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Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1941)

You would never know from watching it, but the screenplay for THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1941) was written by two of the men who penned CASABLANCA (1942). That was the job of a good studio contract writer – to adapt to your material and serve the producer, while working in a number of genres and styles. The scenarists in question – brothers Philip and Julius Epstein – were as skillful at the task as anyone during the golden age of the Hollywood studio system. With films like ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944) and MR. SKEFFINGTON (also 1944), the team more than proved their mettle. Also a fine example of a studio employee was the film’s director, William Keighley. Making films in a breathtaking variety of genres, he frequently displayed a smooth, elegant technique, rewarding to audiences. But he was no “auteur”. He never developed a personal vision like Ford or Hitchcock and was content with serving his studio bosses – men such as Hal Wallis, production executive at Warner Brothers for many years, and executive producer of THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, a near perfect example of studio run efficiency. All the various departments (acting, producing, writing, directing, photography, art, music and editing) work together to create a delightful unified whole. It may have been an assembly line, but it produced a number of Cadillacs.

As part of an effort to garner support for his lecture series, Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley), a famous writer and critic, agrees to have dinner at the home of the Stanleys, an Ohio family made up of Father Ernest (Grant Mitchell), Mother Daisy (Billie Burke), daughter June (Elizabeth Fraser) and son Richard (Russell Aims). The incredibly snooty and rude Whiteside insults Mr. and Mrs. Stanley when they meet him at the train station, proving how boorish east coast snobs can be when dealing with the denizens of “fly over” country. It is enough to make you believe in Karma when the elitist boob slips on the icy steps of the Stanley home, fracturing his hip. But it is the host family doing most of the suffering when they are stuck with Whiteside as a most unpleasant house guest during his convalescence.

Whiteside’s personality is skillfully illustrated from the very start with a few colorful stokes. At the station, an awestruck Mrs. Stanley asks him two questions: How was his trip and will he indeed be having dinner with her family? His reply to the first query? “Charming. I killed a woman in the next compartment. She asked me to lunch!” This after he pretends to be a Frenchmen in order to avoid speaking to them. His secretary, Maggie (Bette Davis) sums things up to him succinctly: “You have one advantage over everybody else in the world. You never had to meet Mr. Sheridan Whiteside!” But there is a hint of thawing to come in his handsome tipping of a black porter.

Whiteside’s inflated view of himself is seconded by many of his hangers-on in the show business, newspaper, literary and political worlds. Even Winston Churchill calls to wish him well, causing Mrs. Stanley to gush “Winston Churchill – on our telephone!” But even his most committed fans joke about his influence. A line in a newspaper article about his accident reads “Christmas may be postponed this year!”

Once hunkered down in his new digs, Whiteside refers to the Stanley home as a “moldy mortuary” and the elegant library he will be working in as a “drafty sewer.” The joke here is that this home is actually a lush mansion, as Mr. Stanley runs a successful munitions factory. Whiteside cordons off parts of the house for his own use and demands that the family members come and go by the back entrance. All of this serves the purpose of making his gradual warming more tantalizing, and for this reason THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER is set during a particularly nasty and frigid mid-western winter. When Whiteside is drawn into the lives of aspiring photographer Richard and love-sick June and her beau Sandy (Charles Drake) the setting is the plush living room next to an inviting fireplace and its cozy, comfortable fire. This imagery is offset by the depiction of a world seemingly cloaked in ice. Whiteside’s close friend – visiting actress Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan) – even covers herself with “ice” (read that jewelry) and sports a snowflake broach. She is in town – at the behest of Whiteside – to foil Maggie’s intention of marrying hunky newspaperman and playwright Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis). It seems Maggie has plans to abandon her old boss and dedicate herself to her new husband, if she can snag him. Lorraine’s mission is to preoccupy Bert with plans to produce his new play and keep his mind off of Maggie.

For all its humor, the film contains a remarkably dark view of marriage: When Bert takes Maggie to the Railway Express Agency to pick up a yuletide gift he has purchased for her, there is an unusual conversation with the man at the mail center. He is gifting his wife with a pipe this Holiday season. Says Bert: “That’s not very sensible.” The man replies, “It’s as sensible as the vacuum cleaner she’s giving me!” There is more of this cynicism, as it happens that Bert’s gift is a charm bracelet made up of previously sold trinkets and engraved with the sentiments of long forgotten lovers from the past. These begin well enough with “a fair lady” but end on what Maggie and Bert agree is a pretty grim note: “iron bars a cage.” Eventually this dark view extends to all family life, including a macabre aside involving Ernest’s crazy sister Harriet (Ruth Vivian) who, it turns out, murdered her parents with an ax a quarter of a century earlier.

There are many in jokes on hand for pop culture enthusiasts of that long ago era, as well as those of today who may have a historical bent. First, the character of Sheridan Whiteside is patterned after Alexander Woollcott, a well-known crusty malcontent columnist and critic. Whiteside’s friends, Beverly Carlton (Reginald Gardiner) and “Banjo” (Jimmy Durante) represent Noel Coward and Harpo Marx respectively. These little touches add a delicious layer to THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER. As one who has not seen the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, it is difficult to know where Kaufman/Hart leave off and the Epstein brothers begin. One thing is clear: These were four talented guys involved in a studio system that has often been maligned, but at its best produced some of the most entertaining movies ever made.

CREDITS: Produced by Jack Saper and Jerry Wald. Directed by William Keighley. Written by Philip G. and Julius J. Epstein. Based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Photography by Tony Gaudio. Music by Frederick Hollander. Edited by Jack Killifer. Art direction by Robert Haas. WITH: Monty Woolley, Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, Grant Mitchell, Billie Burke, Richard Travis, Elizabeth Fraser, Russell Arms, Reginald Gardiner, Jimmy Durante, Ruth Vivian, Mary Wickes, Edwin Stanley, Betty Roadman, Charles Drake, George Barbier, Nanette Vallon and John Ridgely.

September 11, 2013 Posted by | 1940s cinema, American Films of the 1940s, film comedy, film directors, films based on plays, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment