Dinners From Hell, Part II – This Time It’s Edible

Thanksgiving has rolled around again this year, that joyful occasion of Family, Food, and Fun, when feeding with the folks is such a happy, happy time (and when you say that—Smile).  Ah, but is it?  In my Grand Old Movies’ Thanksgiving post of last year I looked at some, shall we say, interesting dinner scenes from classic movies:  Scenes of Family and Food, yes, but with the emphasis more on the Fraught than the Frolicsome.  And, in true Hollywood tradition, for this year’s holiday I’m following up with a sequel—another look at friend-and-family dinners that are dim, difficult, dreary, or even plain dreadful.  But always (always) funny—which may say something about how we feel about dining with the folks.  Or may not.

So once more unto the Buffet, dear friends, let’s pile up our plates while we loosen our belts and close up our appetites with some cinematic food for viewing (if not eating) pleasure.

When the Food Shows Up But the Guests Don’t

There’s more to a big dining event than eating.  There’s also the preparing:  inviting the guests, choosing the menu, setting the table, and then cooking the dang stuff.  After everything is gathered, polished, produced, set up, and set out, the eating might be the least of it, a mere follow-up to the real business that’s already occurred.  In MGM’s 1933 all-star opus Dinner at Eight (which I previously wrote about here), well-to-do chatelaine Billie Burke spends the whole movie marshalling the forces for the epic-est of all epic dinner parties, only to have everything cave when the guests of honor, a titled pair on the lower rungs of the British aristocracy (or, “miserable Cockneys,” as Burke memorably puts it), opt out of the festivities.  Never has the sense of anticlimax been more savagely voiced than by the usually sweet-mannered Burke when faced with a dinner but no party; the meal may not be epic, but her rant sure is.  The following clip features two segments:  the Before, with Burke admiring a dish of aspic in the shape of the British lion (which, oddly enough, resembles MGM’s Leo) while she scrambles to find an extra man to even out the guest list; and the After, when Murphy’s Law has set in and Burke lets it all rip.

Hold the Soup; the Soap’s On

We expect Dinner to be a harmonious event, in which hosts and guests come together to share fine food, stimulating conversation, and a warm feeling of bien-être.  Sez you, say I; and so might say Kirk Douglas and Ann Sothern in A Letter to Three Wives.  If Dinner at Eight gave us the Big Push leading to, but stopping short of the Final Letdown, Letter pitilessly gives us, in slow detail, the Complete Collapse, with the feast falling as flat as a flopped soufflé.  Trying to impress her boss, radio mogul Florence Bates, Ann prepares a dinner whose studied elegance is meant to disguise the slightly shabby outlines of her middle-class suburban life; yet those hoi polloi contours stubbornly intrude all evening, like flies in the summer heat.  Beginning with a musical selection (Brahms on the phonograph) that’s appreciated by Kirk but no one else, we head into a temporary dining room created by a large folding screen that’s manhandled by floppy-capped maid-for-a-night Thelma Ritter, then squirm at the sotto-voce bickering between disputing mates Linda Darnell and Paul Douglas, and finally suffer the interruption of the dinner itself so Bates can listen to radio soap operas—specifically, to the commercials sponsoring them.  For two hours, in fact, with food served on plates in laps, like an impromptu camp-out in the living room.  Thus an expensive and carefully planned multi-course repast is reduced to the status of a frozen TV dinner (and before TV dinners even existed!).   About the only thing shared here is the relief felt by all when the last lap has been emptied.  Letter‘s dinner scene is as sharp as a carving knife in its observation of class and other boundaries (note the banter between nouveau-riche Darnell and working-class Ritter), and it leaves you with a taste both pungent and slightly sour, very much in keeping with its cinematic servings.

Down to Their Last Pea

I have a special fondness for the 1938 Marx Brothers film Room Service.  It was the first Marx Bros. film I saw, at a tender age, and it turned me right away into a devoted Marxist; if a film can be a gateway drug, Room Service was that for me.  Yet the movie has not been highly regarded—probably because it was based on a (non-Marxian) play, which was adapted for film, with some corners skewed, as a vehicle for Groucho, Chico, and Harpo.  The resulting fit, like a pair of too-large shoes, is not quite right, but the film’s still extremely funny, with such hilarious bits as Harpo’s turkey chase, Frank Albertson’s prolonged faked suicide, and Donald MacBride’s repeated exclamations of “Jumping Butterballs!”, each exasperated shout sending my youthful self into gleeful shrieks.  And then there’s the dinner scene, featuring Chico and Harpo grabbing every last morsel off the plates, like a pair of biped locusts clearing out the rice fields (take note of Harpo’s machine-gun rhythm as he consumes the contents of one dish), even to drinking the coffee out of Groucho’s cup—while Groucho’s also drinking from it.  It’s a precise performance about the sloppiness of family boundaries, as the brothers grab, poke, prod, spear, and spill into each other’s space; and because it’s about eating—an action that, like sex and other bodily activities, concerns the uncomfortable elasticity of physical and other borders—it has a mild gross-out factor that appeals to the adolescent mind (kids will enjoy Room Service), which still lurks in us.  And though it’s very funny, it’s not the kind of behavior I’d recommend when at a proper dinner party—the kind attended by proper, non-Butterball-exclaiming adults.

