My husband and I went on a holiday movie spree between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. In order to make the roster, the film had to be at least set during a holiday. It needn’t be a holiday classic. I kept putting off watching one of his selections, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942). I’d seen it before when I was much younger, and I wasn’t excited to watch the film again. To me the film should have been called The Bore Who Came to Dinner.
Monty Woolley plays the title character, Sheridan Whiteside. He’s a wit and a well-known radio personality. He milks his fame travelling the country giving lectures and enjoying the hospitality of the famous and/or rich. Basically, he’s a 1940s version of a media darling, save for the darling part. He’s really a holy terror who gives tongue lashings to those he perceives as beneath him or annoying, which would be most people. The few he spares are those rare folk as or more famous than himself. He sickeningly fawns over that small lot.
The plot starts with him visiting a small Ohio town to give a lecture. Before he does, a businessman and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Stanley (Billie Burke and Grant Mitchell) are to host him at dinner. The husband wasn’t looking forward to the dinner, and it turns into a disaster even before it can happen. Whiteside slips on their icy front steps, promises to sue them for criminal negligence for a frightful sum even by today’s standards, and takes their home hostage as he recovers.
He’s accompanied by his personal secretary, Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis). She’s the film’s female romantic lead. The break in her schedule gives her a shot at romance. She gets to know a local reporter Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis). His writing skills go beyond the headline. He’s a budding playwright. Cutler comes to love him and his work, which she champions to an uninterested Whiteside.
It’s interesting to see Davis in the sort of working girl role that Joan Crawford tended to play. Cutler’s role needed someone softer than Crawford, and Davis plays her as the reasonable presence in the household. She’s intelligent, capabale, and underneath her professional shell–nice. Most of her wardrobe are practical and plain, appropriate for a personal secretary. There are no flashy clothes or expensive fabrics that an image conscious star would want.
Davis looks on the older age range of acceptability for the role. Her hairstyle while typical for their period tends to look a little aging and matronly by today’s standards. Her hairdo isn’t as unflattering as Norma Shearer’s in The Women. Travis was slightly younger than Davis, and the camera registers a slightly greater age difference.
This stresses the relationship may be Cutler’s last shot at love. She prepares to leave Whiteside, who refuses to break in a new secretary. He meddles in her love life as well as with the children of his hosts. The film’s second half deals with his machinations, their results, and the fall-out. Since this is a holiday comedy, I don’t think it’s spoilery to say things eventually work-out, but I never buy into the redemption of Whiteside. It’s not completely the fault of the original source material.
George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart wrote the play version of The Man Who Came to Dinner as a tribute and a vehicle for their friend Alexander Woollcott. For the American public, he has the lustre of having been part of the Algonquin Round Table. Kaufman and Hart were inspired by a real-life incident in which Woollcott took over Hart’s home like Sheridan Whiteside takes over the Stanley’s. They knew how Woollcott could entertain and terrorize, and they wrote some sharp lines that reflect that fact.
The fault lies more with Monty Woolley’s performance. He positively revels in Whiteside’s nastiness too much. His white teeth flash beneath his mustache when he clearly enunciates each insult like the bared teeth of a nippy terrier. Whiteside is a man whose intellect and achievement lifted him up from where he started as a cub reporter. The character has a lot of hubris about that, but where lies his charm? I’m not claiming the character has to be softened, but one of the shades needed for the performance is missing. A man like Whiteside is only allowed to continue his bad behavior because he charms, he has to let us in on his side, make us conspirators.
Woolley never does that, so Whiteside’s redemptive moment falls flat. When he gets that figurative mirror held up to his face and is shown all the horrible things he has done, I never got the sense that he was sorry. It seemed more like he couldn’t think of himself of capable of being that base and had to act to compensate for his almost shattered self-image, especially since he reverts back to type at the film’s end. Mr. Stanley was right to grouse about the bore coming to his dinner!