THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, 1942
Starring: Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, Monty Woolley, Billie Burke, Jimmy Durante
While visiting a small Ohio town on a lecture tour, famous columnist and radio commentator, Sheridan Whiteside, goes to the Stanley home for dinner. Before he even enters the house, he falls on the icy steps outside and, due to injuries sustained, must stay with the Stanleys until he has recovered. Sheridan turns out to be the guest from hell, driving the whole family crazy over the course of the next few weeks, as he commandeers the house, the staff and their lives for his own purposes.
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This memorable comedy is a screen adaptation of George S. Kaufman’s and Moss Hart’s 1939 hit Broadway play of the same name. The play was based on the real life character of Alexander Woollcott, a friend of both the playwrights, as well as a renowned writer for the New Yorker, a radio personality and famous critic in the 1930s and 40s. In some ways it could be said that “The Man Who Came To Dinner” had its genesis in the fabled Algonquin Round Table of the 1920s. This was the name given to a regular lunch held at the Algonquin Hotel in New York that, for over a decade, hosted just about every writer, producer, director and actor who mattered at the time. Both Woollcott and Kaufman were charter members, along with other New York literary lights such as Dorothy Parker. The sharp, fast paced dialogue, the spirit of satire and fun that pervades the film is a legacy of this group. Further, the core comedic situation at the heart of the film, that of an obstreperous house guest who never leaves, was inspired by a weekend visit by Woollcott to Hart’s country house. Woollcott had been impossible and the playwrights used Hart’s memory of the visit to speculate on how awful it would have been if Woollcott had become ill and had had to stay until he recovered.
The adapted screenplay was written by the Epstein brothers, Philip and Julius, who would soon be famous for co-writing the Academy Award winning screenplay for Casablanca. The Epsteins maintained the wit of the source material, with Sheridan naturally getting all the best lines:
To his harried nurse, Sheridan muses, “You have the touch of a loved starved cobra.”
Later when an unexpected gift is delivered to Sheridan at the Stanley residence this exchange takes place between Mr. Stanley and his guest:
“There’s an octopus at the door.”
“Good. Bring him in. Now I’ll have someone intelligent to talk to in the evenings.”
“Mr. Whiteside, I warn you. I will not have that monster in my house.”
“Well, there’s always a hotel for you and Mrs. Stanley, if you’re finicky.”
However, some of the cultural references included in the dialogue will be dated for 21st century audiences. When Sheridan threatens a lawsuit against the Stanleys, and they plead innocence, he assures them, “Thomas E. Dewey will explain it to you in court.” Dewey was a famous prosecutor at the time, soon to be Governor of New York and a two time presidential candidate in the 1940s. In other words, he was the Rudy Giuliani of his day, but the reference no longer has resonance. Interested viewers of the DVD may find themselves running to Wikipedia to look up the Duchess of Windsor, Ethel Barrymore, or Lizzie Borden, a 19th century axe murderer.
In many ways the movie resembles a filmed play. The Stanley house’s first floor living room functions as a stage set; the film takes place almost entirely there, with characters making their entrances and exits on it. William Keighley’s relative lack of imagination in re-staging the play for film does not seriously affect our enjoyment of the piece. The movie is so well cast and the actors so comfortable in their parts, that they manage to keep the pace of the film racing and we, in the audience, eagerly follow along.