Is That A Leopard I Hear or Have I Just Gone Loony?

An example of one of those above-mentioned proper adult dinner parties is the one served in Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, by the majestically proper May Robson to her proper friend Charlie Ruggles, and joined by her not-so-proper niece Katharine Hepburn and her out-of-his-depth friend Cary Grant, who has a problem on his hands.  His precious intercostal clavicle (don’t ask) has been stolen by Kate’s dog George, who’s buried it somewhere on a vast Connecticut estate, and now Cary, like a hapless knight errant, needs to find it on some twenty-odd acres of land.  Complicating his quest is not only the proper meal and proper guests he’s supposed to attend to, but the offscreen and quite improper presence of Baby, a tame leopard who has a habit of making himself heard.  Which he’s doing that very night, vocalizing on the soundtrack in the manner of some Elder God out of the Lovecraft mythos.  The bewildered supper guests hide their confusion with polite conversation as to whether these eldritch cries belong to a loon or a leopard; and what with this ongoing leopard-loon debate, Ruggles’ attempts to imitate same, and Grant’s attempt to keep an eye on wandering George—not to mention the indignity of being addressed as “Mr. Bone” (again: don’t ask)—poor Cary’s distraction from his meal might be properly forgiven.  As an aside, note the scene-stealing performance by the great animal actor Skippy (most famous as The Thin Man’s Asta) as George, particularly his improper look of surprise at hearing Ruggles’ own eldritch cries.

Ballet Mécanique

Of all the dinner selections on this list (and on my last year’s), the eating scene from Charlie Chaplin’s late (1936) masterpiece Modern Times is one that, beyond the mere horrors of meal time, makes a point.  A sly dig not only at mechanization but at the sound film (note the recording that introduces the segment, replacing human speech), the scene examines the horrors of a life governed by machines, making it unusually prescient for our own modern times of AI computer robotics.  It’s also brilliantly constructed, its opening explanation of the “Billows Feeding Machine,” a time-saving device guaranteed to feed the worker “while at work,” setting up the audience for the comic bedlam to come.  And when it does—with Chaplin’s Little Tramp as the unfortunate victim strapped into the machine’s steely embrace and force-fed a meal—it’s both terrifyingly chaotic and as beautifully phrased and timed as a ballet, its transition from mechanical smoothness to demonic reflex escalating both the comedy and mayhem (note how the mouthwipe will move in, slowly, gracefully, to perform its programmed task, like punctuation at the end of a sentence).  Eating scenes are important in Chaplin’s films (the most famous eating scene in all cinema is from The Gold Rush); but they’re more than a look at poverty and want.  The eating of food acknowledges the most basic communal activity, the gathering round the table that unites us as humans.  Modern Times’ feeding machine scene is more than a dinner gone bad; it’s how a common, simple, and innocently enjoyable activity—in this case, sitting down to one’s lunch—can be dehumanized and turned into the assembly line from hell.  But the genius of it is that it’s also funny.

