The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) William Keighley

dinner2What 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.[1] 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.

annex-davis-bette-man-who-came-to-dinner-the_01In 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.

dinner1The 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.

dinnerMonty 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.


[1] 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.

6 comments on “The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) William Keighley

  1. The movie that turned my daughter (junior high age at the time) into a Grant Mitchell fan!

    Kaufman and Hart were truly in the zone.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sam Juliano says:

    Oh yes, a very smart and fun film absolutely! And a particular spirited review here from you John!


  3. joelnox says:

    This is a sprightly film that Monty Woolley absolutely OWNS in every scene except when Ann Sheridan sweeps in and tries to snatch it away from him. She doesn’t quite walk off with the picture but she certainly manages to take her scenes. The funny thing is that she was quoted as saying she had little interest in the movie or the role because she was filming Kings Row at the same time and that was where her head and heart were and she just tossed off Lorraine Sheldon in a rush. Maybe it’s that devil may care attitude that makes her work so breezy and enjoyable.

    As good as both of them were everyone else is terrific as well. I agree with the previous commentor about Grant Mitchell, love him, and then there’s the marvelous Mary Wickes and Billie Burke and on and on.

    It seems odd that Bette Davis would accept the obviously supporting character of Maggie, especially after she’d just fought a pitched battle with Jack Warner to play the small but flashy role of Cassie Tower in Kings Row and lost, but maybe she saw it as a nice break from her usual heavy dramatics.

    Liked by 1 person

    • John Greco says:

      Woolley definitely owns this film as you say. It’s a great satirical take on big city America versus Small town America. I agree with also on Sheridan. For me, it’s one of her best roles. This is afilm I always try to watch around the holidays.


  4. John Greco says:

    Reblogged this on Twenty Four Frames and commented:

    Tis the season! One of my favorite Christmas films! Worth reblogging.


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