Murder and Menace: Guilty Hands (1931)

 

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An MGM Production, Director: W. S. Van Dyke with Lionel Barrymore, Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Costume Design: Rene Hubert

This early pre-Code film starts off with a bang and does not let up until it’s startling denouement. Initially the brisk pace, as is frequently the case for these early talking pictures, is dialogue driven. Lionel Barrymore perfectly plays the role of an attorney father who is compelled by his wry knowledge, familiarity with the moral complexities of justice and paternal love to commit the perfect crime to save his daughter.

The movie opens with a scene on a train in which several men are engaged in a philosophical debate as to whether murder can, in some circumstances be justified.  As a highly successful attorney, Richard Grant (Barrymore) has worked both sides of the law and knows the ins and outs of murder.  His claim that the perfect murder could be carried out with plausible justification by “a clever man…. so skillfully, so brilliantly, that he could get away with it” can hardly be disputed given his experience and expertise.  And thus we are tipped off that there is murder and menace in the air.

Barbara “Babs” Grant (Madge Evans) is introduced to us at the train station, where she awaits her father.  She is fresh and open-faced.  In lovely sweeping camerawork that follows her face and figure as she searches for and then greets her father warmly, rather surprisingly really given what is to follow, we are given our first glimpse of the sweetness of their relationship.

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Grant then enters the home of womanizing Gordon Rich (Alan Mowbray) who is interested in not only rewriting his will and paying off his previous conquests, but also in informing Grant that he has every intention of marrying his daughter. The dialogue between these two men ends with a firm “See you in hell!”, a declaration that becomes more chilling as the movie progresses.  Later it is revealed that the planned nuptials are to happen the following day.

Barbara is  viewed in the garden, speaking intimately with a young man.  Apparently she has previously given her love to Tommy (William Bakewell), now confused and pleading.  Throwing over this same age beau for the significantly older and to my mind smarmy Rich seems a bit of a stretch but who I am to question her heart; it is quickly apparent that she has indeed committed herself to marrying a man who simply will not do.  Just as her softly ruffled dress flutters in the wind, this young woman is easily swayed, and as delicate as the lilacs that surround her. Grant comes to speak to his daughter, first gently but then firmly, letting her know that they must meet privately.
Barrymore is wonderfully natural in the part of the warm yet startlingly confident and candid father. Moving from the garden to Grant’s bedroom, father and daughter engage in a remarkably intimate exchange. Babs rummages through the pockets of a jacket that is casually hooked on a bedpost. Finding little of interest to her she sits on the bed and comfortably smokes as her father ties his bow tie, even offering to help, although he scoffs at her offer of assistance. Smoking lends an adult aura to Babs, yet her innocence gives her the appearance of a child smoking candy cigarettes. She playfully lays back onto the bed. Her father asks her for a kiss, leaning over her and  kissing her as she remains in this seductive position, her eyes glancing upward and chin jaunty. The scene is accompanied by this exchange:

“Well how about giving the old man a little kiss?”  He asks rhetorically.

“Help yourself.”

“Thank you.”

“Thank you sir”, she replies, once again the little girl.

Grant immediately but tenderly confronts his daughter regarding the news of her impending marriage to Rich, a connoisseur and deceiver of women.

“This man Rich is rotten clear though. Now look here Babs, I’m not going to mince words. Rich isn’t fit to marry any woman. He’ll just bring you shame and disaster…This man you want to marry is a beast about women. I mean that literally. He’s just an animal.”

Father and daughter speak frankly about sex. He instructs her that being with this man on her wedding night, even as his wife, will be a “horror and a shame”, something that she will never live down or be able to put aside in her own mind, something that she will have to live with forever. These are powerful, intimate words that portray a rare candidness.  Earlier he has revealed how much his daughter reminds him of his late wife. The warm affection and incestuous undertone in these exchanges heightens the dramatic tension between our two male protagonists. This paternal bond is not one that will be altered easily or lightly. Once he sees that she is intractable, Grant understands that he must act and has determined to find a solution on his own.

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A dazzling display of flowers sits prominently upon the table at a dinner party, surrounded by a sophisticatedly charming and cheerful array of folks, seen as the camera pans down the center, finally reaching the host, Rich.  Grant glares, glances at Tommy and back at Rich. The flowers are telling as Babs imminent deflowering and potential loss of innocence are foremost on his mind. It is at this table that we are first made aware of the young and beautiful Marjorie West (Kay Francis). Despite her youth Marjorie displays an air of worldliness, almost weariness and elegance.  The only woman dressed in black, the straps of her gown glimmer with rhinestones.  As Rich announces his marriage to Barbara, Marjorie’s startled reaction tells us everything we need to know about her relationship to this philanderer and user of women. In the large window that provides the backdrop to this tableau we see an ominous flash of lightning.

