What would happen if you took an arrogant, caustic and cynical New York City intellectual and transplanted him into the heartland of America? That was the premise of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s hit play, The Man Who Came to Dinner. The play premiered on Broadway in October 1939 and ran for more than two years, 730 performances to be exact. Legend has it Moss Hart came up with the idea after a visit from the prickly theater critic, New Yorker columnist, Alexander Woollcott, to his country home and began making one demand after another, including shutting off the heat and insisting on a bed time snack consisting of cookies and a milkshake. Woollcott was a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, a self-proclaimed group of witty and sometimes verbally vicious intellectuals trading barbs and witticisms. They met every day for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel. Among the members were Dorothy Parker, Harpo Marx, Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, Robert E. Sherwood, Heywood Broun, Ruth Hale (Broun’s wife) and Marc Connelly. There were other members, some officially part of the group and others who were unofficial occasional visitors.
In the William Keighley directed film, theater critic and author Sheridan Whiteside is on a lecture tour, at $1,500 a pop. Whiteside is invited to have dinner with a prominent small town family, Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Stanley (Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke) an act he’s loathes to do. With his personal secretary, Maggie (Bette Davis) by his side, he slogs his way to their home only to slip and fall on the icy steps of their home. This forces Whiteside to remain in a wheelchair and in the home of the Stanley’s who he continuously threatens to sue while making demand upon demand on the family and conducting his business from their home with little of no concern for anyone.
The Kaufman/Hart story is classic and plays on just about every person’s fear of the guest who comes and never leaves. It’s a horror story that most of us have faced at one time or another. Whiteside represents the ultimate in cantankerous unpleasant houseguest. The film can also can be looked at as the ultimate battle between the sophisticated big city intellectuals versus the small Midwestern ‘everyday‘ Americana folks. As for the audience, no matter where you come from, there are laughs from starts to finish.
Monty Wooley, who created the role on Broadway, brings the exact amount of snide punch to the role as he meddles in the family matters of his host. For example, telling the Stanley’s son to run off and become a photographer and the daughter to elope with her union organizer boyfriend, a relationship prominent business Dad does not approve of. He runs up large phone bills, has exotic animals delivered to the Stanley home, broadcast his radio Christmas special right in the Stanley living room, terrorizes the family’s staff and interferes in Maggie’s romantic relationship with local news reporter when she threatens to quit and opt for the quiet married life in Small Town U.S.A.
Though technically not a Christmas movie, The Man Who Came for Dinner is a joyously malicious, witty satire for the holidays and remains a treat to watch at any time of the year. The cast, along with those already mentioned, include Ann Sheridan, Jimmy Durante, Richard Travis, Reginald Gardiner and the always funny Mary Wickes.
 There have been two revivals of the Kaufman/Hart play on Broadway. In 1980, Ellis Rabb portrayed Whiteside in a Circle in the Square production. More recently, Nathan Lane in 2000 took on the crusty role in along with a cast that included Jean Smart and Lewis J. Stadlen.