By: Paul J. Bradley, CMR Contributor
(Click HERE for Part 1.)
Dinner at Eight (1933)
David O. Selznick’s first production was the star cast for Dinner at Eight. Based on the 1932 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, Selznick assigned Frances Marion to write the adapted screenplay. Similar in structure to the award-winning Grand Hotel, which was released a year earlier, Dinner at Eight had an equally all-star cast including Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, John Barrymore and especially silent movie veteran Marie Dressler.
Dinner at Eight is a behind-closed-doors story of a variety of guests at a prestigious Manhattan party, hosted by the affluent Millicent and Oliver Jordan. Oliver’s health is failing, and he is worried that somebody is trying to buy up his stocks in his shipping business. Millicent’s plans for the party are not going smoothly, but all the guests have their own worries too.
Working for Selznick
Producer David O. Selznick wanted to create something grander than Grand Hotel and felt that Kaufman and Ferber’s play would be the answer. Eddie Goulding, the director of Grand Hotel, was expected to direct the film, but Selznick brought in George Cukor from RKO.
Cukor and Frances became lifelong friends, but the political atmosphere in the studio was not good. There were plenty of Thalberg partisans who had felt that the sickly Irving Thalberg was stabbed in the back by Selznick. Frances knew that it was important to get along with Selznick, a person she had known since he was a young boy visiting his father at World Studios. The tension may have contributed to Frances finishing her script in only two weeks, leaving Herman Mankiewicz and Donald Ogden Stewart to add more scenes and dialogue.
Release and Success
Dinner at Eight was released on August 29th, 1933, and was a box office success. The film was also a critical triumph, with many praising the performances, especially from John Barrymore and Marie Dressler, and the screenplay from Frances Marion (along with Herman Mankiewicz and Donald Ogden Stewart). Dinner at Eight continues to receive acclaim.
Leaving Hollywood and Legacy
By 1946, Frances Marion had enough of Hollywood. She had long felt that her creative control had slipped away. She was also frustrated with the censorship guidelines, such as love scenes with no suggestion of sex, which forced her to write more simplistic stories. So, after a successful career and four marriages, Frances simply walked away from the industry to devote more time to write plays and novels.
After publishing her memoir Off with Their Heads: A Serio-Comic Tale of Hollywood in 1972, Frances Marion died a year later from a ruptured aneurysm.
Frances Marion needs to be remembered. Her influence on early cinema and Hollywood’s Golden Age is immense. Frances helped give the industry the language of cinematic storytelling, and she generously passed on this knowledge to all other aspiring writers.
Hollywood owes a massive debt to this brilliant but lesser-known pioneer.