Spotlight: Sexy Pre-Code Harlow (Post One)

Welcome to another Film Friday! Following our series on the Pre-Code films of both Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford, today we’re beginning our look at the Pre-Code (and no promises, but perhaps some Post-Code) work of another MGM beauty, Jean Harlow!

4th January 1933: American actress Jean Harlow (1911 - 1937) clasps a spray of flowers to her bosom.

Jean Harlow was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter in Kansas City, Missouri on March 3rd, 1911. The daughter of a dentist and an over-coddling mother named Jean, Harlean was nicknamed “The Baby” by family and friends. After divorcing her husband, Jean moved Harlean to LA, but the move lasted less than two years when Jean’s wealthy father threatened to disinherit her if she didn’t return. The pair soon moved to Chicago, to be close to Jean’s new boyfriend. Jean married Monta Bell in 1926, and Harlean followed suit by eloping with Charles McGrew, a wealthy heir, who took his new bride back to Los Angeles in 1928. On a dare, she strolled into Central Casting, and registered under the name Jean Harlow. Mother Jean and husband followed “The Baby” to LA and pressured her into accepting small extra and bit roles. She signed with Hal Roach studios, but tore up the contract due to the strain it was putting on her marriage. She and McGrew split anyway, and Howard Hughes cast the still unknown Harlow in Hell’s Angels (1930). An audience favorite (but not a critical one), Jean Harlow worked regularly for the next two years in films like The Public Enemy (1931) and Platinum Blonde (1931).


By 1932, Harlow became romantically involved with MGM producer Paul Bern, who convinced the studio to buy out her contract with Hughes. Her career exploded at MGM and she married Bern, but the marriage ended with his scandalous suicide later that year. Harlow soon began an affair with Max Baer, but the studio, afraid of more negative publicity, paired “The Baby” up with cameraman Howard Rosson instead. Their marriage also lasted under a year. During this time, Harlow’s career continued to boom with films like Bombshell (1933) and Dinner At Eight (1933). Like Joan Crawford, Harlow also found success being paired opposite Clark Gable. Unlike Crawford, however, Harlow’s popularity continued to rise after the Code. Following her divorce, Harlow became romantically involved (and perhaps engaged) to actor William Powell. But at the height of her career, Harlow suddenly died of complications from kidney failure in 1937. She was only 26 year old.


We’re kicking off our Harlow series with one of The Baby’s best performances, as Kitty Packard in MGM’s all-star followup to Grand Hotel (1932), Dinner At Eight (1933).


Dinner At Eight (1933)


Social climbing Millicent and Oliver Jordan plan a dinner for a bunch of New York society types, each of whom has much to reveal.

Starring Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, Lionel Barrymore, Lee Tracy, Edmund Lowe, Billie Burke, Madge Evans, Jean Hersholt, and Karen Morley. Screenplay by Frances Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz. Additional dialogue by Donald Ogden Stewart. Based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Directed by George Cukor.


After the success of Grand Hotel (1932), MGM found another all-star vehicle in a hit 1932 play, Dinner At Eight. Beery, Hersholt, and both Barrymore brothers returned alongside the likes of Lee Tracy, Madge Evans, Billie Burke and — in place of the magical Greta Garbo and gritty Joan Crawford — the expressive Marie Dressler and the luminous Jean Harlow. However, the large cast is both a benefit and a hinderance to this film, which I can’t help but compare to its 1932 predecessor, even though they have little in common (aside from a few cast members).


Lionel Barrymore and Billie Burke play Oliver and Millicent Jordan, a high society couple preparing for a dinner party in honor of Lord and Lady Fencliffe. As Millicent desperately tries to find a date for one of their other guests, former stage star Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), their daughter Paula (Madge Evans) dreads the return of her fiancé from Europe. Later, Oliver, a New York shipping magnate, is visited in his office by Carlotta, his former girlfriend, who’s strapped for cash and must unload some of her stock in the company. After she leaves, Wallace Beery enters as Dan Packard, a greasy mining man who “reluctantly” agrees to take some of Oliver’s stock, after the latter admits to financial difficulty. Oliver forces Millicent to invite Dan and his low-class wife, Kitty (Jean Harlow), to their dinner, and the social-climber gladly accepts. Packard, who learns of the invitation, demands that Kitty cancel, as the crooked businessman hopes to devour the Jordan stock through some shady business deals. But Dan changes his tune when he learns that the dinner is for the Fencliffes — the wealthiest couple in England. Meanwhile, Kitty has been having a secret affair with Dr. Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe), who also happens to be attending the Jordan dinner with his wife (Karen Morley).


