The Man Who Came to Dinner Reviews
The Man Who Came to Dinner is one of the greatest comedy scripts in theater history, filled with drop-dead lines like this. The role of Sheridan Whiteside was modeled after Alexander Woollcott, a charter member of the Algonquin Round Table, a running literary salon of the greatest wits of their day. This movie is one of the few relics of this golden age of cutthroat chitchat. For all the talent that whiled away their days at the Algonquin, amazing little of lasting literary merit has come down from it. Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, Franklin Adams, Heywood Broun - the most notorious wits of their day. Name something any of them wrote. If you're very well-versed, you may know the title of a short story or two, but mostly, they are best known for the one-liners that emerged out of stories of their hanging out at the Algonquin.
Happily, George Kaufman and Moss Hart managed to write this tribute to the biting humor of this generation of wits. The Algonquin Round Table was a vital link in the development of American comedy, from Mark Twain through to Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, and one needs to understand it to understand American humor.
Monty Woolley crushed the role of Sheridan Whiteside on Broadway, and the wonder of the movie version is that they bothered looking for anyone else to play the role before they settled on him again.
Bette Davis isn't exactly miscast as Maggie Cutler. It's more that she's overqualified for it. IMDb trivia tells me that Jean Arthur and Myrna Loy were considered for the role. I wouldn't say that they would have been better in the role, but they probably would have made more sense.
The tough role in the play is the part of Banjo, which was modeled after Harpo Marx, and played by Jimmy Durante. Of course, Durante looks and sounds like no one but Durante. But I would be very curious to see some effort to portray the real-life Harpo Marx. Certainly he didn't act like his on-screen persona, but he was certainly capable of physical insanity, combined with the verbal wit of which he was by all accounts also fully capable.
Monty Wooley brilliantly delivers the Groucho-like insults penned with supreme wit by the Marxian play and film write. Kaufman, of course, co-wrote many of the Marx's best works and was a good friend of Harpo, upon whom the character "Banjo" is based.
The entire cast is brilliant save for Richard Travis who, while not distractingly bad, is somewhat outclassed by the likes of Bette Davis, Billie Burke, Mary Wickes, and Reginald Gardiner.
The film lasts for nearly two hours and seldom lets the viewer up for air. This is a film that you may have to see several times to notice every clever line or plot development. And since it was originally a play, most of it takes place in one room. That being the living room of the put-upon Ohio businessman and his brow-beaten family. Along the way, Whiteside begins meddling in the lives of others, as well. He practically incites a rebellion by the couple's teenage children. He comes up with more insults than one can count for his nurse. And some of the funniest moments deal with an aging doctor attempting to get Whiteside to look at his manuscript about his profession. Many famous people appear and are referred to throughout the film. Most of the pop culture references are really dated, but not so much that it really bogs the film down. The acting is wonderful. Jimmy Durante and Ann Sheridan liven things up in support. The film is rather smug in how it was written by and about famous people who obviously look down on normal Midwestern folk. But the humor is harmless, and all too enjoyable.
The Man Who Came to Dinner is a little uneven, but it's mostly entertaining. The unevenness comes mainly from the dullness of the budding relationship which the film holds in focus. The original play is very well written, especially the dialogue. It was actually performed at my high school when I was there. But its the cast here that excels. Monty Woolley is great in the titular role. He plays Sheridan Whiteside to absolute perfection. Bette Davis is quite good as his secretary, but the role is actually somewhat below her standards. I'm sure she took the role because she loved the play so much and was sure it'd be a hit, but that role is pretty dull. Ann Sheridan perhaps gives the film's most memorable performance as an egotistical Hollywood diva who's not sure whether she wants to marry British nobility for money or just chase around cute guys. Also noteworthy are Billie Burke as Mrs. Stanley, the Ohio society woman who invites Whiteside to dinner, Reginald Gardiner as an eloquent celebrity friend of Whiteside (far underused), and the incredibly insane Jimmy Durante as Banjo. He comes into the film very late, but he very nearly steals the show.
The man who comes to dinner is Sheridan Whiteside (Wolley). He is a radio personality, and has been invited by Daisy and Ernest Stanley (Billie Burke and Grant Mitchell), a wealthy family. But just as he arrives at their lovely home, he slips on their icy steps, breaking his hip. Once inside, he announces he's going to sue them; so begins the plight of his intolerable personality.
Once he arrives, he never leaves because his is apparently too weak. Whiteside is demanding, rude, selfish, and gifted with a tongue dipped in acid. He makes nearly everyone in the house miserable, and he effectively ruins the Stanley's Christmas. Whiteside is truly an awful man which makes you question: how would I react if an annoying dinner guest never left?
"The Man Who Came to Dinner" shockingly isn't a Bette Davis vehicle, or a ploy for Ann Sheridan to show off her sexiness as always. Instead, Davis is put into a secondary role (which works out smoothly) and Sheridan gets to show off her impeccable comedic timing rather than be an object. Instead, this is Monty Woolley's show, and there isn't a second where you can't help but smile at how well he delivers his wicked lines, with true conviction and larger-than-life volume.
He says things as cruel as "My great-aunt Jennifer ate a whole box of candy every day of her life. She lived to be 102. When she'd been dead three days, she still looked better than you do now." But he gets away with it, maybe because his character has the talent to whip out spectacularly mean lines so quickly that it catches people off guard or they're mesmerized by his insane wit. Truly, he is a guest from hell, and Woolley obviously enjoys getting to portray someone so wacko.
The screenplay is extremely well-written; it's not only funny, but it is well-balanced. When you have a character as over-the-top as Sheridan Whiteside, it's not hard to have him take over the film. Yet he doesn't get the chance, because each individual character has snappy qualities that make them just as interesting. Just seeing their reactions to the terrible man that came to dinner makes watching them worthwhile. Their are many phenomenal supporting performances to include: of course Davis and Sheridan are excellent, but any second Billie Burke's ditzy character arrives on the scene or Mary Wickes (Nurse Preen) shrieks at Whiteside's latest trouble, it isn't hard to get a good chuckle. And Jimmy Durante stops by in a scene-stealing moment as Whiteside's obnoxious friend Banjo.
The extraordinary satire and sharp comedic timing by its actors make "The Man Who Came to Dinner" worth a watch. Maybe even more than one, because there's so much going on that it's hard to notice everything.
Sheridan Whiteside: [opening a box of candy] Ah, pecan butternut fudge!
Nurse Preen: Oh, my, you mustn't eat candy, Mr. Whiteside, it's very bad for you.
Sheridan Whiteside: My great aunt Jennifer ate a whole box of candy every day of her life. She lived to be 102 and when she'd been dead three days she looked better than you do *now!*