Video Review: The Man Who Came to Dinner
by Karl Bowman and Jonathan Walker

As we prepare for the holidays, many of us embark on a quest to the local video store for a movie which will bring the spirit of Christmas into our homes. We cast our eyes over posters of Blair witches, buxom babes, and short-tempered Schwarzeneggers searching for that rare film which will not only entertain our families, but lift our hearts. The Christmas shelf is inevitably lined with classics we adore and have seen a million times or recent releases we can’t bring ourselves to watch more than once. An overwhelming feeling of “been there done that” creeps over us accompanied by the frustration of having to make a decision. What to do?

In our quest this year, we came across a little-known film entitled “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” released in 1942. The title and the film artwork didn’t do much for us, but after reading the story synopsis and hoping that any movie with Bette Davis couldn’t be THAT bad, we rented it. What we discovered was a highly entertaining treat from the golden age of Hollywood.

“The Man Who Came to Dinner” was written for the stage by Kaufman and Hart, the playwrights of “You Can’t Take it With You” and brought to the screen by the writers of “Casablanca” and “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Its director William Keighley, who worked under contract at Warner Brothers for years, is best known as co-director of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” starring Errol Flynn. Even with all this going for it, the film was released during the creative zenith of the old Hollywood studio system. Therefore, it was lost in the wake of such epics as “Gone with the Wind,” “Stagecoach,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Maltese Falcon” and “Citizen Kane”-to name a few.

In the film, well-known author and radio personality, Sheridan Whiteside, visits the home of an average, middle-class family on one of his tours through the Midwest. Making his way to the front door, he slips on the icy stairs and breaks his hip. The town doctor orders him confined for ten days. Mortified at having to spend a moment longer than he has to, Sheridan takes out his displeasure on everyone around him and takes control of the entire household. Maggie Cutler, his resilient assistant, determines to make the best of the situation until she falls in love with a local newspaperman and resigns her post. As Christmas approaches, Whiteside enacts a malevolent plan to destroy her newfound love and force her to remain in his employ.

Whiteside is played brilliantly by Monty Woolley who perfected the role on Broadway. Although the character is confined to a wheelchair almost the entire film, Woolley is captivating. We loved this character for his acerbic wit as well as for the comfort of knowing we were not in the same room with him. The pompous Whiteside spews invective as readily as most of us breathe and seems to take pride in repelling people in the most vicious manner. But if that were the extent of his character we would quickly lose interest. There is intelligence, education, and sophistication in his role. And more importantly, there is variation to his character. In the second half of the film, we begin to see another dimension to him. He no longer blatantly repels people, but, with an air of kindness, gives unsolicited advice. This shift is a bit disorienting, but the variation keeps the film from becoming static. We must wait for his final actions, as his plans come crashing down, to fully appreciate his rounded character.

Bette Davis gives a confident and likable performance as Maggie Cutler, an interesting departure from many of her other characteristic roles playing hard-as-nails women. This film came at the midpoint of her career (spanning 100 films) and the height of her success. She had already earned two Oscars for “Dangerous” and “Jezebel.” In addition, the film features wonderfully comic performances by Ann Sheridan, Reginald Gardiner, comedian/songwriter Jimmy Durante, and Mary Wickes as the hapless nurse. These are some of the most eccentric characters you’ll ever like.

William Keighley, the director, maintains a kinetic and even frantic pace, notwithstanding the film’s setting in one room and a main character who is confined to a wheelchair. At first, Keighley does this with mixed results through constant and fluid camera movement. By the end of the film, however, the eccentric characters’ interaction provide more than enough chaos to drive the entertainment of the film.

Although it took a little bit of patience in the beginning, by the end of the film we were completely absorbed in the world of the characters. As the final credits rolled, and we finally stopped laughing, we looked for a significant theme. Was it vapid entertainment or “cotton candy,” as we like to call it (it looks good and tastes good, but you put it in your mouth and find that there’s no substance to it)? We happily report that the film is entertainment first and foremost, but there is also a moral center. Behind all of the craziness, lies a kernel of truth contrasting the dangers of selfishness with the joys of selflessness. Ultimately we learn the important truth: happiness comes from caring for others and not ourselves.

Although the hilarious climax takes place on Christmas Day and Christmas plays a subtle role in the theme, the film does not hit us over the head with a “Christmas message.” Thus, it can be enjoyed anytime during the year. However, with the Christmas season upon us, the frenzy of gift-giving and receiving provides a wonderful backdrop for the need to look to our loved ones best interests.

If you are a fan of intelligent comedy and old movies, “The Man Who Came to Dinner” is a great find.