On the eve of the dinner party, Millicent is still seeking a date for Carlotta. Out of desperation, she calls silent film star, Larry Renault (John Barrymore), who agrees to attend at Paula’s behest, with whom he’s been having a secret affair. A hardened alcoholic, Renault tries to give Paula the brush off. Later that evening, Larry is visited by his fast-talking agent (Lee Tracy), who breaks the news that the play Renault was planning to star in has changed producers, and the new producer (Jean Hersholt) wants him for a bit part instead of the lead. Larry agrees to consider the offer. Meanwhile, Talbot’s wife learns about her husband’s affair, but he is called away from their conversation by Oliver Jordan, who is having chest pains. It’s obvious that the condition is terminal. Back at his house, Millicent is in a tizzy because the Fencliffes have canceled, and she is forced to invite her cousin instead. At the Packards, Kitty tells her husband of her affair and he threatens divorce. She decides to blackmail him with the knowledge of his crooked business deals, forcing him to play nice with the Jordans so she can get into high society.


Meanwhile, a drunken Larry burns his bridges both with the producer and with his agent. He’s then asked to leave the hotel and commits suicide. Carlotta, who was staying at the same hotel as Larry and saw Paula leaving his room the day before, tells the young girl of his demise, insisting that she stay with her nice fiancé. Just before the dinner, Millicent learns of her husband’s illness and vows to be more attentive and make sacrifices. As the couple heads down the stairs, all the guests enter the dining room for their dinner at eight.


The easiest way to review the picture is by grouping the actors. For the sake of honesty and brevity, I can do this in three categories: those that shine, those that don’t, and those that try really hard to shine. The simple fact of the matter is the Talbots are dull and their scene is one of the less engaging parts of the film. The actors fail to make any sort of impression, though I think this is due in large part to the script, which does little to make their characters interesting and get the audience invested. So they make up the middle group of non-shiners — too understated and simply not entertaining enough!


On the other hand, actors with comparatively thankless parts like Jean Hersholt in his brief scene, and Madge Evans as the conflicted Jordan daughter, manage to three-dimensionalize their roles and make their moments enjoyable to watch. Evans, in particular, gives off a fascinating aura whose appeal I can only liken to honesty. Meanwhile, one has little time to worry about honesty with Wallace Beery, who uses sheer force to captivate, just like in Grand Hotel. He’s excellent, entertaining, and just what the picture needs. Lionel Barrymore, another carryover from the previous film, is also solidly represented — likable and relatable. Then there’s Billie Burke and Lee Tracy, who have no scenes together, but are both equally outstanding — each giving performances that show remarkable depth and a thrilling range of emotion. In fact, they’re so solidly excellent that I think, they two, more than anyone else, infuse the film with its style — classy and sharp with moments of both quiet and loud intensity.

Of course, we also have the ever-delightful Marie Dressler, who gets top billing, and it should be noted, whose star quality was considered equivalent to Garbo’s. Dressler’s funny, she’s introspective, she’s superb at physicalizing her thoughts — and while this picture isn’t the greatest showcase for her unique talents — she still manages to shine, especially in her wonderful scene opposite Billie Burke. The most recognizable clip from this film is the exchange between Dressler and Harlow, the film’s unabashed star, but we’ll cover that at the end.


I warned earlier that there was a category of actors that tried too hard to shine. I’m afraid the other Barrymore brother is in that category. Now, just hear me out. (Or, read me out, rather.) Lionel is fine —  both he and his scenes work. John, on the other hand, is probably the singular force that could make this picture unpleasant to modern viewers. Simply put, it’s too much. Unlike Grand Hotel, his style isn’t suited for this film. Without Garbo and the magic of their scenes together, Barrymore reveals his acting to be one of EXTREMES. Next to Garbo, the extremes works. Here,  it slows down the picture, making it less entertaining and watching his scenes a chore. However, his technique wasn’t uncommon for 1933, and goodness knows I’ll excuse almost anything from a performer that I respect and admire, but here — it didn’t work for me. And I don’t think it will work for many younger viewers either.


Fortunately, I can contrast his performance with arguably the film’s best — yes, Jean Harlow! She’s phenomenal. Her sequences were, without a doubt, the highlight for me. Again, she’s a believable performer, who never ceases to remember that movies are about entertainment. The girl is fun to watch! The scene between Kitty and Dan when she plans to blackmail him is the film’s most engrossing — richly structured with the film’s best dialogue and rawest performances.

I know there are those who will argue that this is a Marie Dressler picture, and I’m totally in agreement with you. Marie’s great, but Harlow really grabs ahold of her material and charges at us in a completely unexpected way. Whether Dressler was intended to be the main draw in 1933, today this IS a Harlow vehicle. And she shines the brightest. As I alluded to above, much has been made of the final exchange between Harlow and Dressler, which was not in the original play, but was added to the film at the last minute. What can I say? Two greats.

So while I felt Grand Hotel was ultimately the better of the two pictures because its smaller cast lent itself to an incredibly powerful balance between the romantic and the realistic, Dinner At Eight is still an excellent film with a dynamic menagerie of stars, mostly well-designed characters, and a plot that ably holds viewer interest. The John Barrymore style seems out of place, but the other stars more than make up for the off-kilteredness, with Harlow emerging as the brightest star of all.




Tune in next Friday as we look at more Pre-Code Harlow! And remember to come back on Monday for a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment! 

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