I’m now ready to start off a round of Christmas films for 2020, and for that, I’m going with the 1942 comedy The Man Who Came To Dinner, starring Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan and Monty Woolley!
Radio personality Sheridan “Sherry” Whiteside (Monty Woolley) and his secretary Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis) have come to Mesalia, Ohio, where he is to give a lecture, but first, he is stuck having dinner with a prominent Ohio family, the Stanleys. Things go horribly wrong when Sherry slips on the icy stairs to go into their home and injures his hip. After two weeks, he finally comes out of the den in a wheelchair. He promptly threatens to sue Ernest Stanley (Grant Mitchell) for $150,000, and takes over the main part of the house for his activities, since the doctor says he shouldn’t be moved elsewhere. Ernest tries to get him to leave, but Sherry just threatens to sue him for even more money if he is forced out. Over the next few weeks, Sherry causes more trouble for Ernest by advising the Stanley children to follow their dreams. During that time, Maggie starts to fall for the local newspaper owner and editor Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis). Sherry is less than thrilled with this turn of events, especially when she decides to resign as Sherry’s secretary. Since Bert has written a play, Sherry decides to call up his actress friend Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan), in the hopes that she will break up Maggie and Bert’s relationship. Not long after she arrives, she starts in on Bert. Smelling a rat, Maggie enlists the help of a visiting actor friend, Beverly Carlton (Reginald Gardiner), to get Lorraine to leave. It almost works, until Bert accidentally spoils everything. Once she realizes she’s been tricked (and why), Lorraine promises Maggie that she will do her best to take Bert away from her, resulting in Maggie running off. The following day, Sherry finds himself in trouble, as Maggie is still planning to leave his employ, and Ernest Stanley has sworn out a warrant to have Sherry evicted from the place. Sherry’s Hollywood friend Banjo (Jimmy Durante) also comes to visit, but they find themselves trying to figure out how to help Sherry out of all the trouble he’s gotten himself into.
You can blame Alexander Woollcott for this one, folks. Supposedly, he at one point asked the playwriting team of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart to write a play for him to star in. They struggled to come up with an idea, until Hart remembered one time that Woollcott visited him overnight. Apparently, Woollcott had been real demanding and an absolute nightmare of a guest, and when relating the story to Kaufman, Hart pondered how awful it might have been had Woollcott broken his leg and been stuck there for the summer, which was the inspiration they needed for the play. Woollcott liked the play, but felt too close to the character to play him onstage, so the role ended up being done by Monty Woolley. They threw in a few other characters who were also based on real-life people, including Lorraine Sheldon (based on actress Gertrude Lawrence), Beverly Carlton (based on playwright Noel Coward) and Banjo (based on Harpo Marx). The play was a huge success, getting the attention of Warner Brothers, who bought the rights to film it. Bette Davis wanted very much to be in the film, and had no problem with it being more of an ensemble film, as she mainly wanted to be involved in it. She also hoped and campaigned for the idea of starring with John Barrymore as Sheridan Whiteside, but his drinking problem left him unable to do the film. Producer Hal Wallis tried some other big stars, but he eventually settled on going with the original Sheridan Whiteside, Monty Woolley, to great effect.
I will readily admit, I’ve been watching this one and getting a few good laughs out of it for a number of years now. The casting alone makes this movie work. Monty Woolley as Sheridan is generally hilarious, with all his complaining and demands, meanwhile protesting, in a manner similar to Professor Higgins from My Fair Lady, that he is a kind soul who is always kind to others (even though we can plainly see he wants his life HIS way, and heaven help those who try to have a life of their own). I feel for Grant Mitchell’s character Ernest Stanley, who, at the insistence of his wife (played by the great Billie Burke in an also humorous role), got stuck inviting Sheridan over for dinner, and lost the use of his house (all while being sued for a great sum of money). Of course, the way he treats his children and their dreams show us that he has his issues (not to mention the secret he is hiding about his sister Harriet). As Beverly Carlton, Reginald Gardiner is at his least reserved (and, consequently, about as funny as I can remember him being in any of his movies that I have seen)! And Jimmy Durante also adds to the fun as the Harpo Marx-based Banjo, mainly chasing girls like Harpo would (but otherwise far more conversational)! Throw in all the animals that get sent to Sheridan, Mary Wickes as the poor nurse stuck trying to take care of Sheridan, and this movie is guaranteed to keep me laughing for some time to come!
Of course, since I’m starting to get into the Christmas spirit here, I’ve certainly got to talk about that! This movie takes place over the Christmas season, with the last part of the movie taking place on Christmas Eve and Christmas day itself. Obviously, we also have the likes of snow on the ground, and Christmas trees in the house (including a second tree in the Stanleys’ bedroom, since they aren’t allowed in the main part of the house), with presents under the tree (not to mention all the gifts sent to Sheridan while he is recuperating). And Sheridan Whiteside has his radio broadcast on Christmas Eve, where he starts to regale his audience with the story of the original Christmas. I will readily admit that the movie pushes the boundary of being a Christmas film just because he can be such a nasty character (and doesn’t really seem to learn to be a better person by the end of the movie). But, whether you watch it as a Christmas movie, or just for fun any other time of the year, it’s a lot of fun, and worth quite a few good laughs! (So, yes, I do recommend it!)
This movie is available on DVD from Warner Archive Collection.
Film Length: 1 hour, 52 minutes
My Rating: 10/10
List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections
Coming Up Shorts! with… So You Think You Need Glasses (1942)
(Length: 10 minutes, 37 seconds)
Joe McDoakes has some issues with far-sightedness, and has to see an ophthalmologist about it. This short is an early Joe McDoakes short, before it became a more official series. It uses some humor for a more serious subject (and occasionally gets a bit more serious). Personally, I didn’t find it all that memorable, and no doubt science has changed a number of things since then, so I would be wary in recommending this rather forgettable short.
Coming Up Shorts! with… Six Hits And A Miss (1942)
(Length: 8 minutes, 55 seconds)
It’s a musical short, featuring the song “You Gotta Know How To Dance” played by Rudolph Friml Jr. And His Band, and sung by the singing group Six Hits And A Miss. It’s a fun short, and it utilizes footage of Ruby Keeler and Paul Draper dancing to the song, borrowed from the 1936 film Colleen. It’s a decent short, but at the same time, the new footage kind of takes away from the fun dancing from the earlier movie. Given the choice, I’d rather try to see the earlier movie, and enjoy it that way.