Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Dinner at Eight

dir. George Cukor

Eight people in a frame of Dinner at Eight. Eight is great!

January 8, 2007 -

Robert Altman recently passed away. Sometime last year I saw him speak at the Museum of the Moving Image, and he was rambunctious as ever, if not as physically nimble. It was prior to the release of his final movie, A Prairie Home Companion. The audience had yet to see the picture, but Mr. Altman assured the audience it was about death. That got a chuckle, and he assured everyone that he was serious. Upon its release, some critics hailed its profundity, often discussing the morbid and somehow optimistic themes. Upon the great Mr. Altman’s death, even more discussed its poignancy and timeliness. Nonetheless, A Prairie Home Companion is not a great movie, and though he would never speak lowly of any of his pictures, I cannot imagine how heart-wrenching and affecting Prairie would be if it were half the movie Dinner at Eight is.

Renowned as a comedy classic, Dinner at Eight is an ensemble picture about a time lost and the depression that accompanies loss, both metaphorical and literal. The American Depression looms heavy over every frame of the picture, which is fairly remarkable, considering the amount glitz and bling it also carries. A former silent movie star, played by John Barrymore, is penniless and drunk. A 3rd generation shipping tycoon, played by John’s brother Lionel Barrymore, is losing his business to the stockholders and his life to illness. An aging stage actress, played by Marie Dressler, is drowning in pelts and forced to sell out a friend to die with her lifestyle intact. These characters are not falling from working class to the bread line, but from extremely rich and famous, to not so rich and a bit infamous. Their young brides and children, groomed for high society in The Roaring 20s are the most worrisome. The older folks make unspoken reference to The Great War, whilst the young ones have no reference or fortitude, because seriousness goes unspoken.

Like A Prairie Home Companion, Dinner at Eight is about a bittersweet last hurrah. Again like Prairie, in preparation for the “hurrah,” the “unspoken” personal and impersonal boils to the surface. Dinner at Eight leisurely introduces its mammoth cast of characters two-by-two. Typically a third enters the scene and then we follow them until it all loops back into itself. The leisurely pace, scene-by-scene is no doubt due to the fact that it is adapted from a stage play, but the structure works wonders for keeping everyone straight, observing them initially in their natural state and then watching the bulldozers come through. Gradually the scenes get quicker and quicker as we get closer to Friday, 8:00PM, and the tension becomes almost unbearable. When the clock tolls seven times it seems as though these characters cannot take another emotional blow, but the quiet cool with which they receive each hit somehow makes it more devastating than crying and screaming. It seems in their nature to cry and scream, as the actors ham up the humor and trifling problems, but for the most part, the outbursts remain trivial and comic. As the serious overwhelms the dinner party, they raise their heads high, full of the knowledge that this Dinner at Eight will be their collective last supper.

A comedy classic? It logically can be regarded as such due to the overwritten theatricality of the script compounded with overacting and the discreetly charming portrayal of the dying bourgeoisie. The comic timing in some scenes is uncanny, and a scene where a distraught servant describes a shockingly bloody incident to the Mrs. of the house is one for the history books. It is clear Dinner at Eight is as well, and it lives on in the films of Robert Altman (most literally in the tagline of the masterpiece Gosford Park – “Tea at Four. Dinner at Eight. Murder at Midnight.”).

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