In 1933, Jean Harlow’s movie career was taking off, and Marie Dressler’s was winding down. Harlow was 22, a blonde bombshell with a body that could cause a 10-car pileup. Dressler was 64, a self-described “ugly duckling,” born just three years after Abe Lincoln’s assassination. Yet these two actresses shared more than just the last laugh in Dinner at Eight. They shared a mutual respect for each other’s talent.
Dressler dishes Dinner dirt in her autobiography: “It was whispered behind more than one hand that Jean Harlow, Metro’s much-advertised platinum menace, was picked for parts that called for more allure than art...she had to throw a bomb in the works by proving she is a first-rate actress...The plain truth is, she all but ran off with the show.” Harlow bowed to Dressler’s singular brilliance: “Being in the same cast as Marie was a break for me. She’s one trouper I’d never try to steal a scene from. It’d be like trying to carry Italy against Mussolini.”
Dinner at Eight was MGM’s bid to catch lightning in a bottle – again – following the success of Grand Hotel in 1932. Rebooting Hotel's all-star formula, Dinner delivers a trio of Oscar winners (Dressler, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery) and popular stars (John Barrymore, Harlow) in the tale of high-class party guests juggling personal and financial crises.
The film was produced by David O. Selznick (Gone With the Wind) and directed by George Cukor (The Philadelphia Story, pictured above in the gray suit), who lobbied hard to get dubious MGM executives to give Harlow a shot.
Cukor recalled, “I'd seen her in The Public Enemy (1931) and Hell's Angels (1930), where she was so bad and self-conscious, it was comic. Then I saw Red Dust (1932) and there she was, suddenly marvelous in comedy. Tough...yet very feminine, like Mae West. They both wisecrack, but they have something vulnerable, and it makes them attractive." Reportedly, Harlow didn’t require Method acting to portray a social-climbing tart who hates her husband (Beery): She couldn’t stand him in real life.
In one of the most cringe-worthy scenes, Renault is absolutely shredded by his long-suffering agent, who tells him:
You did have looks, but they're gone now. You don't have to take my word for it. Just look in any mirror. They don't lie. Take a good look.
Look at those pouches under your eyes. Look at those creases. You sag like an old woman. Get a load of yourself. Wait ‘til ya start trampin' around at the offices, looking for a job because no agent's going to handle you. Sitting in those anterooms hour after hour, giving your name to office boys that never even heard of ya. You're through, Renault. You're through in pictures and plays and vaudeville and radio and everything. You're a corpse, and you don't know it. Go get yourself buried.
Ooch. Brutal. Thank goodness, Harlow and Dressler team in this epic final scene, as an aging diva puts a scheming gold digger in her place...then watch this rarely seen after-Dinner treat, a spot-on spoof by rival studio Warner Bros.