I’d heard of this movie for years, but didn’t realize it had anything to do with Christmas–or that it was a comedy at all–until I saw it for the first time this year. In fact, it’s possible I’ve just been conflating it with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner this whole time.
It is not that.
In fact, The Man Who Came to Dinner, based on a Kaufman and Hart play, is a festive, biting, remarkably silly satire.
Sheridan Whiteside, a bombastic celebrity writer with a weekly radio show, slips on some icy steps while on tour and finds himself trapped for several weeks at home with Glinda the Good Witch and her harried husband. As “Sherry’s” annual Christmas Eve broadcast approaches, gifts and good wishes pour in from everyone from Admiral Byrd (who sends a case of live penguins) to Winston Churchill, throwing the whole household into turmoil.
Meanwhile, Sherry’s loyal secretary Maggie, played by Bette Davis, falls for newspaperman/aspiring playwright/Ken doll Bert Jefferson.
In the moments between insulting his nurse (“You have the touch of a love-starved cobra”) and receiving long distance phone calls, Sherry interferes with the kids, the household help, and Bette Davis’ love life. The thought of having to manage his own career (if she should leave him to get married) is just about more than he can bear, so he calls for reinforcements in the form of a struggling actress and social climber played by Ann Sheridan, who takes a break from chasing a British lord to try to nab an acting job, and Ken, for herself.
This is just the first domino. A stream of celebrities suddenly beats a path to Sherry’s door (it really is his door, since he’s banished his hosts upstairs and basically taken over the whole house) and, a series of escalating pranks backfire, and then everything gets neatly, if too easily, tied up for a more-or-less happy ending.
A few observations:
- I was struck by how odd and out-of-place a man with a beard looks in 1942. It’s mentioned throughout that the beard is Sherry’s trademark, and it really does stand out. This is before beatniks and bohemians of Roman Holiday and Funny Face, even. In this era (perhaps not accidentally), only Santa wears a beard. Indeed, even Alexander Woollcott, the real-life inspiration for Sheridan Whiteside’s character, didn’t have a beard.
- This script is packed with creatively awful insults, completely free of profanity! Most of them come out of Sherry’s mouth, but a few of his victims give back as good as they get. Here’s Nurse Preen, played by Mary Wickes, whom I’ve seen in everything but never bothered to look up before: “After one month with you , Mr. Whiteside, I am going to work in a munitions factory. From now on, anything I can do to help exterminate the human race will fill me with the greatest of pleasure. If Florence Nightingale had ever nursed YOU, Mr. Whiteside, she would have married Jack the Ripper instead of founding the Red Cross!”
- I kept forgetting that the main character’s nickname was “Sherry,” and thought that all his friends were simply affecting bad French mannerisms: “Oh, cherie!” Not that this would have been out of keeping with their characters.
- Such gloriously silly hats! Oh my goodness.
- However, the rest of the fashion leaves something to be desired. Bette Davis wears mostly ill-fitting tweed suits (although her dress in the scene below is lovely), while Ann Sheridan, um, dazzles? Her blouse is completely transparent! How did they get away with this in 1942? Why didn’t they put her in a bra? Did the stylist walk off the set?:
- This whole movie is really a fascinating and entertaining riff on celebrity. Forget Twitter, in this world there’s no TV! And yet there’s this circle of actors, writers, entertainers and politicians who all know each other and have nothing better to do than gossip and try to ruin each other’s lives. And they play to a nationwide audience of fainting, screaming, fluttering fans falling at their feet. The media have changed, but not much else has. The play is based on the real-life members of the Algonquin Round Table, which I frankly didn’t know anything about until I started looking into this movie. It would seem that the pranks, the barbs, and the fame are all pretty true-to-life.
All in all? Highly entertaining, and absolutely worth watching, if, like me, you grew up on TCM but somehow missed this one. But the story and the script would be just as funny at any time of year. It’s a fun movie, and I’d like to watch it again. But I don’t really see it becoming part of the Christmas canon in my house.
Oh, and this has been in my head for a week now: