The Man Who Came to Dinner
The Man Who Came to Dinner - Released January 24, 1942. Directed by William Keighley
Christmas gone wrong
This isn't really a holiday film, though all the trappings of Christmas are wrapped around it: snow-laden streets, ice skating, Christmas Trees, family gathering and gift giving.
On screen is a showpiece of one-liners (often biting) and the humor of seeing a upper middle class mid western family in torment, equipped with their generally polite manners and cultural ambition up against visiting radio celebrity Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) who accidentally breaks a hip on their iced-over steps and is then medically required to stay in their home while recovering.
From a wheelchair Woolley badgers and yells (and keeps yelling) at them during the course of 112 minutes of film, his barbed-witticisms and over-the-top theatrics accompanied with similar action from the troupe of actors supporting Woolley that make appearances like the scene changes of a variety show: Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, Billie Burke, Grant Mitchell and Jimmy Durante, all getting a chance to mug to the cameras and do their particular expert stylings (though Bette Davis is playing something more like a secretary ingenue, is quite subdued compared to the rest).
Written by Julius and Philip Epstein from the Moss Hart and George Kaufman play, the tale is unevenly carried over to the screen, and the cast is uneven in delivering the minimal story.
It seems to be the lineage of the material that affects these actors. Most of the cast is projecting to the far seats of a theatre, loudly and dramatically exploding their lines in front of the camera that is only a few feet away. Like a stage-set, we see on screen an interior front entrance of a house and an enormous staircase going to an unseen second floor, with these two items being stage-left and stage-right. In the center is a two-room arena from where Whiteside issues his bombardment of vitriol. Example:
”My great-aunt Jennifer ate a whole box of candy every day of her life; she lived to be 102, and when she had been dead three days, she looked better than you do now”
The exceptions to the pyrotechnics are Bette Davis and Mary Wilkes (Wilkes is a put upon Nurse Preen who literally runs from the room after each sonic assault from Woolley). These two play to the camera, which adds that much more contrast to everyone else (especially Ann Sheridan, Durante and Woolley) who shoot all their material off toward unseen bleachers off screen.
Also on screen is the mid west families live-in aunt, Harriet Stanley (played by Ruth Vivian in her only on screen movie role) who has a perfect and quiet speaking diction, and a secret which gives Whiteside the leverage he needs when he is about to finally be evicted by force by the long-suffering owner of the home (Grant Mitchell).
Richard Travis (as newsman Bert Jefferson) seems under-rehearsed and has little to do as the romantic interest for Bette Davis' character.
The natural course of the story would have been to have Nurse Preen to finally overreact and give Whiteside what he richly deserves, but instead Whiteside is triumphant in the end, encased in sentiment and a mischievous goodwill, which makes this movie a kind of holiday film after all.
Directed by William Keighley
Written for the screen by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein
From the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
Original Music by Friedrich Hollaender (as Frederick Hollander)
Cinematography by Tony Gaudio (director of photography)
Film Editing by Jack Killifer
Art Direction by Robert M. Haas (as Robert Haas)
Costume Design by Orry-Kelly (gowns)
Mrs. Ernest Stanley
The Man Who Came to Dinner
1942 Directed by William Keighley
Starring: Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan and Monty Woolley
Original page December 2009 | Updated Nov 2016