The Man Who Came to Dinner Review
By Don Willmott
The Man Who Came to Dinner has traveled a long way: from stage (1939) to screen (1942) and then down through the decades to DVD, where we find it today. While this classic of erudite yet zany comedy still sparkles at times, the long trip has dulled some of its shine. What may have cracked people up way back then (references to ZaSu Pitts, calf's foot jelly, Katherine Cornell, long-distance operators, and Noel Coward) will leave today's audiences scratching their heads. Best to wait for the slapstick moments while imbibing on martinis.
George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart were master comic playwrights, and like You Can't Take It With You, The Man Who Came to Dinner is basically a drawing-room farce that spins more and more out of control as 20 or so main characters bounce off each other, hurl insults ("You flea-bitten Cleopatra!") and make wisecracks. At the center of the action is crusty old Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley), a curmudgeonly New York critic (based on Alexander Woollcott, who starred in the show on Broadway) who breaks his leg while on tour in a provincial Ohio town. Taking up residence with the well-to-do and very flustered Mr. and Mrs. Stanley (Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke), he quickly makes their house his own, commandeering their telephone and their butler while his secretary Maggie (a blousy Bette Davis) and his nurse (Mary Wickes) scurry around catering to his every obnoxious whim.
A dashing local reporter named Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis) shows up to interview Whiteside, and he and Maggie soon fall in love. That's a threat to Whiteside, since he needs her to work for him, so he summons his starlet friend Lorraine (Ann Sheridan) to put the moves on Bert as he deals with the distraction of visits from his wacky friends Banjo (Jimmy Durante acting like Harpo Marx) and Beverly Carlton (Reginald Gardiner acting like Noel Coward). Whiteside also finds time to convince the two teenage Stanley children to follow their dreams out of their dreary hometown, which throws the Stanleys into an even bigger tizzy.
Everything escalates as Whiteside's annual Christmas Eve broadcast, to be produced right in the living room, approaches. By the time Christmas Eve climaxes, the house is crammed with a boy's choir, an Egyptian mummy, and a flock of penguins, one of which has bitten the nurse. Farce indeed.
Unlike, say, Stage Door, another classic stage-to-screen transfer from the black-and-white era, Dinner falls somewhat flat on screen as the claustrophobia of this one-set comedy takes over. You can imagine seeing it in a Broadway theater surrounded by 1,000 guffawing theatergoers, but at home alone, you'll find yourself just urging it to move along. Whiteside is funny but grating, and Maggie is Bette Davis at her most sullen and unglamorous.
The Man Who Came to Dinner is funny at times but musty. It would be an interesting exercise to see if it could be updated with modern references without extinguishing that special Kaufman and Hart sparkle.
And he ate all the pie.
Facts and Figures
In Theaters: Saturday 24th January 1942
Production compaines: Warner Bros.
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 80%
Fresh: 4 Rotten: 1
Cast & Crew
Screenwriter: Julius J. Epstein, Phillip G. Epstein, Moss Hart, George S. Kaufman
Starring: Bette Davis as Maggie Cutler, Ann Sheridan as Lorraine Sheldon, Monty Woolley as Sheridan Whiteside, Richard Travis as Bert Jefferson, Jimmy Durante as Banjo, Billie Burke as Mrs. Ernest Stanley, Reginald Gardiner as Beverly Carlton, Elisabeth Fraser as June Stanley, Grant Mitchell as Mr. Ernest Stanley, George Barbier as Dr. Bradley, Mary Wickes as Miss Preen, Russell Arms as Richard Stanley, Ruth Vivian as Harriet, Edwin Stanley as John, Betty Roadman as Sarah, Charles Drake as Sandy, Nanette Vallon as Cosette, John Ridgely as Radio Man, Gig Young as Bit Part (uncredited)