Friday, January 24, 2014

The Man Who Came To Dinner

Premiered January 12, 1942, went into wide release on January 24.

"Christmas is Mr. Whiteside's personal property, he invented it, it belongs to him.  Tomorrow morning , very first thing, Mr. Whiteside will open each and every present and he'll raise the biggest stink you've ever seen in your life."
-Maggie Cutler

Famous (and famously acid-tongued) radio personality and man of letters Sheridan "Sherry" Whiteside (Monty Woolley) travels to Mesalia, Ohio to give a lecture.

Upon arrival, he immediately starts belittling everyone he meets.  Sherry has been invited to dine at the upper middle-class home of Daisy (Billie Burke) and Grant Stanley (Grant Mitchell).  He attempts to get out of it saying, "I simply will not sit down to dinner with midwestern barbarians, I think too highly of my digestive system."

As it happens, Whiteside slips on the front steps of the Stanley home and suffers an injury, leaving him unable to walk, but certainly able to exercise his acerbic wit.

Sherry cannot leave the Stanleys' house and threatens to sue them for a large sum of money.

Newspaper gossip column item about Sherry's unscheduled stopover in Mesalia, OH
We also meet Whiteside's unflappable travelling secretary Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis) who has been suffering in her boss' shadow for years.  Sherry takes her for granted and denies her a life of her own.

Maggie: "When I finally leave this job, I may write a book about it ... Through the Years with Prince Charming."
Enter Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis), owner of the local newspaper who visits Sherry and requests an interview.  Bert is rebuffed by Whiteside, but he and Maggie are attracted to each other.

They spend time together ice skating and sharing hot sweet potatoes.

Maggie: "I've been skating for the first time in my life! I'm told I'm the only person to do a figure eight from the sitting position!"
Bert even reads Maggie a play he's written.  She is impressed enough with the play and with Bert that she recommends that Sherry shop it.

Bert shares his play with Maggie
In the days that follow, Sherry meddles in the affairs of the Stanleys and drives everyone crazy.

The house is constantly visited by various friends, fans and townspeople.

Whiteside continues to treat all the locals like they're idiots.  He receives telephone calls from around the world (billed to the Stanleys, of course) and assorted strange parcels and presents like a live octopus,...

 four penguins, a baby seal ...

and an Egyptian sarcophagus (!) from well-wishers.

Maggie tells Sherry that she wants to marry Bert.  Whiteside decides to sabotage Maggie's budding romance by inviting his friend, actress Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan) to Mesalia.

Lorraine and her lady's maid Cosette (Nanette Vallon)
Sherry figures she will distract Bert, thus preventing his marriage to Maggie.

Maiden Aunt Harriet Stanely
During his stay, Whiteside is visited several times by Mr. Stanley's sister Harriet (Ruth Vivian) , who seems to be a bit ... eccentric.  She is very friendly to Sherry, who thinks he recognizes her from somewhere, but can't quite place her.

Christmas arrives, and so does Sherry's friend Banjo (Jimmy Durante).

It's obvious to Banjo that Sherry is trying to break up Maggie and Bert, but Banjo talks him out of the scheme.  But is it too late?  And what mystery lurks behind the smile of Harriet Stanley?

J.A. Morris says:
(Some minor SPOILERS below)
This is a great adaptation of a classic play.  It's written by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, two of the greatest playwrights of their time, and this story holds up pretty well today.  Even though it contains 1940s popular culture references, the dialogue still feels fresh.  It doesn't hurt that it was adapted for the screen by Julius and Phillip Epstein (who won an Oscar for Casablanca).

Lorraine arrives in Mesalia.
Monty Woolley (reprising his Broadway role) is great here as the imperious Mr. Whiteside.  Bette Davis was a major star in the 1940s, but she gives a great, understated performance in a supporting role.  Billie Burke (best known today for playing Glinda, the Good Witch in The Wizard Of Oz) is very funny as Whiteside's starstruck fan, remaining almost willfully oblivious to Sherry's insults.  Near the end, I worried that it was losing steam...but then Jimmy Durante shows up and nearly steals the picture from Woolley in the last act! Durante is hilarious here.

Christmas is talked about throughout the movie, but doesn't rear its head in force until the last act. We're given the impression that Whiteside exploits the holiday sentiments simply to make himself look better, while abusing everyone in sight.

Mrs. Stanley receives a call from a famous American woman.
If I have any problem, it's that Whiteside's "redemption" seems to happen very quickly.  And Bert comes off a bit dense about Lorraine's actions.  But that's a minor issue.  Maybe Whiteside's change of heart was a "Christmas Miracle"?

Banjo manhandles Nurse Preen
It should be noted, some of the characters here are based on Kaufman's friends.  Banjo's name (and behavior towards women) is based on Harpo Marx.  Whiteside is a stand-in for legendary New York theater critic Alexander Woollcott.

Two members of the cast also appear in other Christmas features:  Durante is famous among my age group for narrating the animated adaptation of Frosty The Snowman.  Mary Wickes, who plays Nurse Preen here, portrayed housekeeper Emma Allen in White Christmas.

The Man Who Came To Dinner is  highly recommended, especially for fans of classic theater.  And if you only know Durante from Frosty, this film is a great way to "discover" his talent.

J.A. Morris' rating:

Four Candy Canes!

RigbyMel says:

If you enjoy classic screwball comedies, you will enjoy The Man Who Came To Dinner.   The snappy patter works even though some references are dated and might go over the heads of a modern audience.

Sherry delivers his Christmas Eve radio commentary:"On this eve of eves, my heart is overflowing with peace and kindness".  Meanwhile, he declares war on Maggie's happiness and the citizens of  Mesalia.

Monty Woolley's portrayal of the acerbic Sheridan Whiteside is worth seeing all by itself.   However, I like that all the characters are interesting and are made more so because of the talented actors portraying them.   Jimmy Durante and Mary Wickes are standouts in supporting roles.  It's also fun to see Bette Davis in a comedic/romantic role.

For the record,  Jimmy Durante's song "Did You Ever Have The Feeling That You Wanted To Go?" was actually written by Durante himself.

"A penguin bit me!"
The Christmas setting provides an interesting backdrop for the action.

A boys' choir participates in Whiteside's Christmas radio broadcast 
The traditional peace and joy of the Christmas season is upset by Sherry's chaotic asperity.

Harriet gives Sherry a Christmas present 
Plus, there are penguins.  Penguins!

It is also interesting to note that Monty Woolley has another Christmas film in his list of credits,  he plays Professor Wutheridge in the 1947 film The Bishop's Wife.

Spoiled actress Lorraine Sheldon explores a possible new role
The Man Who Came To Dinner was a popular hit on Broadway in 1939 and you can spot its roots in that most of the action takes place in a single room.   The dialogue is so sharp and funny that this is not really a problem, though.

Banjo adds his hat to the Christmas decorations
The film seems to have been viewed positively when it was released in 1942, but has been, I think, a bit forgotten in recent years.   It's well worth seeing!

RigbyMel's rating:

3 and a half candy canes

1 comment:

bga said...

I have never seen this film, but I certainly need to do so. I had a bit part in a high school production of this many years ago, but I am sure the acting (at least on my part) hardly equals what I will find in this film.