Man Who Came to Dinner (1942): Comedy Starring Bette Davis and Monty Woolley in Oscar Nominated Turn

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s hit Broadway comedy also became a hit movie due to the smart adaptation and strong performances of the entire ensemble. This delightfully fanciful classic comedy of Hollywood’s Golden Age is directed by William Keighley and adapted to the screen by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein,” better known for “Casablanca,” 1943.

The screen version retains the play’s star, Monty Woolley, as Sheridan Whiteside. Originally, John Barrymore was cast in the role, but due to heavy drinking, he was having problems memorializing his dialogue.

Bette Davis defied Hollywood conventional wisdom and despite being at the prime of her career agreed to playing a secondary role, that of Whiteside’s humble secretary.

The movie, like the play, is an account of some thinly veiled real celebs, placed in an unlikely but highly entertaining situation. Theatre critic Alexander Woolcott, comedian Harpo Marx, and playwright-actor Noel Coward were among the brainy regulars at the Algonquin Hotel, where they exchanged nasty witticism. Resourceful playwrights Kaufman and Moss Hart used what they knew of these lunches, and placed them in a “fish out of water” setting, resulting in a funny and occasionally acerbic play.

Woolley plays Whiteside (inspired by Woolcott), a popular acid-tongued radio host, who’s traveling cross-country on a lecture tour with Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis), his tolerant secretary. They stop in the small town in Ohio and accept a dinner invitation from Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Stanley (Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke), a prominent local family.

Whiteside slips on a patch of ice in front of the Stanley house and gets carried inside spewing insults and threats of lawsuits.

Embodying the kind of old-fashioned Middle American values that the intellectual Whiteside abhors, the Stanley, terrified by the prospect of scandal, they do their best to keep their “guest from hell,” comfortable. Dr. Bradley (George Barbier) says that Whiteside’s leg injury is serious and calls for wheelchair confinement. Resigned to his status as unwanted guest, he decided to amuse himself by rearranging everyone’s life, and in the process throwing the entire household into chaos.

Contemptuous of Mrs. Stanley’s social-climbing aspirations and provincial views, he advises her children to flee the social constraints of Ohio and live their own lives. He also turns his charm on the servants.

By promising to cast her in a play that Katherine Cornell is dying to do, Whiteside entices glamorous actress Lorraine Sheldon (a delightful Ann Sheridan) to desert the British nobleman who’s keeping her in luxury in Palm Beach and to come to Ohio.

The plot thickens when Maggie falls for local newspaperman-playwright Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis). Fearing that he may lose his loyal employee, Whiteside schemes to break up the relationships. When Maggie gets wise to his scheme and threatens to resign, he ships Lorraine to a Philadelphia museum in an Egyptian mummy case presented to him by the Khedive.

He is also gifted with four penguins from Admiral Byrd and an octopus from William Beebe. Once the engineering of his schemes is in motion, and he must remain in the Stanley home to follow it through, Whiteside learns from Dr. Bradley that there is nothing wrong with his legthe diagnosis was simply a mistake. Upon hearing this news, Whiteside bribes the doctor into silence by hinting he is affluent enough to have the physician’s memoirs published.

Whiteside complete his invasion by arranging to make his annual Christmas broadcast from the Stanley household. Technicians, a boys’ choir, and a radio crew dutily arrive, but when Stanley discovers Whiteside’s duplicity in feigning illness, he orders him out and suppresses his children’s plan for independence.

Ready to vacate, Whiteside recognizes Stanley’s eccentric sister Harriet (Ruth Vivian), as a former ax murderess who has been acquitted of hacking her parents to pieces after a family tiff. Blackmailing Stanley, Whiteside, again in command, sends the children on their way and patches up Maggie’s broken romance.

Obeying symmetry, the yarn ends just as it began: As Whiteside steps from the house, he slips on the icy pavement and breaks his leg. Carried into the house, he’s told that Eleanor Roosevelt is on the phone and wants to talk to him.

Replete with cynical, witty lines, “The Man Who Came to Dinner” is a deliciously wicked character portrait and a helter-skelter, plot-driven satire. Repeating his stage role, Woolley shows zest for rascality that translates well into the big screen.

There are also welcome guest performances from Jimmy Durante (as Harpo Marx) playing a figure named Banjo, and Reginald Gardiner, doing a take on Noel Coward, as Beverly Carlton. Properly dressed (costumes are by Orry-Kelly) and groomed, Bette Davis deserves praise for giving a restrained yet modulated performance.

 

 

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