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Cinematographer Merritt B. Gerstad frames shots that place characters, at times with their backs to us, and objects such as bouquets and lamps well into the foreground.  Scenes are layered with fore-, mid- and background neatly delineated.  This contrast moves this talking picture beyond the usual drawing room melodrama as Gerstad’s camera is an active participant in furthering the drama. Shadows and angles are utilized effectively to create menace and delineate character, with Barrymore’s stature never shown diminished, despite his morally murky decisions.

Furthering this aim of opening up a relatively static set are long lovely shots where the camera sweeps languidly around interior spaces. This is utilized most vividly just after the dinner party.  The lens sashays among lounging participants, lingering a moment and then moving on, settling first upon Marjorie, Grant, and then Tommy, each observing the affectionately engaged couple. This fluid camerawork not only creates a sense of space but also heightens the tension as a sidelong glance might between intimate acquaintances. Yet the participants remain lost in their own tormented thoughts. As the scene ends, Grant’s pain is palpable as he coaxes his daughter to the garden where “we will have a little love scene all by ourselves”.  He is not about to let her go so easily, not to this “animal “.

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Father and daughter stroll in the night air. Just prior to going off for the night they exchange two kisses with Grant encircling his daughter in his protective arm. He reassures her that everything is “going to be all right”. As she leaves for the night her voice trails off with a sweetly lilting “good night darling”, as she heads off to bed. Again the love between father and daughter is depicted as a strong bond, not easily broken by a cold-hearted adventurer. This central point must be well-established to lend credence to this narrative, with paternal devotion and protectiveness providing a solid motive for this man to proceed, despite his love of law. Based upon the opening scene, we already know that his love for justice is greater.

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Meanwhile, the case for action is strengthened as Rich explains to his long suffering yet strangely devoted lover Marjorie, in a private room with fireplace blazing, that in Barbara’s case “it has got to be marriage”, as there is no other way to have her.  However he sees his upcoming marriage as no impediment to continuing his arrangement with Marjorie.  The implication is clear: this man is a slave to his carnal desires.  He later can hardly restrain himself, seeking out Babs as she prepares to go to bed for the night, yet she firmly rebuffs him.  We see her close the door and pause. With Rich’s own motivations and his character (or lack thereof) defined, the path is well laid for the unfolding story.
I won’t give away the rest of this plot.  While it may seem pretty straightforward, this story, an original by playwright and screenwriter Bayard Veiller (playwright of Paid, 1930 and The Trial of Mary Dugan, 1929), takes many unexpected and interesting twists before coming to its dramatic, albeit somewhat far-fetched conclusion.  Although as you may have already guessed, a far-fetched conclusion is no deterrent to me in enjoying a movie, not with my love of over-the-top melodrama.

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As the movie progresses, we get a nice battle of wits and a tenacious emotional struggle between Kay Francis and Lionel Barrymore.  Francis more than holds her own against the veteran thespian and that in and of itself is exciting to see. While his enormous talent and experience lends considerable weight and finesse to his performance, her sincerity and ability to silently convey complex feelings beautifully matches his command of language and assured delivery.

In the very last moments of the film Francis is a breathtaking vision as a stream of emotions washes across her face. We see her fear, her anguish, her grief and her finely tuned sense of justice that understands that it has indeed prevailed. And she conveys all this with a minimum of dialogue during a time when dialogue was paramount in talking pictures. The essence of Francis’ enormous appeal is readily apparent in this,  one of her earlier films.

While Francis as usual wears her flowing gowns with grace and elegance, it is her skill as an actress that is most memorable.  This is not always the case with her movies, particularly as her career progressed. It is fabulous to see her in a role that respects her gifts as an actress.  While not entering the film until 15 minutes in, her performance and ability to match the artistry of Lionel Barrymore is remarkable and a pleasure to see.  In light of this raw talent her treatment by a vengeful Jack Warner (angered by a lawsuit she filed and subsequently withdrew) during the final year of her contract with the studio is even more incomprehensible and a loss to film-goers.

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This movie was so much more powerful than I expected it to be, particularly since Warner Archives hadn’t decided to make it available on DVD until the recent release of Volume 10 of their fabulous Forbidden Hollywood series. And while I’ve done considerable gushing here about Kay Francis the force of Barrymore’s performance cannot be underestimated.  He is perfect at every point.

