THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER was adapted by Julius and Philip Epstein (of CASABLANCA renown) from the hit Broadway comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. The film was released during the holidays of 1941-42, three weeks after Pearl Harbor.
While on a lecture tour in Ohio, Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) slips on the ice outside his hosts’ home; until his injury heals, the hosts, a staid businessman (Grant Mitchell) and his dithery wife (Billie Burke) are forced to put up (and put up with) the imperious Whiteside. This means enduring the holidays with an unending stream of Whiteside’s whims, caprices and vitriolic bon mots, as well as his long-distance phone calls, eccentric guests, etc.
Like Alexander Woollcott of the Algonquin Roundtable on whom the character is modeled, Whiteside insists upon stage-managing the lives of everyone around him. He is particularly keen on discouraging a romance between his faithful secretary Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis) and the editor of the local small-town newspaper. Once he realizes he’s gone too far in this respect, Whiteside is forced to reunite the lovers. That’s only one aspect of a three-ring-circus plotline that accommodates a Lizzie Bordenish axe murderess, takeoffs of Woollcott intimates Harpo Marx, Noel Coward, and Gertrude Lawrence, and a general practitioner who’s willing to let his patients suffer for a chance to pitch his interminable memoirs to Whiteside.
Featured in the cast are Jimmy Durante as Banjo (the Harpo clone), Reginald Gardner as the Noel Coward-like Beverly Carlton, Anne Sheridan as the predatory Gertrude Lawrence counterpart Lorraine Sheldon, and Mary Wickes as the long-suffering Nurse Preen (“You have the touch of a love-starved cobra!”) The Epstein brothers’ screenplay manages to retain most of the play’s best lines and situations, even while expanding Bette Davis’ role to justify her star status. Woolley—reprising the role of Whiteside from his Broadway triumph—is hilarious as the arrogant, self-involved, curmudgeon. (John Barrymore, Orson Welles, and Charles Laughton fought for the film role.) Davis gets the chance to play down the middle between her usual, romantic/good or scheming/wicked polar personae, it’s the great Mary Wickes’ first film appearance (she was the original Nurse Preen onstage), Anne Sheridan is gorgeous and very, very funny as the diva Lorraine, and Billie Burke is wonderfully Billie Burke.
What’s not to like?
– Hadley Hury
(Available through Netflix DVD, Amazon, and other select streaming sites)