“My great 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.” — Sheridan Whiteside to Nurse Preen
Although by premiering in New York City the first day of 1942 and thus a week late for making it for Christmas Day the previous year, it’s not too late, this year, to enjoy—nay, to relish, to wallow in!—the devastating hilarity and grand farce of The Man Who Came to Dinner. A Christmas movie, then, to become a holiday tradition? An inspirer of seasonal feelings of love and benevolence? Well, hardly. Just a thought. But because most people in this film are at each other’s throats is no reason not to enjoy it.
No one to my knowledge has ever classified this as a “holiday film.” It clearly doesn’t rank with Miracle of 34th Street, White Christmas or any of the versions of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The Man Who Came to Dinner is more subtle, a just-around-the-corner touch of the season, much like Barbara Stanwyck trapped in preparing a holiday meal for a returning serviceman for a true Christmas in Connecticut, or the warm simplicity of Janet Leigh and Robert Mitchum’s Holiday Affair. The last film, in particular, may be unknown to most viewers.
To be sure, in The Man Who Came to Dinner there are references to Christmas, an obligatory wintry ice-skating scene, a decorated tree in the living room main set and presents under the tree. Only one present is opened, but it’s crucial to the plot.
Some viewers, like those who dislike black and white, will call the film dated, as it well is, with the early-’40s cars, the lady’s fashions and hairdos, one of those black dial telephones and an occasional antediluvian word like “swell.” Other viewers, understandably older, might recall what could have been, to them, the “good old days,” though the United States had been at war for three weeks when the film premiered. For sometime Warner Bros. had been geared for the coming conflict, and there are at least two timely references—to the defense industry (in the opening scene) and to a munitions factory (near the end).
The film is so far back in time for some folks—prehistorically far back for others—seventy years—that many of the names of the personalities that are bandied about will seem as foreign as Clara Bow and John Boles—names likes Elsa Maxwell, Thomas E. Dewey, Katherine Cornell, Sonja Henie, William Allen White and Zasu Pitts. Other names, like Walter Winchell, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Duchess of Windsor, along with hubby “David,” may be more familiar. And of course, to a sophisticate like Whiteside, these names aren’t “bandied about” to show off—he knows the people.
It must be remembered that all of these individuals were alive and active in 1942, many of them the talk of a number of towns, or at least known in so-called “polite” society. In fact, one of these celebrities, the wife of President Franklin Roosevelt, has the last lines in the film. In that high-pitched, upper crust accent, she’s heard from a discarded telephone receiver: “Oh, dear, something must’ve happened to Sherry! Operator! Operator!”
Author, critic and radio personality Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) and his secretary Maggie (Bette Davis) arrive by train in Mesalia, Ohio, for a speaking engagement. While there, he is to stay at the home of Ernest and Daisy Stanley (Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke), and in ascending their snow-crusted front door steps, he slips and falls.
Because of a fractured hip, he is confined to a wheelchair—and worse for all concerned, confined to the Stanley’s home, which he immediately turns into bedlam, commandeering their spacious living room and “that drafty sewer you call the library,” and instructing that the family, which also includes two siblings, refrain from using the telephone and enter their bedrooms by a back entrance.
It’s not enough that the acerbic Whiteside, known to both friends and enemies as Sherry, meddles in the lives of the two Stanley children (Russell Arms and Elisabeth Fraser) and in Maggie’s romance with the local newspaper owner/reporter Bert Jefferson (a rather one-dimensional Richard Travis, who would find minimal success in television). Whiteside also entertains a parade of famous stage and film stars—a flamboyantly egotistical Beverly Carlton (Reginald Gardiner as a thinly veiled Noel Coward), the equally self-centered actress from Palm Beach, Lorraine Sheldon (an over-the-top Ann Sheridanparodying the over-the-top Gertrude Lawrence) and the hyperactive “Banjo,” lounging on the piano and faking a slap to Sheldon’s derrière (Jimmy Durante doing Jimmy Durante doing Harpo Marx).
I’m sure it was not intended by the filmmakers, only a fester in my imagination, but Whiteside is visited—repeatedly—by what could be interpreted as three apparitions, à la the ghosts in A Christmas Carol. Whiteside would call them figments of annoyance . . . well, one is less “annoying.” The first is Nurse Preen (Mary Wickes in her first feature-length film) who earned the accolade at the top of this page as well as another of Whitesides’ harangues, one of my favorites: “Go in and read the life of Florence Nightingale and learn how unfitted you are for your chosen profession.”