The Man Who Came To Dinner is a story about a radio host, Sheridan Whiteside, who ruins Christmas, but since this is Hollywood, he also manages to save it in the end. And unlike the majority of real people, the titular man’s consistently caustic manner and maddening self-absorption is fairly amusing. The writers also understood the most rudimentary elements of comedy and thus we are also treated to penguins periodically running around loose in the house.
There is also an octopus. And an actor who impersonates a stuttering English nobleman. And an axe murderer. And Jimmy Durante. There’s even a love affair that Whiteside first attempts to sabotage and then has to try and repair! Talk about madcap concentrate! That’s enough comedy ingredients for an entire season of a modern sitcom!
Bette Davis plays his secretary, Maggie Cutler, a smart cookie who somehow manages to tolerate Whiteside’s irascibility and doesn’t mind his mistreatment of everyone until she becomes the target for his egomania. Together, they spend the Christmas season in a small town in middle America after Whiteside hurts his hip falling down some stairs.
The gimmick of this play-turned-movie is that he immediately takes over the household of the people that he is staying with. This results in lots of wacky antics involving the aforementioned penguins, octopus, and Sherry’s various actor friends who drop in as needed by the plot.
The gimmick doesn’t really make any sense since I’m unaware of any hip injury that would be severe enough that you couldn’t leave the house, but don’t have to go the hospital. I mean, they carried this guy’s carcass inside from the front steps didn’t they? Why can’t they carry his impolite ass back out the front door to a hotel?
The implausibility of the gimmick aside, this is a pretty funny movie. Whiteside spends close to two hours unleashing a torrent of insults, snide remarks, and name dropping that leaves most of his small town victims unaware that they’ve even been put down. Most of them are either in awe of the celebrity in their midst or are cowed by his puffed up self-importance.
Since Sherry is going to be laid up through Christmas, he is going to have to give his Christmas broadcast from his new home in Ohio. This is one of the big ironies of the film – that a guy as obnoxious as Sherry is known nationally for his treacly broadcasts, especially the sappy Christmas one he does every year.
That may help explain the ending of the movie when he turns good and does everything he can to save his secretary’s relationship with the editor of the local newspaper. Maybe, he just uses all the nasty comments as a form of armor because deep down he’s just insecure. Or maybe Sherry calculated all the outcomes and thought he might have the best chance of retaining Maggie’s services if he lets her go her own way for awhile, instead alienating her with a more obvious gambit like bringing in Ann Sheridan as a famous sexy actress to try and steal away Maggie’s budding-playwright boyfriend. Or maybe, the movie just needed a happy ending.
The love story here is pretty weak. When newspaperman Bert Jefferson talks about how he and Maggie kind of started their relationship when she changed a typewriter ribbon for him, I was wondering if he was referring to a scene that had been cut from my copy of the movie. I mean, one minute they were meeting each other for the first time when she and Sherry arrived at the train station and the next thing I know, they’re laughing it up while ice skating and he’s giving her a ugly charm bracelet for Christmas.
It doesn’t help that Bert is a bland drip, who is completely oblivious to the machinations of Sherry’s actress pal Lorraine, whom Sherry has imported for the express purpose of breaking up Bert and Maggie.
Bert just can’t understand why Maggie is crabby and emotional while he’s out drunk all night with Lorraine working on his play and then gleefully announcing that he can hardly wait to spend three weeks with her in Lake Placid doing “rewrites.” I was never too sure exactly why Maggie was interested in him, beyond the generically handsome looks that would later carry actor Richard Travis to parts in such movies as Mesa Of Lost Women and Missile To The Moon.
The movie doesn’t rise and fall on Maggie mooning over Bert, since it’s merely the excuse to move Sherry through a variety of increasingly convoluted situations culminating with him and Jimmy Durante trying to figure out how to get rid of Lorraine before Sherry is tossed out of the house by sheriff’s deputies in fifteen minutes. (Not to spoil anything, but in a movie like this, the late arrival of a giant mummy case can only mean one thing.)
The movie does runs a bit longer than is necessary and some of Sherry’s comments come off more mean than amusing, but overall this is a nice cynical antidote (ending notwithstanding) to the usual sappy holiday movies foisted on us, so it’s worth a look.
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