Film 2018: The Man Who Came To Dinner

I’m old enough to remember when Sundays were Sundays: the Day of Rest, whether you wanted it or not which, as a small boy, full of small boy energy, I didn’t. Rest on Sunday afternoons meant Boredom. There was nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing on the telly.

And when there was, traditionally it was a Sunday afternoon film, in black and white. Of course, until 1973, all films were black and white unless you went to see them in the cinema, but so many Sunday afternoon movies were still in monochrome: family entertainment, fit for all the family.

And none the worse for it. Sunday afternoons were peaceful things, when time didn’t so much pass as saunter, and you’d lay back in the armchair and let yourself be absorbed into a world that no longer existed, that never really did exist, but which had passed before you were born.

I can’t imagine having seen The Man Who Came To Dinner for the first time on any other occasion. Maybe it was one of those occasional, post-squash Sunday afternoon films in Nottingham where, after our weekly game, our trip to the pub and coffee, my old friend and I would lazily watch some old piece of Hollywood, just leisurely appreciating a bit of company.

My parents loved it. And I love it too. It’s a brilliantly funny, fantastically waspish comedy, shamelessly name-dropping and equally shamelessly incorporating real famous people, less thinly-disguised that utterly transparent, it rolls along on a tidal wave of glorious bitchiness, and it feels strange to find that a great many people, including one if its stars, were disappointed with the outcome. It makes me wonder what it might have been if their ideal version could have been produced.

The film’s based, quite heavily, on a very successful Broadway play written by Moss Hart and George Kaufman, inspired by an offhand comment about their friend, the broadcaster and critic Alexander Woolcott. Woolcott had invaded Hart’s home, taken over the master bedroom, terrorised his staff, been thoroughly unpleasant and left a message in the guest book that this had been the most unpleasant experience he’d ever had. Telling Kaufman, Hart joked about how lucky he’d been that Woolcott hadn’t broken his leg and been forced to stay a month. Inspiration was born.

That’s the story. Beloved writer, broadcaster and lecturer Sheridan Whiteside (played by Woolcott himself on stage originally, and later by Monty Woolley, who stars in the film) is in the Ohio town of Mesalia, where he’s to have dinner with Ernest and Daisy Stanley. Unfortunately, he slips on the icy step, fractures his hip and has to stay. Whiteside is rude, domineering, dictatorial, self-centred and completely indifferent to anyone else. He announces he’s suing the Stanleys for $150,000, but in the meantime takes over their home, lock, stock and barrel.

Whiteside’s a monster, no other word for it. You’d hate to meet him anywhere near real life, but when he’s happening to other people, he’s glorious to watch. Woolley is bombastic, acid and endlessly quick with his rapid-fire responses.

The problem is that Maggie Cutler (Bette Davies), his entirely practical and competent secretary, meets and falls in love with local newspaperman, Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis), who has also written a very good play. For Maggie, love has come late, but hard, and it means everything to her. She’s going to quit, and marry Bert – if he’ll have her.

But Whiteside’s having none of that. Under the guise of saving Maggie from making a fool of herself, which no-one buys for a minute, Sherry hauls in the glamorous and, it is gently established, promiscuous actress Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan, but the original is Gertrude Lawrence) to take Bert away. Unfortunately, Maggie really does love Bert, even if he is a bit on the naive side in this respect, and heartbrokenly resigns anyway.

By now, Whiteside’s meddling is causing chaos. In an apparently sincere fashion, having gotten on well with the Stanley’s children, Richard and June, he’s encouraged both to run away, Richard to follow his dream of becoming a photographer, June to marry her labour organiser boyfriend and, in doing so, enabled the much put-upon Stanley to get a warrant to throw him out.

He’s conned the local Doctor into concealing that Sherry’s hip has never been fractured at all by pretending to be interested in collaborating on his memoirs, ‘Forty Years an Ohio Doctor’. He’s terrorised his nurse, the dedicated Miss Preen, into leaving nursing to work in a munitions factory in order to be able to kill large swathes of humanity off) and he’s up against a very tight deadline with only his eccentric Hollywood comic friend, Banjo (Jimmy Durante, playing Jimmy Durante as Harpo Marx – who also played Banjo on stage and why not, since Banjo is Harpo) to help.

We’ve already had a splendid cameo from Reginald Gardiner as suave, slinky actor Beverley Carlton, channeling Noel Coward, to further complicate the plot.

And a deus ex machina, well two, actually, arrives in the nick of time. One in the form of an Egyptian sarcophagus, which is used to get Lorraine out of there – seriously, it is – and the other a surfacing memory of exactly who Stanley’s sister Harriet used to be, which puts Sheridan Whiteside back on top of the wheel again and enables him to ensure everybody gets the ending they deserve.

Except: leaving exactly on Ernest Stanley’s deadline, with a comic inevitability that provides a perfect ending, Sherry turns back to answer a telephone call from Eleanor Roosevelt. He slips, on the icy step. And falls down them. Roaring in pain, he is carried back inside, calling for the Doctor, for Miss Preen, and threatening to sue… for $350,000!

It’s a beautifully balanced film, a comedy with no better idea than to make you laugh, whilst poking fun at well-known personalities. Of course, if you stop to think about it in serious terms, along the lines of Hollywood types and their extreme world invading the home-life of middle-class midwesterners who, on their best day, can’t approximate one-hundredth of the speed of the glamorous, it’s a horror film, but the vigour of the writing and the equal vigour of the actors, and the sheer number of sub-plots that spin around, bouncing off each other, you have neither the time nor the inclination to do that.

And Bette Davies as Maggie is superb. Hers is the only straight role in the picture, the only one that requires playing naturalistically, even underplayed at times, and she’s brilliant, most of all in the scene where, her plot with Beverley Carlton for him to impersonate Lorraine’s latest target and draw her off having succeeded splendidly, the whole thing blows up in her face when Bert, of all people, gives the game away innocently. Anne Sheridan goes perfectly over the top, but Davies’ body language, her almost expressionless face, her retiring into the background sell the truth strength of her feelings,and the unbearable loss she’s suddenly facing.

I have very little familiarity with Bette Davies’ work, but she is superb in this film. Which makes it altogether surprising and dispiriting to learn that she was disappointed with the film, and with the choice of Monty Woolley as Whiteside. Davies had played a substantial part in getting the rights bought, as a vehicle for her and the legendary John Barrymore, only for the latter to be rejected because his heavy drinking left him unable to deal with the fast-paced dialogue (Barrymore would die the same year the film appeared): Davies regretted never working with him.

Despite the criticism, I love the film. The casting is perfect, the dialogue fresh, the ending a gorgeous sting and Woolley seizes the part of his  life and plays it like a deep sea fisherman with a marlin. But then, I have a liking for the films of the late Thirties and early Forties, films for a time of greater innocence than we’ve known for a long time, when things could be said and done in films that our cynicism makes laughable in these times, but could be portrayed with belief for an audience that believed.

Sunday afternoon innocence on a Sunday morning. Ducky!


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