The Man Who Came to Dinner
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Wit ruled in the New York of the '20s and '30s. And nowhere was it more evident than among the writers and artists who regularly met for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel, a group popularly known as The Algonquin Round Table. Playwrights Robert E. Sherwood and James MacArthur, comic Harpo Marx, novelist Edna Ferber and poet Dorothy Parker kept gossip columns humming with their caustic comments. And no one dipped his pen in more venom than gossip columnist and radio star Alexander Woollcott.
Woollcott was a study in contradictions. His wit punctured pretensions while he helped put James Hilton's sentimental novels Lost Horizon and Goodbye, Mr. Chips on the best-seller lists. And he raised more than a few eyebrows with his habit of hosting dinner parties in full drag. His negative side inspired the acerbic critic played by Clifton Webb in the 1944 film noir, Laura. By contrast, comic playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart painted a more affectionate portrait of Woollcot (minus the cross-dressing) in the character of Sheridan Whiteside, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941). And as a bonus, they threw in sketches of Harpo Marx, stage diva Gertrude Lawrence and all-around wit Noel Coward. The result was one of the theatre's most wickedly funny plays - and one of Hollywood's most uproarious films.
It was Bette Davis who pushed Warner Bros. to pick up the film rights - not that they needed much pushing; the play was a huge hit. She had long wanted a chance to work with the legendary John Barrymore and saw this as the perfect vehicle even though it would give him the flashier role. But when the studio tested Barrymore, his memory had been so affected by a lifetime of hard drinking, that studio head Jack Warner decided not to take the chance. They considered major stars like Orson Welles, Cary Grant and Fredric March for the role, but with Davis supplying box-office insurance as Whiteside's secretary, they decided to go with the play's Broadway star, Monty Woolley. The former Yale professor, who had become an actor at the urging of friend Cole Porter, had played some minor roles in Hollywood in the '30s, but would finally become a film star in The Man Who Came to Dinner at the age of 54.
Davis, of course, was heartbroken that Barrymore hadn't gotten the role, and during the first days of shooting, she and Woolley did not get along. Surprisingly, she had no problems with co-star Ann Sheridan, even though Sheridan had the flashier role as stage star Lorraine Sheldon. Sheridan was never one for temperament and won Davis over by agreeing with her on everything and by asking her advice. And Sheridan didn't have much time to make trouble. When she wasn't shooting scenes as the sophisticated stage star in The Man Who Came to Dinner, she was on another set playing a simple, small-town girl in Kings Row (1942). The versatility she displayed in these two roles won Sheridan the best reviews of her career.
Director: William Keighley
Producer: San Harris, Jack Saper, Jerry Wald, Hal B. Wallis (executive), Jack L. Warner
Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Moss Hart & George S. Kaufman
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Editor: Jack Killifer
Art Direction: Robert M. Haas
Music: Frederick Hollander
Cast: Bette Davis (Maggie Cutler), Ann Sheridan (Lorraine Sheldon), Monty Woolley (Sheridan Whiteside), Richard Travis (Bert Jefferson), Jimmy Durante (Banjo).
BW-113m. Close captioning. Descriptive video.
By Frank Miller