Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Best Actress Of 1932-33 (Comedy/Musical): Jean Harlow (Red Dust, Dinner At Eight and Bombshell), Part Two

[To read Part One of this essay, click here.]

Dinner At Eight: Harlow Arrives At Last
"I was reading a book the other day."

"Reading a book?!?"

"Yes. It's all about civilization or something. A
nutty kind of a book. Do you know that the guy says that machinery is going to take the place of every profession?"

"Oh, my dear, that's something you need never worry about."

After a second movie with Gable, Hold Your Man (actually their third—Gable and Harlow had small roles in the 1931 gangster movie The Secret Six, but weren't paired together), Harlow gave what may be her best-remembered performance, that of none-too-bright social climber Kitty Packard in the comedy-drama, Dinner At Eight.

A successful play by Broadway legends George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, Dinner At Eight is a loosely-connected series of vignettes about a group of Manhattan social climbers preparing for a dinner party as their respective worlds fall down around their ears. Seeing Dinner At Eight as a potential follow-up to 1932's Grand Hotel, a star-studded extravaganza that had won the Academy Award for best picture, MGM producer Irving Thalberg bought the film rights to the play, but fell ill soon after and took a leave of absence from the studio. Louis B. Mayer, long jealous of Thalberg, sensed an opportunity to increase his control of MGM and brought in his son-in-law, David O. Selznick, who reluctantly left his post as head of RKO Studios to head up the production (prompting wags to quip "the son-in-law also rises").

For Dinner At Eight, Selznick assembled the brightest of MGM's stars, including the three male leads from Grand Hotel, and added America's most popular actress Marie Dressler as a faded Broadway star, Billie Burke as the twittery hostess of this train wreck, and finally Harlow as the spoiled young trophy wife of Wallace Beery's crooked businessman. (Joan Crawford turned down the part of a woman cheating on her fiance, the most thankless role in the movie; it went to Madge Evans instead.)

Director George Cukor, fresh off Katharine Hepburn's successful debut in A Bill Of Divorcement, cast Harlow over the objections of Louis B. Mayer, who felt she wasn't actress enough to keep up with her more experienced co-stars. But Red Dust had convinced Cukor that Harlow had a gift for comedy and with the director's help, she wound up stealing the show.

Outside of Karl Marx, Dinner At Eight is as scathing an indictment of the monied classes as you're likely to find, and no character is more indolent than Harlow's Kitty. She manipulates her men, bullies her maid, and otherwise lies around in a torpor, eating bonbons and complaining of boredom. "She holds court from her bed," Matthew Kennedy wrote for Bright Lights Film Journal, "like a spoiled Persian cat, a disagreeable chocolate substituting for a furball."

And yet because she hungers to improve herself (even if she seems to think the surest path to knowledge is to sleep with an educated man), we find ourselves rooting for Kitty. "I'm going to be a lady if it kills me," she vows.

Ironically, the woman Kitty most aspires to be—Billie Burke's Millicent Jordan—is even more empty-headed than she is, and without a backless evening gown to take your mind off the fact.

In terms of its complexity, the role of Kitty Packard was a leap for Harlow, but where she had been ill-equipped to handle early roles in Hell's Angels and Platinum Blonde, now she was ready. In Red-Headed Woman, she'd learned how to gain an audience's sympathy despite playing an unlikeable character. In Red Dust, she'd learned how to deliver dialogue (tough wisecracks, for example) while conveying a deeper truth (hurt, vulnerability) with her eyes.

In Dinner At Eight, she found the last piece of the puzzle, "the ability," in the words of Frank Miller, writing for Turner Classic Movies, "to deliver lines as though she didn't quite know what they meant."

The result was the best performance of her career.

"Harlow played comedy," said Cukor, "as naturally as a hen lays an egg."

The most famous scene in Dinner At Eight is the last one between Harlow and Marie Dressler—and justly so, with Dressler's famous doubletake and last line—but it's not really Harlow's scene, except to serve up a couple of terrific straight-lines. Instead check out her scenes with Wallace Beery, who plays her boorish husband. The two bicker and battle, the collision of small minds and titanic wills, and despite Beery's expertise at hammy scene stealing, it's Harlow the viewer remembers.

Their verbal sparring ("Remember what I told you last week?" "I don't remember what you told me a minute ago.") escalates to point of physical violence, with Harlow delivering a pivotal ultimatum in one breathless rant:

"Who do you think you're talking to, that first wife of yours out in Montana? That poor mealy-faced thing with a flat chest that didn't have nerve enough to talk up to you, washing out your greasy overalls and cooking and slaving in some lousy mining shack—no wonder she died. Well, you can't get me that way, you're not going to step on my face to get where you want to go, you big windbag! ... Politics? Ha! You couldn't get into politics. You couldn't get in anywhere. You couldn't even get in the men's room at the Astor!"

It's a tour de force moment both for Harlow and for the film, and it contrasts nicely with Kitty's previous lethargy and coy manipulations. The antipathy between Beery and Harlow was genuine, but they were a great screen couple and they made one more movie together, China Seas in 1935.

Movie-going audiences loved Dinner At Eight and loved Harlow in it, not only because she looked great in her backless evening gown (designed by Adrian, it was known as the "Jean Harlow dress" and was so tight she couldn't sit down in it), but also because she had proven herself once and for all as one of Hollywood's great comedic actresses.

"Acting honors," said Variety at the time, "probably will go to Dressler and Harlow, the latter giving an astonishingly well-balanced treatment of Kitty, the canny little hussy who hooks a hard-bitten and unscrupulous millionaire and then makes him lay down and roll over."

According to KC at Classic Movies, Dressler was so impressed with Harlow that she hoped she and Harlow could work together again, starting "an entirely new kind of comedy team—the glamour girl and the matron." Dressler, however, died of cancer just a year later and the two never made another movie together.

As it was, when Harlow finished her last scene for the movie, she went to her dressing room and cried, perhaps knowing nothing she ever did afterwards would top this performance.

As a postscript, I should mention that Harlow's real-life dinner at eight didn't go nearly so well as the onscreen one. At a party for the British prime minister, Harlow found herself seated next to the PM's wife, Margot Asquith, Countess of Oxford and Asquith. Throughout the dinner, Harlow addressed her as "Margot," pronouncing the "t," until finally the Countess said, "No, no, the 't' is silent, as in 'Harlow.'"

Apocryphal, perhaps, but a good punchline.

Note: To read my essay on John Barrymore's performance in Dinner At Eight, click here.

[To read Part Three of this essay, click here.]


Erik Beck said...

Too bad you didn't have a film clip to go with the dialogue. Dressler's reaction to Harlow's first line is one of my favorite reactions in all of film history.

Mythical Monkey said...

There is a clip on YouTube here, but I didn't include it because the aspect ratio is all out of whack -- Jean Harlow looks like a fireplug which can't be right.

Someday I'm going to have to learn how to make film clips for YouTube ...

mister muleboy said...

And yet because she hungers to improve herself (even if she seems to think the surest path to knowledge is to sleep with an educated man),

Well, consider me a pedagogue. . . .