to be found here.  The binding thread that life can crush you through unexpected blows is certainly owned by John Barrymore.  Yet also highlighted is the role of relationship, epitomized nicely in the marriage of the Jordans.  Despite all that befalls them in the course of the day, with business complications, medical woes and dinner party snafus galore, they end the movie unified, as do Paula and Ernest; lack of relationship is what eventually does in Renault as his only real relationship is with the bottle.

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I was so looking forward to seeing John Barrymore, center table and in full court, at this elusive dinner party. Firmly advised to check out of his lavish hotel room, Renault instead chooses to check out with finality, leaving his latest lover with barely a thought; there have been so many and yet so few truly loved.  No matter that he has accelerated his demise through his drinking.  The combination of circumstance and squandered opportunities gives his departure an air of tragic inevitability.
This all sounds so very serious and yet it isn’t at all. The movie has a lighthearted feel due to the flow between scenes, the crackling dialogue and the comic touches. Harlow is a hoot. She plays her Red-Headed Woman character to the hilt but this time leaving absolutely no room for sympathy. This woman is no Vantine from Red Dust with a heart of gold.  Kitty’s future trajectory is fairly well summarized in the closing dialogue of this movie, delivered deliciously by Dressler.

This film has some great lines and Dressler has quite a few of them.  She’s had her turn as have the two Barrymore’s. Now it’s time for the younger players to take their places. To quote Auntie Mame:  “Life is a banquet. And most poor suckers are starving to death”.  A banquet for some but perhaps not for all.  I remember a time when in church the pastor would declare, “Welcome to the Lords Table”.  Did I hear him say Dinner At Eight?

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