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The quality of the solid pacing and firm direction, the artistic elements and especially the acting lift this film beyond a simple crime drama or lawyer picture, both so typical of the era.  This movie contains enough unpredictability and fabulous acting, despite its conventional murder-mystery moments, to be riveting.

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 Definitely recommended. 

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Notes and Extras

  • For an additional positive review with significant spoilers from the NYT, click here
  • At Pre-Code.Com, Danny also enjoyed the interplay between Kay and Lionel, going so far as to call it “fantastic”.
  • kayfrancisfilms.com also gives this film praise, giving considerable background information on the factors that led to its creation and the quality of the production. There are some fabulous stills and also a full plot synopsis  for those of you that find you can’t get enough!
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The Barrymore Triumvirate: Rasputin and the Empress (1932)

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Photo courtesy of doctormacro.com

An MGM Production ~ Director: Richard Boleslawski , Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons and Alexander Toluboff, Costume Design: Adrian

Some years back I picked up a cocktail table book, The Romanov Family Album.  Filled with photographs, many of them taken by Czar Nicholas himself, it captured his wife and children in every day moments, engaging in simple family pursuits.  Hazy and seemingly touched by gossamer, these photos show signs of age and the newness of a budding technology, embraced by an enthusiastic photographer.  It is amazing that these photos survive and give us this glimpse into the royal realm.  It is this lost empire that is similarly glimpsed in Rasputin and the Empress.

It is fascinating to see this world depicted on the screen.  There is a generosity towards the Romanov family that knowingly understands that extended family members and friends of the royal family were still living at the time of the making of this film (although MGM probably should’ve appreciated this more fully, but more on that later).  Perhaps this accounts for this sympathetic portrait of an extremely privileged family, living an insulated, secluded life, aware only too late of the encroaching dangers. This depiction blurs the historical accuracy, to put it mildly.  Here they are shown befuddled as to what could drive the Russian people to such anger and revolt, even as thousands gather in protest. While the attention to detail is evident in costume and design, it is far less a factor in the screenplay, which could definitely be truer to actual events.

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There is much to love about Rasputin and the Empress. Most importantly for classic film fans, it is the only movie that features all three of the legendary Barrymore siblings, John, Ethel and Lionel. It is thrilling to see this trio together. Secondly, there is no doubt this is an MGM production. Perhaps due to the nearness of events, a wonderful attention to detail has been shown.  The set design is beautiful, rich and layered. The gowns are sumptuous, beaded and laced. The uniforms* are impeccable and beautifully made. There is drama and romance, action and intrigue, star wattage and larger than life performances.  Rasputin has the MGM touch and it shows.

Yet one wonders if Rasputin’s curse wasn’t upon the entire affair. There was a change of directors midway, a half-written script that was delivered to the actors in the mornings, and lawsuits post-production that ultimately amounted to pay offs of approximately $1 million dollars to extended family members, who objected to the creative license engaged in by the film makers.**

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Reportedly Ethel was apprehensive and nervous regarding her involvement.  Having appeared in silent films from 1914-1919 (and setting aside a 1926 home movie), she had spent the intervening years in the theater, returning for this, her first talking picture, following much persuasion and with the promise the film would be shot according to schedule.  As is so frequently the case it was not, and following her contracted eight week shoot Ethel departed for the East Coast and theatrical commitments.  But no matter.  Much of the tension and action occurs between the brothers as they duke it out on screen with dueling dramatics and sibling stunts designed to scene steal and each over-act the other, first one, then the other and back again.  They succeed beautifully.

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Surprisingly, John did not end up in the role of Rasputin, luckily avoiding a resurrection of his performance in Svengali (1931).  Rather he ends up as the romantic lead and rightfully so. It is certainly difficult to imagine Lionel, who despised playing romantic roles, as the aristocratic Prince Chegodieff, (a thinly disguised portrayal of an actual living Prince by the name of Yusupov), fiancé to Natasha, a Romanov niece depicted by lovely British theater actress Diana Wynyard in her film debut. Chegodieff not only shows depth of feeling towards his beloved but also towards the entire Imperial family.  He is warm and protective, providing respectful, well-intended guidance.  When that proves ineffective however, he turns to more drastic direct methods.  Refreshingly, John plays this part with greater dignity and reflection than many of his other roles of this period.  Still marvelously handsome, and remarkably so, we are afforded many glimpses of his famously perfect left profile, (probably far too many actually) and even at the age of fifty he is able to convincingly woo the young Natasha, throwing in just a hint of luscious naughtiness in a sweet early scene.

