Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Stubs – The Man Who Came To Dinner

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) Starring: Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, Monte Woolley  Directed by William Keighley. Produced by Jerry Wald. Screenplay by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein. Based on the play by Moss Hart, George S. Kaufman  Run Time: 112 minutes. U.S.  Black and White, Comedy, Christmas

We conclude our look at drive-by Christmas films with The Man Who Came to Dinner, the 1942 movie based on the 1939 play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman; The story of a pompous radio personality who descends on a family in small-town Ohio, where he takes over the house and makes their lives miserable at Christmastime.

The play was a big hit on Broadway, playing at the Music Box Theatre from October 16, 1939, to July 12, 1941, for a total of 739 performances. Produced by Sam Harris, the same one depicted in Yankee Doodle Dandy and directed by Kaufman, the play starred Monty Woolley as Sheridan Whiteside, a character based on the then well-known theater critic and radio star, Alexander Woollcott. Woollcott was a friend of Hart and Kaufman and while they tried to find a vehicle for him, they couldn’t find the right story. That changes when Woollcott showed up unannounced at Hart’s estate and took over the house, sleeping in the master bedroom and terrorizing the staff of the house. But when Woollcott wasn’t available to play the part on stage, Woolley was signed.

Woollcott wasn’t the only celebrity mentioned or who had a character based on him in the play. The character of actress Lorraine Sheldon is drawn from musical stage actress Gertrude Lawrence, an English born actress, singer, dancer and musical comedy performer; the playwright Beverly Carlton was based on renowned wit Noël Coward; and Banjo, the actor, is based on Harpo Marx. Even Katherine Cornell, who gets mentioned more than once but is not seen, was a real-life Broadway actress and producer.
When Bette Davis saw the play on Broadway, she thought the part of Maggie Cutler would be a good part for her and a change of pace after her heavily dramatic role in The Little Foxes (1941). She urged Jack L. Warner to purchase the screen rights for her and John Barrymore. While Barrymore would test for the role, he wasn’t able, after years of heavy drinking, to handle the complicated and fast-paced dialogue of the part.
With Barrymore out of the question, casting for the lead role led through a succession of actors vying to play the part, including Charles Laughton, Orson Welles, Laird Creger and Robert Benchley. But none of them seemed right. A rather desperate idea of Cary Grant was suggested by Warner, but he was deemed “too young and attractive” for the role. While they hadn’t wanted to cast him, they ended up with Woolley in the part he had created on Broadway. But, of course, Davis wasn’t happy with the casting and didn’t enjoy the production.
Arriving in theaters in early 1942, just weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. subsequent entry into World War II, the comedy was just what the nation needed.and was well-received by critics and the public at the time of its release. 
During a cross-country lecture tour, notoriously acerbic, but popular, radio personality Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley), in Mesalia, Ohio to give a lecture, is also invited to dinner at the house of the Stanleys, Ernest W. (Grant Mitchell ) and Daisy (Billie Burke), a prominent family. With him is his long-suffering secretary, Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis).
But on the way into the house, Whiteside stumbles on the icy stairs, hurting his hip. He insists on recuperating in their home during the Christmas holidays. Treating him is the local physician, Dr. E. Bradley (George Barbier) with Nurse Preen (Mary Wickes) having to take care of him and his daily needs and whims for the three weeks he’s stuck in their home.

One tumble leads to a lot of trouble in The Man Who Came to Dinner.

Not surprisingly, Whiteside is an overbearing, self-centered celebrity who takes over the Stanley household. He overwhelms the staff by the get-well presents and phone calls he receives. Sherry (as Whiteside is sometimes called) runs the household ragged with his demands. When Sherry finally emerges from his sick bed in a wheelchair, it is to announce that he plans to sue the Stanleys for $150,000, claiming Thomas E. Dewey will represent him. Additionally, Sherry commandeers the downstairs rooms, the telephone, and the cook and butler for himself and his secretary, Maggie. He even uses the Stanleys' son Richard (Russell Arms) to run errands.

