|The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)
Run time: 112 min
Genres: Comedy | Romance
Director: William Keighley
Writers: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein
Stars: Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, Monty Woolley
Lecturer Sheridan Whiteside slips on the ice on his way into the home of a prominent Ohio family. The Dr. says Whiteside must remain confined having broken his leg. He begins to meddle with the lives of everyone in the household and, once his plots are underway, learns there is nothing wrong with his leg. He bribes the doctor. The owner discovers the fraud, but Whiteside blackmails him (he finds out that the owner’s sister is an axe murderer) and resumes control. Written by Ed Stephan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Release Date: 24 January 1942 (USA)
Movies like these don’t get filmed anymore. The subject matter would not appeal to an audience that today run to the hills at the mention of the words "literate adaptation of a successful Broadway play" which happens to be not about sexy murderesses or sexy bed hoppers, but of people who talk and act in perfectly clipped words and mannered affectations more often seen in such sitcoms like "FRASIER".
THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER is a perfect example of a film that remains dated due to its very subject matter. Screenwriters George S. Kaufmann and Moss Hart came up with this hilarious story based on the personalities (as per them) of then-film critic Alexander Woollcott, playwright Noel Coward, and theatre actress Gertrude Lawrence, and in doing so created a smash Broadway hit that received this film version. Stories tell of John Barrymore being up for the part of Sheridan Whiteside (Woolcott) but being ‘unable’ to remember his lines, which prompted to keep theatre actor Monty Woolley from the original play. Monty breathes a massive amount of life into his smothering, capricious character and of course makes the movie all his. By his side, a perfect foil, is Bette Davis playing Maggie Cutler. The original role was not as large in the play but was expanded for this version and is the only time during her golden period in Hollywood when she stepped down and took a secondary role (though billed first, which must have helped make it a box-office hit). Ann Sheridan as theatre actress Lorraine Sheldon has the third billing and rips into her hysterical role. Watch her scenes with Bette: Maggie and Lorraine bait each other whenever they’re on screen together but for the first time, do not watch Davis (who plays well as the quieter, servant female). Ann Sheridan looks like she’s about to burst out of her clothes and tear right into Davis.
A near perfect cast: Billie Burke playing more of the same variation of the ditsy socialite, Reginald Gardner doing a great impersonation of Noel Coward (and sporting a great "stuttering" scene at a key point of the movie) and especially Mary Wickes, playing Mrs. Preen, a nurse in attendance of Sheridan who cracks under the pressure of so much craziness. A fantastic, wonderful comedy.
George S. Kaufman co-wrote this play-turned-film based on the real-life characters with whom he regularly associated. Alexander Woolcott, the famed Broadway critic was the inspiration for Sheridan Whiteside, a publicly loved figure who’s private, curmudgeonly demeanor was less than idyllic. Kaufman even went so far as to have Whiteside occasionally sing jibberish with a child’s speech impediment, which was a practice of Woolcott’s.
Monty Wooley brilliantly delivers the Groucho-like insults penned with supreme wit by the Marxian play and film write. Kaufman, of course, co-wrote many of the Marx’s best works and was a good friend of Harpo, upon whom the character "Banjo" is based.
The entire cast is brilliant save for Richard Travis who, while not distractingly bad, is somewhat outclassed by the likes of Bette Davis, Billie Burke, Mary Wickes, and Reginald Gardiner.
All in all, this is solid comedy that bears repeated seasonal viewing. I can’t figure out why it’s not on DVD. That’s not true. I CAN figure it out. I doubt it would sell large numbers of copies given movie audiences’ limited awareness of the film. What I meant was, I wish it were available on DVD.
Not so much a Christmas movie as it is a movie that happens to take place during the Christmas season. This 1942 farce has a rude and elitist author/lecturer/high society man falling on the icy steps of an Ohio businessman and being forced to stay in the man's home for weeks. Monty Wolley plays Sheridan Whiteside who seems to have contempt to one degree or another for everyone around him. He felt it beneath him to even be somewhere like Ohio in the first place, and he is determined to make life miserable for everyone once he is marooned there. Whiteside has a put down ready for almost everything anyone says to him. His lines of dialog pretty much range from condescending flattery to outright insults. And let it be said here, that he is almost always hilarious.
Bette Davis plays Whiteside's personal secretary who falls in love with a local newspaper man and aspiring playwright. Davis confesses her intent to settle down with the handsome young man, and this is a matter of great concern for Whiteside since he would be nearly helpless without her. Even though his injuries have healed, he continues to act as though he is confined to a wheelchair for much of the picture. And most of the plot deals with Whiteside attempting to sabotage his secretary's blossoming romance.
The film lasts for nearly two hours and seldom lets the viewer up for air. This is a film that you may have to see several times to notice every clever line or plot development. And since it was originally a play, most of it takes place in one room. That being the living room of the put-upon Ohio businessman and his brow-beaten family. Along the way, Whiteside begins meddling in the lives of others, as well. He practically incites a rebellion by the couple's teenage children. He comes up with more insults than one can count for his nurse. And some of the funniest moments deal with an aging doctor attempting to get Whiteside to look at his manuscript about his profession. Many famous people appear and are referred to throughout the film. Most of the pop culture references are really dated, but not so much that it really bogs the film down. The acting is wonderful. Jimmy Durante and Ann Sheridan liven things up in support. The film is rather smug in how it was written by and about famous people who obviously look down on normal Midwestern folk. But the humor is harmless, and all too enjoyable. 10 of 10 stars.
The Man Who Came to Dinner is a little uneven, but it’s mostly entertaining. The unevenness comes mainly from the dullness of the budding relationship which the film holds in focus. The original play is very well written, especially the dialogue. It was actually performed at my high school when I was there. But its the cast here that excels. Monty Woolley is great in the titular role. He plays Sheridan Whiteside to absolute perfection. Bette Davis is quite good as his secretary, but the role is actually somewhat below her standards. I’m sure she took the role because she loved the play so much and was sure it’d be a hit, but that role is pretty dull. Ann Sheridan perhaps gives the film’s most memorable performance as an egotistical Hollywood diva who’s not sure whether she wants to marry British nobility for money or just chase around cute guys. Also noteworthy are Billie Burke as Mrs. Stanley, the Ohio society woman who invites Whiteside to dinner, Reginald Gardiner as an eloquent celebrity friend of Whiteside (far underused), and the incredibly insane Jimmy Durante as Banjo. He comes into the film very late, but he very nearly steals the show. 8/10.