Pardon Me, But Your Tears Are Salting My Soup

I might have to modify my statement above, in its implication that only Chaplin’s eating scene makes a point.  So do the eating scenes in the cinema of W.C. Fields—good lord, do they ever.  As I wrote in my last year’s Thanksgiving post, Fields’ portrait of the nuclear family and its rituals of Dinner is both bitter and funny; it almost hurts to laugh.  And there may be no dinner more hilariously ghastly than the family eating scene in The Fatal Glass of Beer.  One of four short films Fields made for Mack Sennett almost right after the coming of sound, Beer looks, and sounds, as (deliberately) primitive as a Lascaux cave painting, but its avant-garde comedy is unmatched even in Fields’ oeuvre.  Yet how to explain what makes it funny?  In his Fields biography The Man on the Flying Trapeze Simon Louvish writes, “I find it impossible to view The Fatal Glass of Beer without collapsing into insane laughter”; and my reaction is the same; just listening to the film sends me over the edge.  The movie’s crude style, its surreal situations, and its “contempt for the motion-picture conventions,” locates it, says Louvish, within a post-modern sensibility, one focused on “meaningless, absurd postures.”  A remarkable feat for a movie only 20 minutes long; but its dinner scene gives us the essence of this PoMo posturing in two concentrated minutes.  In part a send-up of Victorian melodrama, the scene presents the Prodigal Son’s return from the Wicked City to the home of his Yukon-dwelling parents, where all he wants is to “go to my little bedroom, and lay on the bed, and cry like I was a baby again.”  And crying there is, as Maw, Paw, and son Chester (George Chandler) tearfully dissolve like melting dew round the dinner table, their sounds of lusty sobbing punctuated by the sound of Fields chomping on crackers.  The scene’s lack of sentiment is not only clinical but fierce; it turns the sappy (those repeated good-nights!) into the savage.  No film is quite like The Fatal Glass of Beer; and for any lover of cinema, art, or just plain humor, it’s essential viewing.

The Mystery of the Walking Stiff; or, The Case of The Bird Flipping The Turkey

Ah, The Three Stooges and Food.  More accurately, The Three Stooges versus Food.  If Chaplin looked at the horrors of Food and Machines and Fields the horrors of Food and People, the Stooges look at the horrors of just plain Food, period.  Whether it be raw, washed, cut, chopped, baked, roasted, boiled, broiled, hashed, mashed, lashed to a platter, crashed on the floor, smashed in an oven, or bashed on a table, as sure as beans is beans, Food is gonna roll up its sleeves, spit on its hands, and give each separate Stooge a poke in the eye.  Examples of culinary confrontation with the trio include Eggs—whole, cracked, splattered, spilled (onto hair or face), or thrown; Vegetables—carried in a dish that will be dropped (you can bet the farm on it); Canned Goods—opened by any means possible (preferably an ax); Sandwiches—as much as can fit in a mouth and more; Soup—in or out of a bowl, usually out (and in attack mode); Pies—hurled, whirled, twirled, furled, curled (need we elaborate?); and, especially, Turkey, dead or alive—often very much the latter.  In the Stoogean universe Turkeys show a disturbing tendency to come seemingly to life, like Boris Karloff zapped with a lightning bolt; and then saunter off the dish as if (to paraphrase from another Karloff film) wanting a little walk.  In the following two examples (Crash Goes the Hash and Three Dark Horses), each clip features a bird inhabited by a bird:  a curious parrot that slips unseen into a turkey carcass like a hermit crab tucking itself into a seashell.  What follows is mayhem on the grand scale, with humans squawking like barnyard fowl and the Turkey (inevitably) coming out on Top.  It gives a whole new meaning to the expression “Turkey Day.”  Life with the Stooges can be so interesting.

When the Guests Show Up But the Food Doesn’t

Fittingly I end this post with a ghoulish little number from Laurel and Hardy’s Oliver the Eighth, in which guests attend a dinner that isn’t there.  The plot finds Ollie married to a wealthy widow (L&H regular Mae Busch), who’s been married seven times before, each time to a man named Oliver.  Seems the merry widow has a thing against Olivers, having been jilted by one such named, and uses her marriages as a way to get murderous revenge.  And if you think that’s crazy, wait till dinner.  Starting with the butler performing card tricks without any cards, the scene becomes a surreal pantomime, as successive dinner courses are served sans food but presented as if a veritable feast; forcing Stan and Ollie to mime eating, drinking, and crumbling absent crackers into empty bowls of soup.  The scene is funny but it also has an odd, absurdist dream logic, in which the performance of vacant actions compels belief in them; note how Stan enthusiastically seasons his non-existent soup with non-existent salt.  What’s also compelling, and charming, about the scene is the precision the Boys bring to their movements, the dainty realism, for example, of hands and lips as they spoon and sip soup.  It’s more than brilliant technique; it’s the refinement of craft, based on observation and limned in delicate gesture, approaching the level of art.  Behind such a throwaway scene, you realize, is a lifetime of performing experience, lavished on even the smallest finger flick.  Is it no wonder we love these guys?  Oliver the Eighth may just be a two-reeler, but what Stan and Ollie offer us here is a real feast.  Which is a holiday in and of itself.

Happy Thanksgiving.

BONUS CLIP:  After dinner, comes dessert.  And what better for dessert than—Pie!  You want Pie?  Well, we got Pie—and then some:

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  1. Paddy Lee

     /  November 29, 2019

    Ho-ho! Not only a grand compilation but the grandest of insights into these culinary disasters and triumphs.
    I’m hungry!
    – Caftan Woman


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