The Stanleys, Ernest  W. (Grant Mitchell) and Daisy (Billie Burke), bring in Dr.
 Bradley (George Barbier) to treat Whiteside (Monte Woolley), but their troubles have only just begun.

It is only a matter of time before Ernest has had his fill of Whiteside. But not all of the Stanleys detest him. Harriet (Ruth Vivian), Ernest’s strange sister, has a crush on the celebrity radio man.
Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis), the handsome young owner of the Mesalia Journal, comes to the house and asks the broadcaster for an interview. Sherry instructs Maggie to turn him away, but Bert charms Sherry, however, and is invited to lunch along with five convicts from Sherry's fan club at the state penitentiary.

Nurse Preen (Mary Wickes) tries to take care of Whiteside, while Bert
Jefferson (Richard Travis) tries to score an interview for the local paper.

Whiteside has a luncheon for convicts that have started a Whiteside Appreciation Society in the state prison. An octopus is delivered from a naturalist.
He encourages young adults Richard (Russell Arms) and June (Elisabeth Fraser) Stanley to pursue their dreams, much to the dismay of their conventional father Ernest. Fed up, Ernest demands that Sherry leave their home immediately and Sherry counters that he will sue for an even larger sum if he has to leave.
Meanwhile, Maggie finds herself attracted to Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis). After the two go ice skating together, Bert reads her a play that he has written. She thinks it’s so good, she gives it to Whiteside and asks him to show it to his contacts, hoping he will send it to his friend, actress Katherine Cornell. She then announces her plan to quit his employ and marry Bert. However, Sherry is loath to lose such an efficient aide and does his best to sabotage the blossoming romance.
Sherry then learns Doctor Bradley has been looking at the wrong X-rays and that his hip was never injured, but Sherry is determined to stay in town long enough to prevent Maggie from marrying Bert. He makes a deal with the doctor to help him with his memoirs if he stays quiet. He also suggests that June and Richard leave home so that June can marry Sandy, a union organizer who is working at her father's ball bearing plant, and Richard can pursue his interest in photography.
Determined to break up the affair, Sherry telephones his friend, Lorraine Shelton (Ann Sheridan), a glamorous actress, and suggests that she could have the lead role in Bert's play if she came to Mesalia right away. His intent is for Lorraine to steal Bert away from Maggie.
On Christmas Eve, Bert gives Maggie a charm bracelet and Ernest's strange sister Harriet gives Sherry a picture of herself as a young woman. After Lorraine arrives in town, dressed in furs and jewels, Sherry warns her not to mention the play in front of Maggie and urges her to use her charms on Bert.

Ann Sheridan as Lorraine Shelton is brought in to steal Bert's affections.

Lorraine immediately goes to work on Bert convincing him to spend time with her to fix up the play. Maggie quickly understands Sherry's intentions. She thinks her problem is solved when writer Beverly Carlton (Reginald Gardiner) arrives and does a devastating imitation of Lorraine's latest millionaire lover, Lord Bottomley. At Maggie's request, Beverly telephones from the train station, pretending to be Lord Bottomley and asks Lorraine to marry him. At first, Sherry is furious that his plans are failing, but when Bert innocently mentions seeing Beverly phoning from the station, Sherry reveals the trick to Lorraine, who then doubles her attention to Bert.

Reginald Gardiner as Beverly Carlton and Bette Davis as Maggie Cutler in a scene with Woolley. 

On Christmas morning, Maggie realizes Whiteside is behind the underhanded scheme and she quits. A drunken Bert tells her he is going away with Lorraine to work on his play. Then a penguin that was sent as a gift to Sherry bites his nurse, Miss Preen, and she quits, and Ernest finds his runaway children and hires a couple of sheriffs to evict Sherry. In the midst of this chaos, Sherry's friend Banjo (Jimmy Durante) arrives from Hollywood, and a contrite Sherry, realizing that Maggie really loves Bert, begs him to get rid of Lorraine. They trap Lorraine in a sarcophagus, and Banjo ships her off to Nova Scotia.

