The Man Who Came to Dinner, 1942, Warner Bros. Starring Bette Davis, Monty Woolley, Ann Sheridan. Directed by William Keighley. B&W, 112 minutes.
The story of a boorish house guest who wouldn’t—or couldn’t—leave, The Man Who Came to Dinner is a farcical tale about an impossible man and his ever-patient assistant, who finally, along with everyone else, reaches the end of her rope.
Famous, or infamous, radio personality Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) has stopped in Ohio while on his cross-country tour, where he pays a visit to local notables, the Stanleys (Grant Mitchell, Billie Burke). He slips on ice on the steps to their home and insists on staying with them while recuperating from his injuries.
Along with Sheridan is his calm and tolerant assistant, Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis). While he’s busy interfering in the lives of the Stanleys and their two nearly-adult children, Maggie is falling in love with the local newspaper editor, Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis). Bert is more than a newspaperman, he’s an aspiring playwright, and Maggie quickly sees he’s talented.
Sheridan is disturbed by Maggie’s affection for Bert, and does everything he can to destroy that relationship, including employing his friend, actress Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan). He’s also finding an endless stream of ways to alienate the Stanleys, long overstaying his welcome.
Lorraine, it turns out, has few scruples, and is more than willing to be a pawn in Sheridan’s plans to break up Maggie’s romance. Through a series of hijinks involving a host of colorful characters, the division between Sheridan and Maggie grows, until Maggie reaches her final straw.
There are multiple sub-plots throughout the film, almost too many to keep track of, involving a gullible doctor, a possible elopement, a faked engagement and an elderly sister with a dark past.
This was a different role for Bette Davis, who, at the height of her early career, deliberately chose this co-starring part as a departure from characters she’d been playing in recent films. She’d anticipated working with John Barrymore, who was unable to play Whiteside because of his deteriorating health. Ultimately, it was decided Monty Woolley would reprise his Broadway role, despite being relatively unknown to movie audiences.
Studio head Jack Warner had originally reached a tentative agreement with Orson Welles to have him star and possibly direct the movie, an agreement that fell through when Hal B. Wallis took the reigns as executive producer. While Warner and Welles agreed on casting Ann Sheridan in the role of Lorraine, they had anticipated offering the part of Maggie to Barbara Stanwyck, Carole Lombard or Paulette Goddard.
The screenplay by Julius and Philip Epstein was closely based on the play of the same name, written by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. The character of Sheridan Whiteside was modeled after their good friend, theater critic and radio host Alexander Woollcott, who spent one night at Hart’s residence and behaved in the same caustic manner they used in shaping the character of Whiteside.
The Man Who Came to Dinner is a fun film about human foibles, large and small, and the worst kind of house guest imaginable: the one who never plans to leave.