Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Holiday Flicks #3 - “The Man Who Came to Dinner”

I really intended to write about a different film for this week’s post—had planned for some time to write about “Christmas in Connecticut,” the delightful Barbara Stanwyck vehicle. Then Eberle & I watched “The Man Who Came to Dinner” the other night & my plans went all awry.

This is not to say I necessarily think “The Man Who Came to Dinner” is a better film than “Christmas in Connecticut”; in fact, in some ways, the latter presents a more coherent story. It’s just that “The Man Who Came to Dinner” has given me more to think about in terms of the Christmas movie genre.

For those of you who haven’t seen this film, starring Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, & Monty Woolley, the premise is as follows—a self-absorbed, sharp-tongued, manipulative litterateur (played by Woolley in a reprise of his role in the Broadway play) falls on the icy front steps of a provincial home, apparently breaking his hip—& then takes up residence there with his secretary, (Bette Davis), & usurps control of the household.
Woolley’s character, Sheldon Whiteside, is really quite disagreeable; the comic version of “the wounded narcissist.” His insults are merciless & frequent, his demands impossible, his intrusions into other people’s lives—especially his attempts to derail his secretary’s budding romance with a small-town newspaperman, are unforgivable. But this being a Christmas story, we can see what’s coming, right? We can sense the Scroogian transformation, the true repentance brought on by the joys of the season…. Except that it doesn’t come; & sorry to give too much away, since I try to stick to a “no spoilers” rule, but to me this is where the interest lies, especially insofar as “The Man Who Came to Dinner” is a seasonal film.One might go so far as to say “The Man Who Came to Dinner” is the anti-“Christmas Carol”—there’s no redemption for Sheldon Whiteside—there’s not even very much karmic retribution for his outrages & selfishness. In essence, Whiteside is able to adjust his schemes so that he comes out unscathed—& if this brings some of the plot elements to a happy ending, it’s not that Whiteside has seen the error of his manipulative ways, but that he understands how this particular happy ending will be in his own best interest. In the meantime, little is done to repair the wreckage he’s wrought on the home of Ernest & Daisy Stanley (veteran character actor Grant Mitchell, & Glinda the good witch, Billie Burke herself)—he’s kept them virtual hostages in their home, he’s alienated both their son & daughter from them (of course, he did appear to be on the side of “right” with the children), he even manages to win over their servants & convince them to come work for him.

Of course, the Stanleys are far from paragons themselves: Ernest is officious, & just happens to have been dethroned by a more effective tyrant; Daisy is—for lack of a better term—a “ditz.” In fact, “The Man Who Came to Dinner” is liberally strewn with disagreeable comic characters—
Ann Sheridan’s amoral vamp, Richard Travis’ too-impressionable Bert Jefferson, Reginald Gardiner as the acerbic playwright. Even Davis’ Maggie Cutler—certainly the film’s most sympathetic character—isn’t above humiliating her rival, Sheridan, in order to hold on to her man.
It’s interesting that the Whiteside character actually loves Christmas—this point is stressed several times; not of course, from any traditional Christmas spirit, but simply because it affords an opportunity for his followers to bestow tribute in the form of presents. Here again, Whiteside is the anti-Scrooge: not the wounded soul who can no longer bring himself to believe in the magic & selflessness of Christmas, but the more radically deformed narcissist who’s convinced that Christmas is all about him.

The cast of “The Man Who Came to Dinner” is a delight. I’ve seen some criticism that Woolley makes Whiteside so unlikable that we can’t find any sympathy with the character; there’s a way in which this is true, but I find this makes the film more rather than less interesting. Davis’ portrayal of Maggie Cutler elicits the word “subdued” in several online reviews, & there’s truth to this, tho again, it seems right for the story. While this isn’t Davis in her power & glory & force of nature persona, she brings her typical strength to the character of Maggie, & thus allows us to believe that Whiteside’s secretary is a person he’s unable to cow. Ann Sheridan is wonderful as the vamping actress who’s all too eager to cast aside her gold digging designs on an English nobleman, as well wreck Davis’ happiness, in order to land a coveted role.
& speaking of forces of nature, there’s also Jimmy Durante in the role of Banjo (a character based on Harpo Marx). Some will find Durante’s performance completely over-the-top—to say that the Schnozzola was a ham is to under-state the obvious. Within seconds of bursting onscreen he sings a wild tune to Mary Wickes’ beleaguered Nurse Preen as he carries her around the room, then sits (& stands) at the piano to sing & play a tune that could be a theme song for adult attention deficit disorder. Eberle was completely entranced by Durante onscreen—I love Durante was a comic & a musician, & tho I can see the point of folks who carp about his performance, he won me over.

“The Ma
n Who Came to Dinner” was adapted from Moss Hart's & George Kauffman’s play of the same name—the Whiteside character was based on critic Alexander Woollcott, while the Beverly Carlton character (played by Gardiner in the film) was based on Noel Coward; the play was adapted for the screen by Julius & Phillip Epstein (of “Casablanca” fame, tho they also collaborated on the wonderful Bette Davis-Claude Rains film “Mr Skeffington,” as well as writing several well-known screenplays individually). While it won’t bring the rush of Christmas sentiment you’ll find in “The Shop Around the Corner,” or the lovely romance of “A Christmas in Connecticut,” it does offer a novel take on the holiday film genre. “The Man Who Came to Dinner” is available thru NetFlix, & is no doubt available at your fine neighborhood video rental shop, assuming you live in an area that has such an establishment. It’s also being aired at 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday, December 24th on Turner Classic Movies in case you want to program your DVRs now (& a note: TCM is reprising last week’s Holiday Flicks selection, “The Shop Around the Corner” at 3:00 a.m. Eastern Time on Christmas morning, a fact I overlooked in last week’s post).

Each year I find occasion to be reminded of “the other side” of Christmas—& “The Man Who Came to Dinner” is a delightful dose of cynicism for those who need this to balance the season's often wide-eyed sentiment.


  1. We'll Netflix it!

    Have you seen Remember the Night, with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck? Fred is a NYC prosecuting attorney who takes shoplifter Babs home to Indiana when he discovers that she will otherwise spend Christmas in the hoosegow. Predictable plot but the Preston Sturges screenplay keeps the smiles coming, plus the two stars are gold. Sterling Holloway sings "The End of a Perfect Day."

  2. Haven't seen "Remember the Night," tho it is on my radar because I'm a big Barbara Stanwyck fan.


  3. You'll like this one -- slight, but irresistible.

    Barbara is always worth watching. The scene in The Lady Eve where she teases Henry Fonda is one of the funniest bits on film. Apparently, directors loved working with her: She showed up on time and prepared, rarely argued, and didn't need to be told anything twice.

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