The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

Synopsis:

Celebrated writer Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley, Since You Went Away) finds himself confined to the home of a fan after he falls and breaks his leg. The overbearing Whiteside proceeds to drive everyone crazy with his over-the-top demands.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“I simply will not sit down to dinner with midwestern barbarians…”

The legendary 1939 stage play of the same name — written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart — makes a fine transition to the silver screen. Thanks to the solid material and great bits of business by a perfect cast, The Man Who Came to Dinner is a total delight from beginning to end — it has, understandably, become a beloved classic!

Directed by William Keighley (G Men) from a screenplay by the Epstein brothers (Casablanca), The Man Who Came to Dinner does have its share of flaws. The film has a “canned theater vibe” that I found a little grating, and it’s much too talky. However, the characters are fun and the situations are filled with plenty of laughs.

Bette Davis plays Whiteside’s secretary, Maggie Cutler, and she looks perfectly comfortable in a comedic setting for a change. I think the reason Davis is so relaxed is because she’s not working for laughs — she is playing the most normal character in a story filled with lunacy and madcap mayhem. It’s a supporting role, but she is a delight — the role of the secretary was specifically (re)written for her.

In her 1962 autobiography, The Lonely Life, Davis claimed that she convinced her, Jack L. Warner, to buy the property as a possible vehicle for her and actor John Barrymore (Grand Hotel), but there is ample evidence out there that Warner initially approached “boy-wonder” Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) to star and direct the movie. Welles’s exclusive contract with RKO prevented him from accepting the job anyway.

Davis did arrange a screen test for Barrymore, but alcohol abuse had ruined his ability to remember lines. Various actors were considered for the role of Sheridan Whiteside: Charles Laughton (Mutiny on the Bounty), Charles Coburn (The More The Merrier) and Cary Grant (The Philadelphia Story). The studio settled on Woolley, who originated the part on Broadway, and he is indeed perfect as the acerbic Whiteside.

Woolley and Davis are excellent, but my eyes were stuck on Anne Sheridan (Angels with Dirty Faces), who is absolutely brilliant as a vain theater diva. It’s a showy role that Sheridan plays to perfection — she nearly steals the film with her hilarious characterization (supposedly based on theater legend Gertrude Lawrence). “The Oomph Girl” demonstrates that she, perhaps, was born to play comedies.

The rest of the wonderful cast includes beloved character actors Billie Burke (Father of the Bride) as Mrs. Stanley, Reginald Gardiner (The Great Dictator) as Beverly Carlton (a parody of Noel Coward), Mary Wickes (Sister Act) as Nurse Preen, Grant Mitchell (Laura) as Mr. Stanley and Jimmy Durante (Billy Rose’s Jumbo) as Banjo (a thinly disguised spoof of Harpo Marx). Gig Young (Old Acquaintance) has a bit part.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The Man Who Came to Dinner is a lot of fun. And because it takes place around Christmastime, if you need a break from It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, this is a perfect movie to watch during the holidays. The play has been adapted numerous times. Highly recommended! B&W, 112 minutes, Not Rated.

2 responses to “The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

  1. This really needs to be seen around Christmas (I watched it again last December) for best effect, but it’s a terrific movie at any time of year. Witty and classy all the way through.

    Liked by 1 person

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