Though she’s not as well remembered today, Edna Ferber was a literary giant of the early and mid-twentieth century on par with contemporaries Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner.
Seven of her novels were among the top ten best sellers in the year of their publication, and two topped the list, both feats that neither Hemingway, Fitzgerald, nor Faulkner accomplished.
She was primarily a playwright and novelist, her works encompassing the trials and tribulations of the American people, whom she knew and loved. Her well-researched works covered a wide range of American life, from the struggle of Oklahoma statehood, to life on the Mississippi, the machismo of early twentieth century Texas, and the actors on the New York stage scratching out a living.
Her commercial and critical success ensured that Hollywood would come calling, and when it did she took the money and ran, having little to do with the making of most of her films.
So though you may not know the name Edna Ferber, you undoubtedly know the films based on her work. Over the next eight weeks, we’ll cover the onscreen adaptations of this forgotten chronicler of the American experience.
Let’s start with Dinner at Eight (1933.)
Ferber collaborated on nearly all her plays with fellow Algonquin Round Table member George Kaufman, and Ferber had long had the idea to write a comedy of manners with interlocking stories surrounding a group of couples set to attend a dinner party. The play was a success, and it was adapted for the screen the next year.
Dinner at Eight was producer David O. Selznick’s first film with MGM after his successful stint at RKO. Selznick wanted to prove his worth to father-in-law and boss Louis B. Mayer, and compete with golden boy MGM producer Irving Thalberg. So he brought director George Cukor over from RKO, and they set about casting the successful play for the screen.
The similarities to Grand Hotel were known from the start—Ferber and Kaufman knew before writing the play that it would be compared to William A. Drake’s play, also made into an MGM film with an all-star ensemble cast, though Ferber insisted that she’d had the initial idea years before Grand Hotel was produced, but had to talk Kaufmann into doing it.
Both Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight have large star-filled casts with a history of stage acting. Both have multiple storylines that intersect in funny, tragic, and surprising ways. John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, and Wallace Beery star in both films.
Dinner at Eight begins simply enough—Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke, years before her unforgettable turn as Glinda the Good Witch) wants to throw a dinner party for her wealthy friends and acquaintances. But there’s secrets among the group—affairs, looming financial disasters, and an impending suicide. The film starts with the invitations, divulges the secrets, and gathers the group together at the Jordan’s home before ending just as the group goes into the dinner room for the titular dinner.
It’s not as good a film as Grand Hotel. There’s lots and lots of talking, and not quite enough action, even for a film made in 1933. I gave the film two shots—viewing it several weeks apart, and I must admit that I fell asleep both times in the middle.
The film comes alive only when Jean Harlow arrives, and she doesn’t get nearly enough screen time. She plays Kitty Packard, the low class wife of Dan Packard. Millicent was forced to invite the Packards as her husband wants Dan to invest in his failing family business.
Kitty flounces around in her dressing gown, literally eating bon bons and having an affair with her doctor while her husband works to build his business empire. She’s thrilled to attend the party, and arrives in an inappropriately tight dress. She’s crass, laughs too loud, and doesn’t know how to hide her low-class breeding.
It’s a character Harlow perfected—the low class floozy—and the whole film wakes up when she slinks onto the screen.
Dinner at Eight has a distinguished pedigree—an all-star cast, great director, a producer who would go on to write his name in the Hollywood history books, and yet this film doesn’t have much to offer the modern audience outside of a view of Harlow, a star gone too soon when she died suddenly of kidney failure at twenty-six just four years after Dinner was filmed.
I tip my cap to all involved, but Dinner at Eight had it’s day, but it’s day is done.
- Ferber, Edna. A Peculiar Treasure. 1939.
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.