Holiday Classics: “The Man Who Came to Dinner” (1942)

Writers Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman based the character of Sheridan Whiteside in their play “The Man Who Came to Dinner” on real life critic and radio personality Alexander Woollcott. They were both good friends with the man, although one day Woollcott came to Hart’s house unexpectedly and instantly took it over. Hart later told Kaufman of the incident and said, “Imagine what would have happened if he had broken his leg and had to stay?” And there was the play.

Bette Davis in “The Man Who Came to Dinner”

The film adaptation directed by William Keighley has Monty Woolley reprising his role from the Broadway production as radio personality Sheridan Whiteside who slips on the icy steps of Ernest and Daisy Stanley’s (Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke) home and insists on staying through the holidays to recover, even going so far as to disguise the fact that he isn’t that badly hurt so he can stay longer. He brings along his secretary, Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis), who falls in love with local reporter Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis) and informs Whiteside that she is leaving him to get married. This prompts Whiteside to try and end the romance with the help of his friend Banjo (Jimmy Durante) and actress Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan).

“The Man Who Came to Dinner” is the kind of comedy that just simply isn’t made anymore. The dialogue is sharp and witty, and the actors are right on top of it. Woolley is absolute perfection as Whiteside and spits out the insults left and right with an intense energy. Davis is also delightful; this was perhaps the only time at this moment in her career where she was willing to take a secondary role (although she always regretted that John Barrymore wasn’t well enough to take on the role of Whiteside). Many of the main characters are caricatures of famous people at the time. Besides Whiteside being based on Woollcott, Banja is based on Harpo Marx, Beverly Carlton (Reginald Gardner) is based on Noel Coward, and Lorraine Sheldon is based on Gertrude Lawrence. Maybe this dates the movie a bit; maybe much of the references will be lost on audiences today. But it’s an absolutely hilarious movie nonetheless. And while it’s not so much a Christmas movie as a movie set during Christmas, it has become a seasonal favorite.

“The Man Who Came to Dinner” is airing on Turner Classic Movies this holiday season on the following dates:

Saturday, December 12th at 5:45 PM EST

Wednesday, December 23rd at 11:45 PM EST

Friday, December 25th at 2 PM EST

Runtime: 112 minutes.

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