Sometimes, the personal angle offers the clearest view. Now and then, the authorial “we” must be abandoned in favour of a more open-handed, first-person approach. Therefore, I’ll begin by saying that somewhere among my dwindling stock of ancient VHS tapes, I know I have a battered old Scotch E180 whose badly scrawled label bears the words The Man Who Came to Dinner. Looking back, I recall that I moved house in 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2001; and each time I made sure that tape moved with me. Thus it became one of a handful of video cassettes that, even though they now represent redundant if long-cherished relics of an outmoded technology, I cannot relinquish to the garbage collectors. Maybe it’s age, or nostalgia, but unlike DVDs, which are interchangeable and therefore have no inherent worth over and above the cold fact of their content, some of those old videos – chunky black plastic bricks housing crinkled spools of brown tape – acquired an emotional capital that belied their humble status as unsexy everyday household objects. And The Man Who Came to Dinner was particularly special to me for a number of reasons, not least that it was chanced upon in the TV schedules and recorded on a whim, rather than being a canonical work that I was always going to get round to sooner or later. So my purpose here is to explain why this odd little film has become my favourite Christmas movie, and in fact one of my all-time favourites, full stop.
First of all, this is a genuinely Christmassy film. I’ve never had much patience or sympathy with the legions of schoolboy cynics who profess to hate Christmas. I mean, I’m as cynical as the next guy, and I’ve certainly had some bad times around the Christmas period (walking out of a Belfast bar into drizzling rain, having just been dumped by a girlfriend, and stepping disconsolately into a shin-deep, filthy puddle springs to mind). If you’re recently bereaved, or jobless, or otherwise out of the loop of seasonal goodwill and festive cheer, then I can’t blame you for failing to succumb to the Christmas spirit. But if you’re simply too much of a contrarian to allow yourself to have a good time just because it’s the anointed season, then good riddance to you. Anyway, everybody’s favourite festive film seems to be It’s a Wonderful Life, but even setting aside the atavistic right-wing politics of Frank Capra, which lurk like cracks in the ice just below that film’s sugar-frosted surface, it really isn’t that Christmassy a film at all. Whereas The Man Who Came to Dinner does, somehow, feel imbued with a genuinely seasonal flavour, not least because the plot actually pivots around Christmas Day itself.
This is a film with a rich and interesting cultural history – and afterlife. “Haven’t you a bit of culture in you?” asks Mrs Stanley (Billie Burke, famous and beloved as the Glinda the Good Witch of the North from The Wizard of Oz) of her philistine industrialist husband Ernest (Grant Mitchell, best known perhaps as Reverend Harper in Arsenic and Old Lace), in the film’s opening scene. Mr Stanley is unimpressed: “He may be the first man of American Letters, but don’t forget, I rate pretty high in ball bearings.” The great man they’re discussing is none other than Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley), a curmudgeonly public intellectual who has reluctantly deigned to visit the cultural backwater of Mesalia, Ohio. The film is based on a successful play by Algonquin round table alumni George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, itself inspired by a visit their friend Alexander Woollcott had made to Hart’s house, during which Woollcott – a famous critic, lecturer, public intellectual, and renowned wit – had behaved like the ultimate prima donna, dispensing insults and outrageous demands in equal measure.
It’s worth pausing to marvel, in passing, that this was an era in which a person could be famous for being a man of letters – an intellectual – rather than for being an airheaded vulgarian with an inexplicable compulsion to exhibit her improbably gigantic posterior, in hopes of “breaking” the internet. In any case, unlike poor Mr Stanley, we don’t have all this culture forced down our throats, but it’s the flywheel that drives the rest of the film’s apparatus. Hart’s Woollcott anecdote, expanded and embellished a little, essentially became the plot of the play, and thus the film: Sheridan Whiteside, turning to issue a caustic retort to one of Mrs Stanley’s innocently simpering remarks, slips on the icy steps of the Stanleys’ house, his consequent injuries leaving him stranded with the Stanleys over Christmas, and they with him. Whiteside is irascible, cantankerous, and possessed of a merciless, biting wit. He commandeers the Stanleys’ home, threatens to sue them, and generally turns their lives upside down. Meanwhile they, for their part, get ringside seats for the highfalutin shenanigans that comprise the day-to-day life of this distinguished if frequently unpleasant character.
