Deck the Halls December: The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)
Chestnuts over an open fire, stringing popcorn for the tree covered in Shiny Brite ornaments and angel's hair, hot chocolate after an afternoon of ice skating: it's time for another classic movie Christmas. Cozy up with Rodney and Samantha this week as we discuss The Man Who Came to Dinner.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) is a successful, intelligent and curmudgeonly writer who comes to the fictional town of Mesalia, Ohio to be the guest of honor at a dinner hosted by Ernest and Daisy Stanley (Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke). As he ascends the stairs to their home, he slips on the ice and falls, hurting his back. The doctor (George Barbier) orders Whiteside stay put and rest, and no walking is allowed. He is a ward of the Stanley's until after Christmas.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: It’s this simple premise that introduces a whirlwind two hours of smart, witty and wacky people saying smart, witty and wacky things. Whiteside is an intolerable curmudgeon, that is somehow delightful because of the way Woolley handles the role. Bette Davis had originally lobbied for a supporting role in the film partially because John Barrymore had been cast in the lead (also because she wanted a lighter role than The Little Foxes), but Barrymore was unable to handle the rapid fire dialogue, even with cue cards, so after an exhaustive search, Woolley was given the opportunity to reprise his Broadway role. Others considered include Cary Grant, which seems completely bizarre. Other names floated like Robert Benchley, seem too kind to handle Whiteside’s general nasty demeanor. Orson Welles portrayed Whiteside in a later TV adaptation.
The Stanley's were arrested for peddling dope. Go away!
SG: It is clear this story is based on a stage play, as much of the action takes place in the living room of the Stanley home. Characters enter and exit frequently bringing news and descriptions of events happening offstage.
Woolley played the role on stage in 738 Broadway performances, so it is no wonder he is so utterly convincing in the part. Before he began acting professionally, he taught the craft at Yale. He had a $10,000 insurance policy on his beard which specified he could not smoke without wearing a protective snood over the facial hair. He was unhappy about the amount of censorship involved in translating the story from stage to screen, including his character's opening line, "I may vomit" which was excised for the film. Some of his later lines were snuck into the movie by his rapid-fire delivery. Pay attention because the witticisms could easily pass under your nose too.
RB: There were concerns over Woolley’s casting, because in life he was an out homosexual, and some felt that this would be evident in his role on film. It’s difficult to imagine a world where that would matter at all, proving that, as the old saying goes, the past is a great place to visit, but not a great place to live.
SG: I was actually confused by this. At first it seems he has sinister ambitions for Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan) but when he finally gets to see her in person, his attitude becomes much less lascivious than manipulative. What can he use her to do for him?
Although Woolley is a tour-de-force, Jimmy Durante as Banjo blazes on the screen in his brief appearance. He has the energy that Robin Williams became notorious for in later years. His megawatt smile is irresistible and he sings his signature "Did You Ever Have the Feeling That You Wanted to Go?" which ends with his hat perched on the branches of the Christmas tree, an interesting ornament for sure. Durante should not have been as lovable as he was on the surface; his voice was gruff, his manner uneducated, his hair was thin, and his enormous nose seemed perfect for gangster parts. But his inescapable sense of humor and penchant for self-deprecation made him one of the most enchanting icons of the screen. I can't get enough of him, and I'll bet anyone watching this movie will feel the same way when his character exits.
RB: Most of the people in this film were based on real people. Whiteside is based on Algonquin Roundtable member Alexander Woollcott. Durante’s Banjo was based on Harpo Marx, which made complete sense to me as you see him chasing beautiful chorus girls around the room. Still, Durante is always Durante for better or worse, and in this movie, I had a smile on my face the entire time he was on screen.
SG: Ah, but knowing he is based on Harpo makes him all the more appealing. And it makes sense since he was friendly with the Algonquin set. I dug out a quote from Harpo Speaks on Woollcott, "He made you a compliment, then jabbed the needle in. I had known guys like that, who couldn't help needling any more than a wasp could help stinging. It was a type of guy I loved to have around. They were the world's greatest patsies for practical jokes."
Ann Sheridan is especially glamorous here. Her makeup by Perc Westmore is beautiful. I found myself studying her face to see if I could copy the look. Her wardrobe by Orry-Kelly is very nice, especially the black number with the elaborate hat and muff (which gets left behind). The Hayes office didn't catch her obviously braless state in the light-topped dress with the hand buttons. In contrast, Bette Davis looks plainer than usual as the secretary. She is beautiful, but her manner and wardrobe are decidedly more utilitarian. I loved the plaid ruffle skirt that kicked out when she walked. Because Whiteside is so disagreeable, it is Davis's Maggie Cutler that we sympathize with.
RB: Sheridan really was a versatile actress. She’s completely beautiful and classy in this film, and then is decidedly more down to earth in George Washington Slept Here, which followed this film. I too noticed what the Hayes office didn’t, but for the most part, I was enraptured by Bette Davis, who was still looking genuinely beautiful. While always a wonderful actress, there was about a ten-year period where I find her nearly impossible to take my eyes away from on the screen. She’s impossible not to sympathize with here. She’s found love in Mesalia, and Whiteside implements a genuinely devious plan to break up her relationship. While this is a comedy first and foremost, her pains of sadness at the disruption seem genuine and it’s impossible for you not to side with her.
SG: I agree that she is the most sane of the many whacky characters that surround her. However I questioned her sanity a bit when her beau took her ice skating and then treated her with a roasted sweet potato. What a weird date.
Grant Mitchell hails from Columbus, Ohio and is buried here in Greenlawn Cemetery, for those interested in paying their respects. He is wonderful in this movie beginning as the reluctant host bending to his wife's enthusiasm for the prestige of entertaining such a guest, then becoming unraveled as he is put out of his own home, and finally erupting into the stern unbending victim who has been abused for too long.
Photoplay's reviewer called it "an eight-course banquet of delight," and continued, "All characters are drawn from life, so have fun guessing who's who while you are yelping with delight."
RB: The small towns were all over the place with this one. For the most part, it seemed to go over pretty well, but in other cases, the talkiness was resented. “Not for an audience who is looking for action” opined Leon C Boldue of the Majestic Theatre of Conway, NH. “The picture is almost entirely in dialogue and this grew tiresome to those that couldn’t grasp all of the numerous and sarcastic gags. Better class enjoyed this a lot. The others either walked out or advertised it adversely (or both)…third night very poor”. reported LV Bergtold of the Wesby Theatre in Wesby, Wisconsin.
SG: Although I had never watched the movie all the way through until this week, only catching bits and pieces when it plays around the holidays on TCM, I enjoyed the many levels of quality work in this film. The writing is tight, the acting is superior, and the costuming is quite good. Four stars.
RB: I felt that this was a completely delightful movie. I had seen it once years ago and the memory stuck with me. I was not let down by this repeat viewing. An easy four stars and highly, highly recommended.