The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)
Directed by William Keighley
Screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, based on the stage play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
Runtime: 1 hr, 52 min
In real life, the sort of person who we brand as “politically incorrect” (in mild terms) would be completely insufferable (to put it charitably) and deserve nothing less than a baseball bat to the head (metaphorically speaking). Yet when put on stage or on screen, this particular breed of jerk is hilarious, shocking the audience into laughter with his wit, rather than to wit’s end with his feeble attempts at humor. The 1942 film adaptation of The Man Who Came to Dinner is a perfect example of misanthropy as comedic genius.
Famed lecturer and radio personality Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) comes to the home of the Stanleys, a well-to-do Ohio family, for dinner. However, on his way up the stairs, he slips on a patch of ice and appears to break his hip, forcing him to stay with the family for weeks on end. He then proceeds to make life Hell for his hosts, making ridiculous demands at the threat of massive lawsuit. Meanwhile, much to his dismay, his secretary Maggie (Bette Davis) falls in love with local newspaperman and aspiring playwright Bert (Richard Travis). Hilarity ensues.
The center—I’d call it the heart, but that’s a terrible analogy—is obviously Whiteside, who is an unrepentantly horrible person, only redeemable by his intellect and way with words. He demeans his nurse (Mary Wickes) a constant basis, scares the Stanley family out of their minds with his behavior, and has the gall to invite the murderers he has previously profiled over for dinner without the family’s knowing. And through it all, Woolley’s performance is a riot, cracking jokes with a smirk so transparently false it raises the humor factor exponentially.
Of course, Woolley isn’t pulling the film by himself. Well, actually, he is, but that the script’s fault. The supporting cast members, while lacking the lead’s screen time, turn in outstanding performances as well. Ruth Vivian is a nuanced sort of crazy as the Mr. Stanley’s strange sister Harriet, while Jimmy Durante pulls off the wacky obnoxiousness of Whiteside Hollywood actor friend Banjo. The Man Who Came to Dinner boasts such a wide array of characters that to do all of them justice would take up the entirety of this article.
In addition, what makes the film laugh out loud hilarious is the patently absurd developments. This is exactly the sort of Universe where a lecturer hosts a party of Chinese diplomats, fresh from the White House, as a world-renowned naturalist sends him an octopus as a present. This is the sort of Universe where the small-town doctor (George Barbier) can write a memoir of his forty-year practice and try haplessly, for weeks, to get the lecturer to actually read it, while someone gets trapped in a sarcophagus. It quickly becomes a live action cartoon, and the laughs just keep coming. Only when Whiteside is around can such a bizarre, funny Universe exist.
Yet Whiteside’s self-centeredness and blatant disregard for decorum is what also what makes him so eminently detestable. The thought of his trusted secretary quitting and marrying a Midwesterner of all people drives him to some terrible actions. When Maggie gives him the play Bert’s been working on, Bert hatches a plan to break them up. He calls up his seductive actress-belle Lorraine (Ann Sheridan) and asks her to “play the part” by seducing Bert. It’s a plan which blows up in his face, and despite the repercussions, it’s one he shows little visible remorse for.
It doesn’t hurt that the relationship he wants to destroy is conveyed so beautifully. Even though the smoky Bette Davis and the “aw, shucks” charm of Richard Travis would seem to occupy two mutually exclusive sets, their scenes together, spent ice-skating and enjoy hot sweet potatoes, develop a very believable romance. I would believe that Maggie would spend her energy trying to get his play to Whiteside, and being so brokenhearted when she finds out what her boss has been up to. It’s hard to think of two lovebirds that deserve Whiteside’s selfish behavior less.
Of course, The Man Who Came to Dinner has its problems, particularly with regards to initial believability. I would get Mrs. Stanley (Billie Burke) would be so honored to have such an illustrious intellect as Whiteside for dinner, but the way that Whiteside behaves, it’s a miracle that, hip injury or no, someone doesn’t immediately have him forcibly removed. The film’s premise, like everything else in the picture, bears no resemblance to reality, but being the set up, it’s a bit harder to swallow than the rest.
Ridiculous setup aside, The Man Who Came to Dinner is movie well worth seeking out. I have rarely laughed so loudly or so frequently; it’s right up there with Singin’ in the Rain in terms of sheer hilarity. As long as the remorselessly, proudly unsympathetic comedy protagonist is not an immediate dealbreaker—and, admittedly, Woolley’s character is an especially unsympathetic one to swallow—then I can all but guarantee that you will find this movie a riot as well. And remember: always be sure to salt your stairs, lest this man show up for dinner.