Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.
Released on January 24, 1942
Directed by William Keighley
Written by Julius & Philip Epstein, based on the play by Kaufman and Hart
Cast: Bette Davis, Monty Woolley, Ann Sheridan, Richard Travis, Billie Burke, Grant Mitchell, Jimmy Durante, Reginald Gardiner, Mary Wickes, Elisabeth Fraser, George Barbier, Russell Arms, Ruth Vivian, Charles Drake, Patrick McVey, Gig Young
Without a doubt, one of the wildest and most off-kilter Christmas movies you’ll ever see…and also, perhaps, one of the best. Never mind that the Christmas season is used here primarily as a backdrop to the on-screen craziness that plays out; amidst all the mayhem you’ll still get a feel for the Yuletide spirit, whether it be from the decorated tree and its multitudes of presents, snow falling outside the living room windows, an evening spent ice skating outdoors, or just the feeling of being in a cozy 1940s hamlet during the winter holidays, where you might find a handful of friendly penguins happily running amok throughout someone’s living room.
Monty Woolley is an outrageous delight as popular radio personality Sheridan Whiteside, an arrogant, domineering, short-tempered wit who arrives in a small Ohio town over the holidays to give a lecture, and have a pre-Christmas dinner—reluctantly—at the home of an upstanding local family; Bette Davis plays his long-suffering secretary Maggie, who does her best to keep him in line. On the day of his arrival, he slips and falls while walking up the home’s icy front steps, and spends the ensuing month recuperating inside the family’s spacious residence, where he assumes control of the household and everyone in it, wreaking havoc and hurling caustic insults whenever the mood strikes him. Which, thankfully for us, is often.
Everything about this comedy was simply, absolutely, wonderfully superb, from the barbed tongue of Woolley and the non-stop hyperactivity that surrounded him, right down to the sweet and romantic moments shared between Davis and Richard Travis, the nice-guy newspaperman she meets and soon falls in love with. And though Woolley was a blast as Whiteside, it was Davis who impressed me the most, with her quiet and unassuming portrayal of the put-upon Maggie. I just loved how she played her character in this, and got a kick out of seeing her mood and disposition brighten whenever she was around Travis. In fact, all of the actors involved—and there were many of them—were outstanding, and filled their roles to comedic perfection.
But the truth is, everything would’ve been for naught if weren’t for the writing talents of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, who created the stage play, and the input of screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein, who’d also penned the classic Casablanca that same year. Their dialogue and witticisms were just hilarious, and the banter was so rapid-fire, and the situations so madcap, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the many screwball comedies from the 1930s I’ve seen over the years. And it’s been said that William Keighley’s direction was unimaginative, but I thought it was fine; there’s not much you can do with a one-set, dialogue-driven movie but plunk the camera down in the middle of everyone and stand back.
So if you’re ready to take a break from the glut of syrupy Hallmark Channel romances and round-the-clock screenings of a certain Christmas story this holiday season, I say give The Man Who Came to Dinner a spin. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed, and if anything, you’ll get to see one of my favorite actresses, Ann Sheridan, be both sexy and funny. And who knows, you might actually enjoy this one as much as I do, and like me make it a holiday staple in your home for years to come. (9/10)