The real-life parallels don’t end with Woollcott, and full details can easily be found on web resources such as Wikipedia or the TCM website, so there’s no need to dutifully churn through all of them here. Suffice it to say that in addition to Whiteside, there are a cluster of characters in the film based on real-life celebrities, some – such as “Banjo” (Harpo Marx, get it?), played by the great Jimmy Durante – more thinly veiled than others. Furthermore, pop culture mavens will know that this film is a favourite with the acerbic English pop star Morrissey, who went so far as to adopt “Sheridan Whiteside” as a pseudonym, and even stole a number of lines from the film to weave into his lyrics, including, ironically, a song in which the narrator upbraids the song’s subject for plagiarising the words of others (“Cemetery Gates”).
So there’s this teetering stack of cultural clutter, from Woollcott to Kaufman and Hart, to the Epstein Twins (Julius and Philip, later to work on Casablanca), who wrote the film’s screenplay, plus the post-modernist twist given to the proceedings by Morrissey’s filtering of the film’s sensibility through the jangly indie rock lens of The Smiths. Then there’s all the Hollywood lore: despite having played the role to great acclaim on Broadway, Monty Woolley was considered insufficiently well known to lead the film version. John Barrymore was considered for the Whiteside role, and his friend Bette Davis lobbied hard for him, but his prodigious drinking was getting the better of him by then – necessitating the strategic placement around film sets set of boards with his lines printed on them – and he couldn’t handle the sophisticated, rapid-fire dialogue. Charles Laughton was given two tries at reading for the lead, but his performance was assessed as being too obviously homosexual, a worry the producers also had about Monty Woolley. At one stage, Orson Welles declared himself the only man who could play Whiteside, but he also wanted to direct, demanding an overall fee of a quarter of a million dollars for providing both services – a “hefty sum in those days,” as producer Hal Wallis wryly noted in his memoirs. And so it went on, until finally they came back round to Woolley and gave him the role. True to form, Woollcott himself cavilled at the paltry $12,375 Warner Brothers offered him for the fact that the story was based on him and his egregious behaviour, but eventually he capitulated.
All very interesting, no doubt, but not much use to us if the film isn’t any good. Fortunately, it’s wonderful, with Monty Woolley’s turbo-charged performance generating a swirling vortex of elaborate high jinks and bitchy machinations. The dialogue is sublime, with zingers flying thicker and faster than any film this side of His Girl Friday; you can watch it several times and still not catch every passing witticism, gratuitous cultural reference, or scathing aspersion. Woolley spits out his words like particularly distasteful bullets, puncturing the hides of anyone who comes too near. Bette Davis, playing the role of Whiteside’s long-suffering secretary Maggie Cutler, enjoys herself enormously in a rare comedy role. Davis was happy to take second billing in order to get the film made, such a fan of the play had she been. And in fact the rare second-string role allows her to loosen up and have more fun, perhaps, than in some of her more tortured, dramatic parts. It gives us a chance to enjoy her dialling down the acting and letting herself (and others) breathe a little. Here she’s light and playful, even a little delicate at times, as her character falls for local Mesalia newspaperman Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis). Initially treating Monty Woolley to the infamous Davis permafrost, because she saw him as having usurped her beloved John Barrymore, she gradually thawed and eventually acknowledged Woolley as a perfect fit for the role. Davis comedies are few and far between, and it’s an exquisite joy to watch her get her teeth into a comedic role, one that’s fizzy and sweet but not without a bitter edge – like a good cocktail. Although she’s capable of the requisite cynicism and hard-bitten hauteur when dealing with Whiteside or his ilk, as Maggie Cutler, Davis nonetheless allows herself to play the ingénue, with Maggie managing to tumble head over heels in love with Bert Jefferson, falling like a schoolgirl for his small-town charm, eating foil-wrapped hot sweet potatoes (“best in the West”) on the town’s iced-over lake, and cooing over the corny bracelet Bert gives her for Christmas. It all brings out the more tender aspect of Davis, a side not glimpsed that often. Particularly when considered in the wider context of her overall career, it’s a touchingly vulnerable performance, and it reminds us (if we need reminding) of her incredible range.
