The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941) Directed by William Keighley. Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, Monty Woolley, Richard Travis, Jimmy Durante, Reginald Gardnier (112 min).
The play The Man Who Came to Dinner is about a distinguished lecturer and critic who is also a most imperious, obnoxious, owl faced, acid tongued man, living in his own little world of fame and self pity. "He would have his mother burned at a stake if that was the only way he could light his cigarette!" says his secretary, Maggie. The men who wrote this play are George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.
George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart were an already successful writing team before writing this play. They also wrote plays like You Can't Take It With You which won the Pulitzer Prize three years before. George S. Kaufman was famous before he teamed up with Moss Hart. He was a newspaperman, then a playwright, director and drama critic for the New York Times. He worked with sixteen different writers in his lifetime turning out such plays as The Coconuts, Animal Crackers, and Stage Door. Moss Hart was younger than George S. Kaufman when they teamed up and was always slightly in awe of him. Afterwards Hart went on to direct Lady in the Dark and the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady. Both men died in 1961.
The Man Who Came to Dinner ran for seven hundred and thirty nine performances on Broadway. They based the main character of Sheridan Whiteside on Alexander Woolcott. Alexander Woolcott was a newspaperman, critic and radio personality. He once reviewed an unfortunate lady's book of poetry called And I Shall Make Music, "Not on my carpet, lady." Moss Hart had dinner at his house one night and recalled it afterward as the "worst evening of my life" telling the incident to Kaufman, he said "Imagine if he broke his leg and had to stay with me." Right away the partners looked at each other and a new great play had been born.
Something that struck me was how everyone in the play had the right comeback for an insult. For example, Sheridan Whiteside says "Do I see a box of goodies over there? Will you hand them to me? Mmm. Pecan butter-nut fudge!" Then his nurse comes in and tells him, "Oh, my! You mustn't eat candy Mr. Whiteside. It's very bad for you." Whiteside retaliates with, " My grant-aunt Jennifer ate a whole box of candy every day of her life. She lived to be a hundred and two, and when she had been dead three days she looked better than you do now." In life nobody gives you straight lines, but when Whiteside gets them he uses them.
Woolley, Davis and Sheridan. Sheridan is wearing a witty faux Schiaparelli gown, adorned with hand-shaped clasps, by Orry-Kelly.
Another example of back talk is when Dr. Bradely says, "Now what could be the best news that I could possibly bring you?" Whiteside suggests, "You have hydrophobia." I wish people would talk like that. When have you ever heard anyone talking like that other than in old plays or movies? This is one of the reasons I would have liked to lived back in the 1940s. The clever dialogue is the main reason for the play.
Another thing that struck me was the relationship of Sheridan Whiteside with the other characters. He does not mind treating them absolutely horribly. Some take it as a joke others do not. That is how Whiteside makes his friends, insults them and sees how they take it. Whiteside does not have a direct relationship with any of these people and yet he knows all the gossip, their names, salaries, loves, hates and is involved with their work in some way. Also, everyone in his world knows everything about everybody, just like him. If everyone was not so forward and knew all about everyone, it would not be as funny as it is. For example, Sheridan Whiteside is on the phone with one of his many friends in Hollywood and says "Well goodbye. Kiss Louella Parsons for me… you know where… bye." No one says anything like that unless you know them intimately. Another time is when he is sending a cable "Send a cable to the Maharajah of Jehraput, Bombay: 'Dear Boo-Boo…" People do not just call Maharajahs 'Boo-Boo'. In the movie he calls Mahatma Ghandi Boo-Boo, which I think is even funnier. He just takes them for granted. Without these relationships, the plot would be dull.
I love this play because of the wonderful language and dialogue like when his secretary is going downtown and she says "Anything you want done downtown?" Whiteside replies with, " 'Es. B'ing baby a lollipop" Whiteside loves talking in baby talk. I also love the relationships the different characters have, like when Maggie (Whiteside's secretary) is talking to her archrival Lorraine Sheldon. Lorraine says "You know, every time I see you I keep thinking your hair could be so lovely. I always want to get my hands on it." Maggie answers, "I've always wanted to get mine on yours, Lorraine." You can tell from those few sentences that they loathe each other. I also love this play because of the way you can almost see yourself as one of the characters. Each one has characteristics you have, be it patience represented by the Stanleys, determination by the doctor or an imperious manner represented by Sheridan Whiteside.
The movie is as just as funny as the play with a few alterations in the script because of the movie censors. For example, in the play Whiteside calls his nurse a "sex starved cobra". But because of the movie censors he had to call her a "love starved cobra". This is one of the few comedies Bette Davis did and I think she is very funny. I love this movie and play I think every one who loves a good madcap comedy should see it.
(Book jacket and cigarette ad from moviediva's collection. Group shot from the Films of Bette Davis by Gene Ringgold).