Jimmy Durante plays a movie star named Banjo. Here with
a blonde on his knee, he talks with Whiteside from Hollywood.
One of the film's few scenes that doesn't take place in the Stanleys' living room.

Finally fed up with Whiteside's shenanigans, insults, and unbearable personality, and realizing that he has been "faking" his injuries for quite some time, Mr. Stanley orders him to leave. Before he does, Whiteside blackmails him into allowing his children to do as they please by threatening to reveal Stanley's sister Harriet's past as an infamous axe murderess. Having recognized Harriet he blackmails Ernest into taking the case to the airport. With Maggie's happiness now assured, Sherry warns Ernest that his children should be allowed to follow their own paths, "Or else."
To everyone's great relief, Sherry is on his way out, but then he falls down the slippery steps and is carried back into the Stanley house to begin his reign of terror all over again, much to Ernest’s consternation.

The film feels very much like a stage play, as action rarely leaves the downstairs of the Stanleys' house. However, the unimaginative direction really secedes the play to Woolley, who has to do the heavy lifting from the seat of his wheelchair.

For an actor who was never the first choice to play the role on stage or in film, Monty Woolley certainly made the part his own. As a matter of fact, it is hard to imagine anyone else playing Sherry, even though others have in revivals and on television, most notably Orson Welles. In fact, Woolley’s performance is so big that he overshadows everyone else, including Davis’, who helped bring the play to the screen.

Woolley, who had appeared in a few films before this one, would leave the Great White Way for Hollywood. He would go on to play himself in the Cole Porter biography Night and Day (1946), Professor Wutheridge in The Bishop’s Wife (1947) and Omar in Kismet (1955), which turned out to be his last film. Woolley, whose white beard was his trademark, became known as “the Beard”.

Bette Davis really only has a small part in the film, playing the somewhat mousy Maggie Cutler, who only blossoms when she meets Bert Jefferson. Love gives her a backbone and she stands up to Sherry and even quits her job over his underhanded scheme to ruin her relationship.

Despite her efforts to have the play made into a movie and receiving top-billing,
Bette Davis takes a supporting role in the cast of The Man Who Came to Dinner.

Ann Sheridan, who plays the conniving Lorraine Shelton, really doesn’t have the much to do, but to look beautiful and she does that very well. One has to wonder if Bert would have come back to Maggie if Lorraine hadn’t been shipped off to Canada.

The supporting cast, as it is with any good film or play, is really good and each actor makes the most of their roles. Jimmy Durante as Banjo sort of swoops in and comes the closest of anyone to stealing a scene from Woolley. Mary Wickes 
(reprising the role she played on Broadway) as the haggard Nurse Preen and George Barbier as the befuddled Dr. Bradley are also worth mentioning. And it's odd to see Billie Burke in any role other than Glinda, The Good Witch of the North. Despite a very long career in radio, on stage and in movies, Burke is forever associated, in my mind at least, with her role in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Jimmy Durante as Banjo adds a touch of mayhem to the proceedings.
Here, he literally picks up Nurse Preen.

But Woolley's performance as Sherry Whiteside is what makes The Man Who Came to Dinner worth watching. This is his part and we are lucky enough to see him play it. While this film may drive by Christmas on its way to comedy, this is a movie that you can watch any time of the year and enjoy.

Monty Woolley's performance as Sherry Whiteside is more than
enough reason to watch The Man Who Came to Dinner.

That concludes our salute to drive by Christmas movies. We hope you have a Merry Christmas and will leave a comment this time and every time you visit Trophy Unlocked. Hey go ahead and make that a New Year's resolution while you're at it. Write it down next to the one for joining a gym.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

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