Bert Jefferson isn’t just a newspaper man, he’s also written a play, which Maggie is surprised to discover isn’t an embarrassment; instead, she considers it truly great, and her plan to get Whiteside to suggest it to (famous actress of the day) Katharine Cornell backfires spectacularly. Whiteside is far too selfish to let Maggie go: he doesn’t want her to marry Bert Jefferson and settle down in Mesalia, Ohio; he wants her to keep on working for him, satisfying his whims and soothing his ego. Instead of contacting Cornell, he places a call to Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan), a gold-digging actress friend whom he persuades to break off her seasonal harvesting of emotionally susceptible plutocrats down in Florida, and come to Mesalia in order to snare both role and playwright. Thus Maggie’s well-intentioned manoeuvrings conjure up the super-sexy uber-bitch Lorraine Sheldon, who floats into Bert’s orbit like some diamond-encrusted dark star.
The interplay between Davis, Travis, Woolley, and Sheridan is a wonder to behold, and credit must go to Travis, who is heavily outgunned on all sides but keeps his end up admirably. (The studio was planning to build Richard Travis up into a star, a sort of cross between Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper; it didn’t work, even if the film’s trailer billed him as “the New Year’s New Find!”) Having decided that she was okay playing second fiddle to Monty Woolley, Davis was able to relax and enjoy the ride. What she may not have bargained for was being upstaged by Ann Sheridan, which she repeatedly is. It would be wrong to say that Sheridan is the true star of the film – she isn’t, Monty Woolley most definitely is – but it’s fair to say that she’s worth the price of admission. She illuminates the film’s third act like a human klieg light.
If you’re unfamiliar with Sheridan, maybe the best shorthand way of describing her would be to say she resembles a slightly less beautiful Rita Hayworth. (If that sounds like a slight, bear in mind that the category labelled “Less beautiful than Rita Hayworth” encompasses all women in human history bar one.) Anyway, Sheridan also has a wonderfully earthy sexuality, combined with a palpable sense of being a genuinely nice person. She may be a beautiful, glamorous movie star, but she also comes across like someone you’d love to be friends with in real life. In short, she’s fun. Warner Brothers promoted her, famously, as “the Oomph Girl,” a sobriquet she detested (she once said that “Ooomph” was the sound a fat man made when bending over to retrieve a coin in a phone booth). She’s one of those Golden Age actresses whose name it’s always good to see cropping up in the opening credits; she invariably brightens proceedings considerably, and many a film could have easily been much improved if only they’d expanded Sheridan’s role. The urbane English critic Anthony Lane, in a New Yorker profile of Julia Roberts some years ago, had this to say: “If Roberts summons the ghost of anyone, it is an actress like Ann Sheridan: funny, busy, noisy, all-American, no-shit – hoping that her sensibility, however hyper, will lose out to her good sense.” That seems spot-on: Sheridan always seemed to value having fun – and being funny – over glamour and erotic appeal. In that respect, perhaps her closest contemporary was Carole Lombard, another beautiful, no-shit-takin’ comedienne.
Here let me intrude again to say that one of the main reasons I took to this film was that I fell for Ann Sheridan straight away. This was the first film I’d seen her in, so I had no real way of knowing for sure that the bitchy, high-maintenance Lorraine Sheldon (based loosely on Gertrude Lawrence) couldn’t be further removed from the actress portraying her. Even so, her real qualities shone through, chiefly her profound sense of fun and her incredible likeability. Something else Anthony Lane said of Roberts could equally be applied to Sheridan: “The essence of her appeal is that she is more lovable than desirable, and, even when love is off the menu, she cannot not be liked.”
Here, she’s playing a haughty, Chanel-scented sexual predator, festooned in jewels, furs, feathers, and muffs. And she gives the role her all: she’s sharp, arch, carnal, and predatory. She tells Bert Jefferson that they can work on revisions to his play up in her winter cabin together: “Bert is the type of man who’ll do all winter sports beautifully,” she gloats, her manicured fingers idly twirling a cigarette, the shine in her eyes like that of a hungry lion sizing up an injured antelope. “Countess de Cyanide,” Maggie calls her. “Little Miss Vitriol” is Lorraine’s tag for Maggie. It’s a great role, and it isn’t hard to see what might have appealed to someone with Morrissey’s taste for camp malevolence. But Sheridan generally featured in much more warm-hearted roles, often co-starring – and sparring – with the likes of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Pat O’Brien, giving as good as, and sometimes better than, she got.
