Sunday, December 11, 2011

Tonight's Movie: The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

'Tis the season, and while decorating the tree this afternoon it was the perfect time to also revisit an old friend, THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER.

It's Christmastime, and self-important raconteur and radio host Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley, reprising his Broadway role), has the misfortune to slip and fall at the home of the Stanleys (Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke) while on a lecture tour in Ohio. Whiteside installs himself in the Stanleys' home while he's recuperating from the accident, with the threat of a lawsuit hanging over their heads.

The wheelchair-bound Whiteside is a terror, ordering the Stanleys about, running up their long-distance phone bill, terrorizing his nurse (Mary Wickes, also from the Broadway cast), and hosting a constant stream of his friends, including Beverly Carlton (Reginald Gardiner), Banjo (Jimmy Durante), glamorous actress Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan), and assorted convicts and penguins. Whiteside's secretary Maggie (Bette Davis) is a voice of sanity, although she soon exasperates Whiteside by falling in love with local newspaperman Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis).

The cast also includes Elisabeth Fraser and Russell Arms as the Stanley children, George Barbier as the doctor, Edwin Stanley and Betty Roadman as the butler and cook Whiteside steals for his own home, and Ruth Vivian, another veteran of the Broadway cast, as crazy Aunt Harriet Stanley.

Woolley fully inhabits the awful yet amusing Whiteside; it's a grand role in a funny movie. I do find that a little Whiteside goes a long way, and I tend to watch this film every second or third Christmas rather than each holiday season.

Davis has an uncharacteristically quiet and unshowy role as the loyal secretary who finds love. In Jerry Vermilye's entry on Davis in the Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies, Davis is said to have commented that the role of Maggie was the part that was closest to her offscreen personality.

Richard Travis acted in films and TV from 1940 to the mid-'60s; he's adequate but unmemorable. Billie Burke does her trademark fluttery society matron perfectly, and Grant Mitchell is the picture of exasperation. Mary Wickes is also delightful as the woman who is driven to give up nursing for work in a munitions factory!

Whiteside's friends are the most colorful characters, with my favorite being Reginald Gardiner's Beverly Carlton, who plots with Maggie to lure Lorraine (Sheridan) out of town. He's great fun and I always wish he had a larger role! Sheridan is both glamorous and hilarious, especially in the scene where she thinks she's being proposed to by a wealthy beau -- it's actually Carlton impersonating the man -- alternating between sweetly accepting and yelling at him not to stutter.

THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER was directed by William Keighley, who was also the longtime host of Lux Radio Theater, succeeding Cecil B. DeMille in that role. The cinematography was by Tony Gaudio. Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein wrote the screenplay, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. The film runs 112 minutes.

It's fun to note that Monty Woolley, Reginald Gardiner, and Mary Wickes all appeared in other Christmas classics. Monty Woolley also appeared in the Christmas perennial THE BISHOP'S WIFE (1947), and he was Oscar nominated for SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944), a film which is often shown in December due to its moving Christmas Eve conclusion. Mary Wickes was the housekeeper in a holiday favorite, WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954), and Reginald Gardiner has a good supporting role in CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (1945).

When I was a teenager I saw James Whitmore as Sheridan Whiteside in a fun theatrical production of THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER in Long Beach, California. Bill Macy played Banjo and Jessica Walter was Maggie. Marian Mercer and Frances Bay, who both have passed on this year, played Lorraine Sheldon and Aunt Harriet.

THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER is available on DVD as a single-title release or in the Bette Davis Collection, Volume 2. Extras include the trailer and a featurette.

It's also had a release on VHS.

THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER is being shown on Turner Classic Movies this month on December 18 and 23, 2011. The trailer is available on the TCM website.

Recommended holiday fun!

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