Holiday Review: ‘The Man Who Came to Dinner’

Despite the fact that this movie came out in 1942, I had the privilege of seeing it for the first time a mere two years ago on television. That being said, as a fan of madcap comedies and characters who demonstrate their intellect through biting insults and sarcasm The Man Who Came to Dinner instantly became one of my favorite holiday films. Based on a play of the same name from 1939, The Man Who Came to Dinner is one of the funniest and fastest paced Christmas movies ever.

On a holiday cross-country tour, noted radio show host and writer Sheridan Whiteside along his dutiful assistant Maggie, find themselves begrudgingly invited for dinner at the Stanley household. But a slippery spot of ice and a misdiagnosis from the town doctor means his meal invitation has been extended throughout the rest of the Christmas season. Now wheelchair-bound by his injury, Sheridan feels it is his right to commandeer the entire first floor of the home to live and conduct his business. While he drives the family bonkers by having live animals sent shipped in and inviting a motley assortment of guests over; Maggie falls hard for the charming editor of the local newspaper. Refusing to lose the woman who has stood by his side, and will not admit he actually cares for; Sheridan drives a wedge in their budding romance. Even calling his glamorous actress friend Lorraine Sheldon to seduce the newspaperman away. On Christmas morning things finally hit a boiling point where Sheridan realizes he may maintain the services of Maggie as an assistant, but lose her as a friend forever.

When The Man who Came to Dinner was released many were shocked to see not only did it feature Bette Davis, but Bette Davis in a supporting role of a comedy no less. This was arguably the height of her career, renowned as possibly the greatest actress of her generation with serious and dramatic roles in Dark Victory, The Little Foxes, and Now Voyager. Being such a fan of the original stage production, the legendary actress was adamant about being a part of the movie adaptation. She proved to be the necessary grounding influence in this ensemble cast. Amid the flock of penguins, gullible doctors, movie stars, a live squid, an Egyptian sarcophagus, and foreign dignitaries, tromping around the house, combined Sheridan’s nonstop supply of eccentricities, she is the heart of the film. An ordinary woman who despite her best intentions has found the love of her life. Contrasting with this, Ann Sheridan who at the time was one of the biggest sex symbols in Hollywood, proves to be the perfect foil as Lorraine. She seems to have spotlight on her no matter where she goes whereas Davis’ is used to being an assistant always in the background. These two women prove to be natural foils for one another in competing for the attention of the charming small town reporter.

Of course the main star of the film is Monty Woolley as Sheridan Whiteside. Woolley originated the part on stage as the playwrights Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman created the character specifically for him. With a script filled with wonderfully sharp and sarcastic lines courtesy of the minds of Hart and Kaufman, Whiteside delivers each pithy bard or witticism to perfection. Sheridan is quite comfortable in his belief that he is the smartest, most cultured, and most important person in any room and has no problem reminding anyone caught in his orbit. While this is the kind of character who should be quite detestable, the stage veteran brings a certain charm to the character. The critic for the New York Times at the time put it perfectly in 1940’s speak stating Woolley “his zest for rascality is delightful, he spout alliterations as though he were spitting out orange seeds..”. This is a perfect example of actor and character melding to absolute perfection like Bela Lugosi as Dracula or Christopher Reeve as Superman.

Adapting this story from stage to screen, the execs at Warner Bros. made the smart move of bringing in legendary screenwriters the Epstein brothers, Julius and Phillip. This duo mastered the art of crafting sharp instantly memorable dialogue and making absurd situations seem plausible enough for audiences to buy-in. They are in top form here as they ensure every character in this sprawling cast stands out and gets a chance to shine. They balance the hilarious cynicism of Sheridan’s storyline with the more serious romantic triangle of Maggie’s narrative and never miss a beat. Despite all the madcap fun they never lose sight of the fact that the relationship between Maggie and her boss is the core of the picture.

From the start the Man Who Came to Dinner is completely hilarious entertainment. Whereas Christmas-based films tend to focus on being heartfelt and sentimental, this one is more concerned with being an irreverent good time.