This is one of my favorite films - not just of the 1930s, but of all time. Rarely have I seen elements of both comedy and tragedy blended together so smoothly and seemingly effortlessly. The movie is nearly 70 years old now. Naturally, some parts of it are dated. Still, I suspect it was rather advanced in its views at the time. One character, Carlotta Vance [Marie Dressler], for example, is a faded beauty in her 60s who was once a great star. Instead of voicing regret that she has had many lovers and has always used men to advance herself financially, she exudes the confidence of one who has lived life to the fullest. And watch as she counsels the young Paula Jordon, who has taken and older lover and has decided to dump her dashing young fiancé. No moral platitudes from Carlotta, just some sage advice. In fact, all of the female characters are strikingly independent, despite the fact that men are, by necessity, their main source of income. I like these women!
MGM intentionally assembled the greatest cast it had on hand at the time. These were stars the public loved to see. This is from the days where there really were parts for older actresses. Ms. Dressler, who leads the cast in the credits, was sixty-five. The divine Billie Burke [Millicent Jordon], who I think was one of the funniest actresses who ever lived, was forty-eight. Jean Harlow, who plays the social climbing Kitty Packard, was just twenty-two, and Madge Evans [Paula] was twenty-four. Unlike today, the two older stars were not forced into subordinate roles. All of the actresses' parts have equal weight.
We have both Lionel and John Barrymore. John gives a heart-wrenching performance as Larry Renault, the alcoholic, washed up matinee idol Paula has fallen for. The role is eerily similar to his own life. Wallace Beery is hysterical as the oafish self-made millionaire, Dan Packard.
The plot is fairly simple. Millicent is planning a dinner party for the much sought after Lord and Lady Ferncliff, but trials and tribulations await her at every turn. Meanwhile, Oliver is about to lose the family shipping business. Carlotta thinks she is broke. Kitty is having an affair with a society doctor. And so forth. But the movie is about more than just a storyline. It's about great actors playing great characters. Times have changed, and so has society. Emotions haven't, and this is one emotionally charged movie. It remains fascinating and, in many ways, relevant. Best of all, it is great entertainment. And I almost forgot to mention the director was the inimitable George Cukor, one of the best who ever lived.