Back in the day, I remember watching a very funny play brought on stage by an amateur theater workshop during a University students’ festival. For years I couldn’t recall the title or any particular detail other than the fun I had as part of the audience. Then I kind of stumbled upon a movie called The Man Who Came to Dinner. It was based on the play I was looking for and I had as much fun watching it as that time in the theater.
Radio celebrity Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Wooley) arrives in a small town in Ohio called Messalia, where he’s invited to dinner by the Stanleys, a local wealthy family. As he goes up the icy stairs, he slips and falls on his hip. After he’s treated by a doctor that advises him to stay on a wheelchair for at least ten days, Mr. Whiteside lets Mr Stanley know that he’s being sued for a good amount of money and his house is being occupated. He then goes on applying his own rules to the household, getting hold of the phone, the living room, the dining room, the library and the stuff. Along the way he receives a bunch of weird guests, gifts and packages and messes with the family’s business running everybody crazy. Meanwhile his trustful secretary Maggie Cutler (Bette Davies), falls in love with the local newspaperman Burt Jefferson. Sheridan can’t afford to lose Maggie so he brings in actress Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan) to seduce Burt away. But after a couple of other colorful celebrity friends step in, his plan results to even more mix-up…
Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s broadway play, inspired by the real-life critic Alexander Woollcott’s temperamental personality, is brought to the big screen by William Keighley in a very uncolorful way. It never draws away from its stage origins and it always feels like a play, especially when people frenetically come in and out of the multiple entrances to the house’s main hall. It’s filled up with punch-line dialogue and brief gag-like action, relying mostly on its actors’ skills and its sarcasm to keep us amused. Other than a few moments of outdoors action, most of the film takes place in that hall which at times feels too crowded and others too empty. And like in a play there’s no sense of real time as people and packages fly in from all parts of the US in an absurd pace or characters barge in the house anytime they like, as if they’re all living next door. So, it comes off as a mediocre, timid attempt to make a movie out of a successful stage play, one that compromises the new medium and adds nothing more visually to an already amusing script. Except maybe Jimmy Durante.
Durante plays Banjo -a character based on Harpo Marx- the comedian friend of Sheridan and Maggie’s who busts in the Stanleys’ house with his extroverted personality and his rambunctious sense of humor to give an important relief to the tragedy that’s been building before his arrival. It’s a memorable appearance that shakes things up just when they become a bit melodramatic and Sheridan’s sarcasm ceases to be amusing.
As i said before, this is an actors’ movie. Monty Wooley is excellent as Sheridan Whiteside, a part he knew very well since he also played it on stage. He commands attention every time he talks and he manages to stay likable besides his bloated ego and his misanthropic treating of his less than charismatic hosts. On the other hand, Maggie is romantic, a secretary who’s a guest to the celebrity world and she clearly understands it. Her love for Burt is the bail-out she was waiting for, but she has to fight for it. Bette Davies portrays her in a low-key manner, turning from a known star to a character-actress with no strain at all. As opposed of course, to the glowing Ann Sheridan whose portrayal of Lorraine Sheldon demands that she looks and acts like a wanna-be star: empty, pompous and extremely self-involved. As for the others, Grant Mitchell is great as the pissed-off host-by-force Ernest Stanley, Reginald Gardiner throws in a nice caricature of a star playwright and Richard Travis is charming, though he seems a bit too overwhelmed in the part of local reporter Burt Jefferson.
Celebrity as a concept that’s unavoidably bloated is also timeless and Sheridan Whiteside with his friends never cease to remind us that they come from another world where a bloated ego is the norm whether you believe in it or you make a cartoon out of it. Hart and Kaufman exploit their personal knowledge of such a pompous celebrity’s antics and create an absurd and extreme comedy based on a relatively implausible setting. The outcome is funny, amusing and keeps a pace high enough to avoid getting boring while the witty dialogues make the talky script extremely entertaining.
The Man Who Came to Dinner is not a great movie, but it’s an adequate film version of a great play and the best way to enjoy it instead of waiting for it to come to a stage near you. Plus, it features Wooley, the original Sheridan Whiteside of the Broadway hit.