Wednesday 12 August 2009

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

Director: William Keighley
Stars: Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan and Monty Woolley

The man who came to dinner is Sheridan Whiteside, whose billboards credit him as a 'celebrated author and critic' and the papers call him a 'distingished author and lecturer'. What he is really is an insufferable, irascible and acerbic professional pain in the ass. It's quite stunning that nobody has assassinated him already, especially as with his his designer facial hair he's hardly unrecognisable. He's going to dinner in Mesalia, OH, at the home of Billie Burke and Grant Mitchell, the Stanleys, who are a memorable couple themselves given their difference in voices, one melodic like a babbling brook and the other as matter of fact and affronted as could be.

Unfortunately for Whiteside, who doesn't want to go to the house of any midwestern barbarians for dinner let alone the Stanleys, it's icy out and he promptly falls down the steps outside their house and fractures his hip. For some reason they can't move him to a hospital or somewhere he might actually enjoy, so he promptly takes over the household for his own purposes and he does so with extreme prejudice. The first thing he says to his hosts when he's allowed out of his room is that he's going to sue them for $150,000.

What's most amazing is that this is the least offensive thing he manages to tell them for the next ten days, this vitriol hurled out in an educated and controlled manner by Whiteside, who is enough to stamp Monty Woolley onto anyone's memory with a vengeance. The only other actor I can think of who can get away with this sort of behaviour without being lynched would be James Robertson Justice, who also has notable facial hair. Perhaps I should be following suit. I don't think I could be quite so inventively insulting though. Whiteside is truly talented at this and he does it with a notable twinkle in his eye. He appreciates his talent even more than we do.

The only character who can deal with him is his secretary, Maggie Cutler, who can dismiss his bluster and even turn it around on him. She knows how his mind works and she knows all his tricks, and this facet of her character is the only part of the part that would seem to fit the actress picked to play it. She's Bette Davis, someone who could play a female version of the man her character looks after. Of course, the versatile talent she is, she has no problem playing the capable secretary who turns into a lovestruck young lady when she falls for the owner of the local newspaper, Bert Jefferson, played by Richard Travis like half John Wayne and half Ronald Reagan.

Of course here's where the intrigue kicks in and Whiteside, fully recovered but cunningly hiding it, tries to derail the romance by shipping in an actress guaranteed to tread on all their toes. She's Lorraine Sheldon and could also easily have been played by Bette Davis, making her choice of part even more surprising. Apparently she loved the source play by Moss Hart and George Kaufman and desperately wanted to play Maggie opposite John Barrymore as Whiteside, but Barrymore's health wouldn't allow it, prompting them to hire Woolley instead, who had originated the role on Broadway.

Instead the role of Miss Sheldon goes to Ann Sheridan who has a ball with being as fake and false. And while all this is going on, Whiteside manages to turn everyone else's life upside down too, from Ernest and Daisy Stanley to their grown up kids to Ernest's rather strange sister, Harriet. He might just to do the same to us. The entire film is a lesson about how to avoid being upset by people trying their hardest to upset you, and amazingly that lesson is taught to us by Bette Davis.

This is both a gem and a riot of a film with a razor sharp script, courtesy of twin brothers Julius and Philip Epstein though it would appear that they had stunning source material to work with. Amazingly this wasn't even the Epsteins' finest work of the year given that they released a minor little picture called Casablanca. What's most amazing is that while the story is all fiction, most of these characters are real people. Maggie is Dorothy Parker, Lorraine Sheldon is Gertrude Lawrence and her counterbalance Beverly Carlton is Noel Coward. Even the anarchic Banjo is based on Harpo Marx, unsurprisingly given the name, as amply played by veteran scenestealer Jimmy Durante.

Even Sheridan Whiteside is a real person, though his real name was Alexander Woollcott, a noted 'celebrated author and critic' and 'distingished author and lecturer'. The story has it that he visited Moss Hart and promptly did much of what Whiteside does here: moved in, took over the house and its staff and drove everyone half insane. I don't believe he moved in four penguins, a baby seal and an octopus like his fictional equivalent but it's very possible. Anyway, when Hart told his writing partner George Kaufman, he wondered what would have happened if he'd broken his leg and had to stay. Maybe they'd watched Polly of the Circus.

It's an amazing picture but the most amazing thing about it may be that they didn't just write this story about Alexander Woollcott, Hart and Kaufman wrote it for him and asked him to play the part. His schedule wouldn't allow but he did play the part on the west coast version and even brought Harpo Marx along, so that they could both play themselves and be paid for it.

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