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Ethel’s portrayal of the Czarina is filled with a great deal of emotion, her maternal love mingled with self-possession. Much of her performance is conveyed through her deep, dark eyes, whose warmth and sensitivity soften her regal poise. Her delivery is slow and measured, yet sometimes so much so she seems rooted to the floor. As she was known to base her portrayal upon her personal acquaintance with the Empress, it is difficult to know how much of this reserve is a royal visage or Ethel’s own trepidation regarding her return to film. Despite John’s reassurances that the cinematographer could work wonders, she was no doubt concerned that her five year absence would be evident upon a silver screen that so adored the luminous perfection of youth.  Rasputin was her first encounter with the stylistic changes required for talking pictures, and the subsequent softening of her stage voice worked well to convey a loving, concerned and dignified presence.

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Lionel in contrast seems to have had great fun with the evil machinations and malevolence of Rasputin.  Playing with his beard (so ever present!) and engaged in wild-eyed manipulations, he becomes emboldened as his influence upon the Romanov’s, in particular the young heir apparent, the Czarevitch Alexei, (Tad Alexander), grows stronger.  It’s riveting to watch Lionel throw himself into this role, relishing the opportunity to act his heart out and doing so in friendly competition with his brother and sister. I loved seeing Lionel’s lively, intelligent eyes behind all that make up and a beard, seeming to have a life of its own, floating in mid-air as he menacingly masticates his lines. His attempted seduction of royal daughter Maria is unbelievably creepy and the subsequent ravishing of Natasha even more so (though much has been left on the cutting room floor).  Of course, this being a pre-Code film, he slaps Natasha as he cruelly diminishes her. Lionel could do kindly well, as he did in You Can’t Take It With You, but if you think of ‘Ol Mr. Potter (It’s a Wonderful Life), he could do evil even better.  Add crazy and he could definitely steal a scene.

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So steal away he does and while enjoyable, it does tend to give the movie a bit of an uneven pace. Between Ethel’s refined restraint, John’s debonair devotion and Lionel’s wild-eyed Rasputin, I sometimes felt as if I were watching this trio in several different movies.  Each performs beautifully but the whole is somewhat less than its parts.  This would appear to be not the fault of the Barrymores, who truly seem to devote their significant talents to this production, but rather to a sense of disconnect, not just between actors but between scenes.  I was left with a vague suspicion that these talented thespians in large part directed themselves. Not quite true, but with the Barrymores you never know.

Given this unevenness, it’s hardly surprising to discover that shooting began with daily rewrites and an unfinished script. It was only at Ethel’s emphatic insistence that Charles MacArthur, later known for Gunga Din, Wuthering Heights and His Girl Friday, was finally brought in to pull together a messy screenplay already touched by at least twelve other screenwriters. The unevenness remains however and much of the plot moves through expository dialogues and sometimes monologues, delivered by Rasputin.  His hold over the family is portrayed as mostly through the children, less through the Empress, furthering the historical inaccuracy.  How I would’ve loved to have seen Lionel attempt to work his maniacal charms over Ethel!

(Spoiler Alert)

Yet despite these caveats, this is an entertaining film.  There’s a fantastic scene between the Prince and Rasputin, who finally come to blows, the fighting going from table, to fireplace, to window, to wall, further wrestling and then out to the snow and ice.  Whether this traversing about was planned or improvised it’s hard to tell but it’s a knock-down drag-out.  John tries about six different ways to kill his brother in this scene, finally yelling in extreme exasperation “Why don’t you die?!?” and as Rasputin rises again, “Get back in hell!!” This is the stuff of high melodrama and tragicomedy and I enjoyed every minute of it; it’s the high point in a relatively somber film.

In one of the final scenes we hear an exchange between the Czar (Frank Morgan) and the Prince:

“Your majesty, I never believed that madman before. But one thing he said is roaring in my brain. He said when he died, Russia died. I’m afraid the cancer has been removed too late. We’re already destroyed”.

“No Paul. Russia is too great to be destroyed by any one man…… We have never injured our people … They will never injure us”.

These words frame the mindset of the royal family in perhaps the truest moment of the film. The Romanovs from all accounts, did not believe the love of the people would be entirely lost and yet, more untrue words were never spoken. It was not any one man, it was many.

 

Many of us know the end of this sad story and it’s certainly a cautionary tale, one of miscalculation by those who should know better, and yet are so insulated they are blind to the dangers encircling them.  Secluded and cocooned in their wealth and privilege, they seem uncertain and unknowing, oblivious to the struggles of the people and confused as to how they might help.  Every time we see these characters view their subjects, it’s from high above, too far removed, until the final moments.