“We had faces then,” Gloria Swanson tells William Holden, in Sunset Boulevard; sure, but what they also had was personalities. Beautiful faces weren’t scarce in Hollywood, and they still aren’t; what’s missing today are those singular personalities. What was really unique about Sheridan was the wink in her eye, the knowing smile that made the viewer feel she was letting them in on some private joke. Nearer to the real Sheridan, and certainly closer to her heart, was the tomboyish role of Randy Monaghan in Kings Row, in which Sheridan was co-starring at the same time she was making The Man Who Came to Dinner. She would switch between roles on alternate days, and sometimes even move from set to set on the same day. “My only love was Randy Monaghan,” Sheridan said later, “I didn’t care about playing Lorraine Sheldon.” Sheridan was great friends with Bogart, and he’d encouraged her to push for the plum role of Monaghan, which Sheridan came to think of as the best part of her career. Certainly it was rare in being properly worthy of her, and gave her a chance to demonstrate her range. She didn’t want to be seen as a pin-up girl, she wanted to be an actress. And she was.
You’ll search in vain the biographies of old Hollywood for any bad words being said about Ann Sheridan. Even the great Bette Davis, no slouch at personality clashes, didn’t grate on Ann. Possibly the best summation was given by director Vincent Sherman (for whom Ann played two leading roles):
She became one of the most skilled comediennes in Hollywood. She knew how to toss away a line, underplay it with a wry quality, and get the full measure of the laugh therein. She could also play a dramatic role with the best of them. But because she came up from the ranks, her skill was underrated. And what a joy to work with. She was genuine, no affectations and no bullshit; she loved to laugh and have fun and could, when provoked, curse like a sailor on a stormy night . . . I came to think of her not as a sexy female but as a good friend or a sister.
When you watch her films today, that sisterly feeling is what comes across most of all.
The Man Who Came to Dinner is one of those very rare films that can stand up to endless repeat viewings, one you can always rely on any time you feel the need for comfort viewing; watching it is like sinking into a warm bath with a pitcher of martinis. The incidence of cherishable moments accelerates in the run-up to the plot’s climax, which hinges around, of all things, an axe murderer. A few favourite moments to watch for: Whiteside’s Elmer Fudd impression; Jimmy Durante’s frenzied singing and nurse molesting (“I can feel the hot blood pumping through your varicose veins!”); the way Reginald Gardiner as the Noel Coward-esqe Beverly Carlton slices the word “Maharaja” into multiple syllables as he boasts of “making love to a Ma-ha-ra-ja’s daughter . . .”; Ann Sheridan swinging her shoulders (not to mention her hips) whilst striding across the room denying that she ever reads her press clippings; Bette Davis’s unsparing denunciation of Whiteside: “I think you’re a selfish, petty egomaniac, who would just as soon see his mother burning at a stake if, well, if that was the only way he had of lighting a cigarette”; Grant Mitchell’s apoplectic recital of the $784 itemised telephone bill: “Oklahoma City, Rome, Calcutta, Hollywood, Buenos Ares, New York, New York, New York, New York, New York!”; the double-take Sheridan pulls when Jimmy Durante pretends to slap her ass; the eternally flustered Billie Burke’s star-struck phone conversation with Eleanor Roosevelt; Sheridan’s gleeful recital of the latest Palm Beach gossip: “Sybil Cartwright was ordered right off the beach . . . she had on one of those new cellophane bathing suits, and you could practically see the waves breaking.” And that’s before we even get to the penguins, the octopus, the chain gang convicts, Chinese academics, or the Egyptian mummy. Let’s see, what else? Did I mention Ann Sheridan?
I’m sufficiently familiar with this film now that I can occasionally put it on just to skip through a few favourite scenes. I know every line by heart, but they still never fail to make me smile. I watch the whole film end to end at least once a year; for me no Christmas is complete without Davis, Sheridan, Woolley, Burke, Travis, Durante, et al. So I suggest you give The Man Who Came to Dinner a go. You might like it. In the bleak mid-winter, maybe it’ll provide the cheer you need. It might become, as it has for me, part of your annual Christmas ritual. You could even end up sharing my agreement with the sentiment expressed by Bette Davis, as the snow begins to fall and the cocktails start to kick in: “I never felt so much like Christmas in all my life. Don’t you?”