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The best of everything
on 12 January 2009
In the 30's Hollywood adapted many film comedies of manners from hit Broadway plays. Some like the Barrymore vehicle "Twentieth Century" seem stage-bound and are terribly overacted as if played in Madison Square Gardens. But this version of the George Kaufman/ Edna Ferber stage play pulls it off totally. John Barrymore takes his role as a washed-up matinee idol more seriously in this than in many of the films in which his art imitated, then parodied, his own downhill trajectory. As a result he is subtle and touching here, even as he is courting a girl young enough to be his daughter, and you can see from this performance why he had once been the most famous leading man of his generation. The other leading roles- and if ever there was a balanced ensemble cast in the movies, this is it- are taken by players who, each in their own way, show themselves to be masters of character acting. Marie Dressler, one of the greatest character players in the movies, is funny and magnificent, a warship in full sail. Lionel Barrymore, the businessman whose own shipping line is- well, sinking- is at the end of his tether with business worries, and consequent failing health, but maintains throughout an air of gentle decency and good manners. The background to this comedy drama is the Depression, and in spite of the lavish settings and magnificent costumes, we seem never far away from personal or romantic disaster. Love, romance, marriage, sex and high finance are woven into a carefully controlled narrative perfectly brought to the screen by George Cukor and his screenplay adapters. The dreadful marriage between the loud, rude, bullying nouveau riche tycoon played by Wallace Beery and his trashy, wheedling, spectacularly underdressed younger wife, Jean Harlow, shows another side of 1930's high society. Marie Dressler performs what has to be the finest double-take in the movies, in reaction to strident Jean Harlow's conversational gambit " I read a book the other day..." I won't spoil it by quoting further, but this exchange leads to what must rank as among the best last exchanges in cinema- up there with the ending of Some Like it Hot. Like all the best comedy, Dinner at Eight has a serious edge to it, more than a touch of darkness. One of the films to see before you die- or go bankrupt.