 

This movie ends with a radiantly back-lit Russian Orthodox cross. The Romanovs were in fact, canonized and given saintly status by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1981. Recognized as martyrs who died for their strong and unceasing faith, it is yet this very faith that contributed to their compulsion to believe in the false teachings and guidance of Rasputin. There is no doubt that this movie attempts to portray the family favorably, in keeping with these Russian Orthodox views. While many in the western world might view this monarchy at best as antiquated and at worst as oppressive, there were others that viewed the annihilation of the last Imperial family of Russia with great alarm and despair. Certainly it was the end of royal reign as it had traditionally been known. The assassination of the House of Romanov realized the modernization of monarchy and the end of an era.

 

 

So perhaps, after all, it is this sense of distant rumblings that Ethel is trying to convey most of all in her tender portrayal of the Czarina. The Romanovs enjoyed life, neglectful of the needs of the countrymen over which they ruled. They danced, they played, they swam, they sang, they took photographs of it all and they were beautiful. We are presented here with not still photographs but moving images of a misguided family, filled with unfailing religious fervor and blind trust, insensible not only to the dangers without but to the dangers within, trusting those who might intend to manipulate and possess. Their faith in Rasputin, a false visionary with his own brand of mysticism, a fantastical belief in the Russian people and an aged, ancient system, ultimately led to their downfall.  The insularity of privilege and elitism is a dangerous perch upon which to build one’s nest. Here, the people in the street prevailed, if only for a time.

Rasputin and the Empress gives us a small glimpse, despite its historical inaccuracies, into a lost time. For that and for the view it gives us of the extraordinary Barrymore triumvirate, it is well-worth a view.

Definitely Recommended

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* If you’ve ever wondered about the inspiration for the uniforms in the Land of Oz look no further than the winter uniforms of  Czarevitch Alexei and the Royal Guard as depicted here.  Obviously MGM’s Wizard of Oz borrowed a little from this royal dynasty.

** Interestingly, the obligatory disclaimer disavowing “any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental”  that we now  see at the start of most releases is a result of these lawsuits with extended family.

harlow peeking red dustNotes and Extras

In her autobiography Memories, Ethel Barrymore recalled an evening out during the filming of Rasputin:

 I remember going to the “premiere” of a picture, the first one I had ever seen. This one  in the middle of the depression was very different from those that I had heard and read about when the bystanders applauded the people who drive by them in big cars. This time there was no applause.  The onlookers on the sidewalks were silent and sullen as people wearing furs and jewels rode by them in the big cars.  It was a very uncomfortable experience. 

Rasputin did not do well as the box-office. It lost more than one million dollars, and had cost more than two million to make. MGM general counsel J. Robert Rubin remarked “The damn thing stinks.  Audiences won’t go near it”.  Perhaps it was difficult for depression era audiences to feel sympathetic towards a wealthy privileged ruling family that was so obviously out of touch with the needs of the common people. Producing this film during  the depths of the great depression may not have been the best timing. I can only imagine the audience confusion as to where their sympathies should lie.

The history and background drama surrounding the Romanovs, the making of the film and the Barrymore family are actually more interesting than the movie.  If you would like to explore further:

  •  Pre-Code.com does a great job of providing some historical background and further thoughts about the movie and its comedic undertones. He takes a look at the imbalances in the film, while acknowledging the fun of seeing these three chew the scenery.
  • Meanwhile Aurora at Once Upon a Screen beautifully describes Ethel’s relationship with her brothers, family dynamics and more about her impressions of the film. Her lovely words inspired me to promptly get my hands on a copy of Memories.
  • If you are a Royalphile or just fascinated by those romantic Romanovs, The Romanov Family Album by Marilyn Pfeiffer Swezey is filled  with vintage photographs of a lost time and place.  Reminiscent of seeing vestiges of the Titanic or remains from Pompeii, it’s a book I have treasured for years for its glimpse into a world that is gone forever.
  • Prince Yusupov actually had a hand in the killing of Rasputin.  While he didn’t seem to mind that detail in the film he did apparently object to the inference that his wife had been raped by Rasputin (apparently she had never even met him), resulting in much editing and more hinting at shame than anything else.  Ethel had intimidated that the extended royal family, now living primarily in France, might object to this plot development but once she returned to New York, MGM proceeded with the story-line that would ultimately lead to lawsuits and a very expensive out of court settlement.
  • MGM’s fantastic in-house Art Director Cedric Gibbons was beautifully assisted by the Russian-born Alexander Toluboff, who had studied Russian architecture in St. Petersburg. Toluboff went on to three nominations for Art Direction, all in the latter 1930’s.
  • This film marks not only Diana Wynard’s film debut but the first in her newly signed contract with MGM.

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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