Published by Douglas Messerli, the World Cinema Review features full-length reviews on film from the beginning of the industry to the present day, but the primary focus is on films of intelligence and cinematic quality, with an eye to exposing its readers to the best works in international film history.
Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein (screenplay, based on the play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman), William Keighley (director) The Man Who Came to Dinner / 1942
Every year at Christmas time at our home we watch The Man Who Came to Dinner, the wonderful comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Even though this film takes place at Christmas, however, the movie has very little to do with the holiday, and is almost as far removed from the happiness of the season as it could be.
In fact, this time viewing the film I was struck at just how removed this comedy is from any joy. Although it often howlingly funny, underneath, it is more of dark comedy akin to Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel than it is to the family farce of this play righting pair, You Can't Take It with You! The movie is so popular that I need not, I hope, repeat the plot. Although the film is filled with numerous plot complications, it actually has only one major event, repeated at the film's end: Sheridan Whiteside (inspired by Alexander Woolcott) comes to Medalia, Ohio, presumably to give a lecture, but falls on the ice-filled stoop of the Stanley family's home, whereupon a local doctor declares that he must be wheel-chair bound until he heals some days later.
Although extremely popular in the media, having a weekly radio show, Whiteside (wonderfully played by Monte Woolley in large, campy gestures) is a tyrant who puts his own welfare over concerns for anyone else; so monstrous is his surface behavior that it is almost impossible to imagine how a sweet woman like Maggie Cutler (played against type by Bette Davis) can stand to be in his employ. As she, herself, comments: "You know, Sheridan, you have one great advantage over everyone else in the world. You've never had to meet Sheridan Whiteside." The poor Stanley family, Ernest, Daisy and their two children (the parents acted by Billie Burke and Grant Mitchell) are horrified by the situation, as Whiteside threatens to sue them, and insists upon taking over their library, living room, and front entrance, while they are assigned a back stairs and confined to their own bedrooms.
In short, the Stanley family is locked away in their own house, just as Whiteside is locked up in a small hick town which he has not even wanted to visit ('I simply will not sit down to dinner with midwestern barbarians. I think too highly of my digestive system.") The house, in fact, has become a kind of penitentiary, reiterated by the behavior of the completely flustered Nurse Preen (Mary Wickes) and the Stanley children, who, each for their own reasons desire to leave home, the daughter being in love with a union agitator whom her businessman father detests, and the would-be photographer son desiring new scenes and subjects for his art.
The theme of imprisonment is played out again and again in this work. Whiteside, it is suggested, is fascinated by criminal activity, and invites several inmates from a nearby penitentiary for lunch—much to the horror, of course, of the locked-away Stanleys. Throughout the movie, Whiteside is sent presents—penguins, an octopus, and a mummy case—the first two contained in crates while the latter is itself a kind of coffin.
Meanwhile, Maggie becomes involved with the local editor of the town newspaper, the affable Bertram H. Jefferson (Richard Travis), and for the first time after years of exciting travel, suddenly seeks to settle down into this small town and marry, another kind of imprisonment—at least to Whiteside's way of thinking. Jefferson has also written "the great American play," which helps Whiteside lure Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan) from vacationing in Florida to Ohio, hoping she will bollix up Maggie's plans. By the end of the film, having caused a series of disastrous situations, he must also lock away Lorraine and ship her off in a plane.
Finally, the Stanley home has itself another kind of prisoner, Harriet, an aunt who, as a young woman, killed—like Lizzie Borden—her mother and father. She is also imprisoned in the family secrecy of her past.
When the penguins escape their crate, they are quickly rounded up and impounded once more by the doctor and nurse. When the children both bolt the home, Ernest Stanley quickly tracks them and returns them home. Suddenly one can comprehend, perhaps, Harriet's childhood actions, and may help explain her strange behavior.
Only two people, it appears, can come and go at will, but both these, like Sheridan Whiteside, are so self-centered that they cannot escape themselves. Carlton Beverly (based on Noël Coward, performed by Reginald Gardiner) drops by to see Whiteside, but talks of hardly anyone but himself:
I have very little time, and so the conversation will entirely
be about me and I shall love it.
Banjo (inspired by Harpo Marx, wonderfully played by Jimmy Durante) can barely sit still for more than a moment, "Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go, and still have the feeling that you wanted to stay," imitating the "I must be going" phrase of Groucho in Animal Crackers. Both visitors conspire to help Maggie to escape Whiteside's grasp so that she might enter matrimonial bonds.
Even the two servants, cook and butler, hoping to escape the Stanley household by taking up service in Whiteside's home, remain locked away, as Whiteside, finally leaving the Stanley mansion, once again falls on the ice. Like the figures in The Exterminating Angel, no one in this work can leave his self-imposed entrapment.
With such a marvelous cast, however, who cares? Even though director William Keighley has done little to transfer this stage-bound work into film, we might wish to watch these poor trapped beings play out their destinies again and again.
Los Angeles, December 18, 2011 Reprinted from American Cultural Treastures (December 2011).