This may be the funniest twenty seconds not only in Dinner at Eight but in all of film, and it’s probably the funniest comeback line ever. Maybe that line (which was not in the original play, but was added by Donald Ogden Stewart) could have been just as hilarious if said by anyone else, but I don’t think so. I think only Dressler could have come up with that double take—a stop-start-stagger, like a battleship trying a K-turn, on hearing that Jean Harlow has actually dipped into literature—and then given her retort that exquisitely timed phrasing, like a duchess with a Joe Louis wind-up. The sequence is a self-contained playlet, Class skewering Crass, the punch to the jaw delivered with such good manners that the recipient doesn’t even know she’s been socked.
There’s a lifetime of acting experience behind what Dressler does here. It’s not just conveying shock, dignity, politeness, and a lethal riposte in the span of time it takes to count your opponent out; it’s conveying all that in a manner specific to her character, Carlotta Vance. As Dressler plays her, Carlotta’s an actress of the old school, her life and everything around it taking place on a stage where she’s always ‘on.’ For dear Carlotta, every entry is an Entrance worthy of a diva, and every glance ricochets off the scenery and shoots right up to the fifth balcony. And given the chance to stick it to a blonde bimbo who can’t see it coming, she plays it like Stokowski conducting Stravinsky: light but quick, with enough pizazz to set the groundlings cheering.
Dinner at Eight has one of the great all-time star casts, all of whom are performing at the top of their game; but Dressler, in her penultimate film, is the one who stands out for me. She builds up Carlotta by gleaming layers, letting you see the iridescent dimensions of this woman, right up to that bright, brilliant pearl in the finalé. I think only John Barrymore, as the failed actor Larry Renault, matches her, giving a performance of such bleak, heartbreaking honesty that I find it almost terrifying to watch—it’s like seeing someone peel off his own flesh, one strip at a time.
If Dressler’s own acting in this film isn’t as wrenching, it’s that she’s playing a character who’s gentler on herself, more forgiving, more self-deprecating. She may be vain but she’s rooted in self-awareness, with a sense of humor about her once-gloried past, which goes back longer than she cares to remember (when a fluttering fan blurts out about having seen Carlotta when a child, she dryly observes, “We must have a nice talk about the Civil War sometime, just you and I”).
Carlotta may be a relic, her life having reached a calm, wintry twilight, lit by the jewels that sparkle on her like a gentle frost. But Dressler sure wasn’t, although she had come pretty close. Like Carlotta, Dressler was from acting’s old school, starring on Broadway and in light opera in the 19th century, then appearing in vaudeville and early silents. And like Carlotta, she was famous and admired, with streets and animals named after her (if Carlotta had a racehorse, Marie actually had a cow).
By the 1920s, though, Dressler had skidded to the brink, unable to get theater work (in part due to blacklisting because of her support for a chorus girls’ strike). She’d begun her career in the Gibson-Girl era, when a stately visage combined with billowy curves was all the rage, but was now out of date in the age of jazz, mad youth, and the bee’s knees—a Saint Bernard among yapping whippets. For almost a decade she lived in near poverty, her long career as forgotten as press clippings disintegrating in a library, until a confluence of history and changing tastes effected an astonishing revival.
The talkies and the Depression rescued Dressler. When Flaming Youth fizzed out, a Wall-Street-battered movie public took to heart this sagging, sixty-year-old actress who looked like a bag lady thrown out of a bar at closing time. This was no dream-factory-produced starlet. Dressler was one of the People, and she had the egg-whisk-beaten mug and wised-up voice to prove it. Bread-line audiences could sympathize with her characters, feisty working-class women and garrulous old soaks in such films as Min and Bill, Anna Christie, Emma, and Tugboat Annie, who toiled in life’s muck and hurled crockery at Wallace Beery.
There was nothing small or dainty or little-old-lady-like about Dressler’s acting. She was full-out, huge, using her bulk to shatter screen space and swallow scenes whole. She could be warm, earthy, angry, vulgar, touching, or regal, sometimes all at once. She could have you screeching with laughter and then blinking back tears. And she had Faces. I don’t think anyone made better faces than Dressler did. She’d turn and twist those pop eyes, flapping jowls, and broad, mobile mouth into an array of expressions that would have left Lon Chaney cowering in his make-up kit. If you need any arguments as to why you need to see movies on the big screen rather than on little LED displays, Dressler can give you a million of ’em.
The preening Carlotta might have seemed a change-of-pace role for Dressler’s fans. Carlotta’s a glamour gal; she doesn’t make a move without her furs and diamonds, and she moves in the best social circles (even Beery here has a washed neck). But Dressler, as she did with all her characters, grounds Carlotta in a lived life. She doesn’t toss the feathers and Pekes and ropes of pearls around like a road-show Auntie Mame. She plays Carlotta broadly but deeply, in all her many moods. Introduced to any lone male, Carlotta reacts like the society beauty she once was, treating all men like potential conquests and primping like a teenager on the make (you can practically see the hungry gleam in her eye, anticipating a late-night supper à deux at Delmonico’s).
But in breaking the the news of Renault’s suicide to the young woman besotted with him, Carlotta reveals her soul. She knows in her gut what this girl is feeling; and it’s here you see Dressler’s mastery of mood. She moves from flamboyance to simplicity in one long take, stating the truth gently, without dramatics; she realizes words cannot encompass such sorrow. Watching this scene today, and listening in hindsight to Carlotta’s rumination on the finality of death, I always feel a sad, eerie chill, as if Dressler may have foreseen her own demise (she died the following year, in 1934, of terminal cancer). It seems not only Carlotta’s, but Dressler’s own pensive envoi to life, a tender passing into a long night.
Still, you can’t keep a grand old trouper like Carlotta down. Dressler infuses her with a sly, bawdy, Wife-of-Bath energy that I think would not have been allowed after the Breen crackdown of 1934. There’s nothing of that ladylike Lucile-Watson ossification about Carlotta. Nor does Dressler play her as a comic grotesque, a man-hungry harridan meant to be despised. In spite of age and lost looks, Carlotta’s still a sexual woman, glowing with remembered pleasures. Hearing a young man’s name, she remarks, “I think I knew his father,” then glances at a large jewel gleaming on her chest. “I did,” she murmurs, with a happy sigh. Whatever else, Carlotta is an artist and a great lady, who’s earned her hard wisdom about success, failure, and love.
Per IMDB, Dressler’s final movie was the 1933 MGM film Christopher Bean, which “ has never been distributed for television showing or released on home video”; it doesn’t even seem to have been shown on TCM. I don’t know why. The cry goes round the room to have Christopher Bean released in some sort of video format, just to make this old blogger happy (can you hear me out there, Warner Archives?). Surely an artist of Dressler’s standing deserves no less.
Until then, we can all keep watching Dinner at Eight and keeping our fingers crossed, while enjoying Marie at her most magnificent. She’s really this movie’s fulcrum, the glittery sideshow surrounding its main events. She knows Lionel Barrymore is broke; she knows about Madge Evans and John Barrymore’s affair; and she knows the real reason why the Ferncliffs aren’t coming—and has the the hilariously bad taste to announce it just before dinner.
And to top it all off, she gets the last word.
If you need a capper for your career, that ain’t a bad way to go.
This post is Grand Old Movies’ contribution to The Late Show Blogathon, running from December 1-7, 2013, and hosted by David Cairns’ Shadowplay blog. For a list of participating bloggers, writing on the late or last films of cinema artists, please click on the banner below.