Film & TV

Rewind, Review, and Re-Rate: ‘The Man Who Came to Dinner’: Oddball Characters Meet Acerbic Wit

TIMEJanuary 14, 2022

Approved | 1h 52min | Comedy, Romance

Usually when I’ve watched romantic comedies, I’ve never gotten into them (at least the American ones). They seem either too schmaltzy or simply not funny. The few that are enjoyable have been older classics, such as 1941’s “The Philadelphia Story” and 1945’s “Christmas in Connecticut.” Not only are these films well-crafted, but they also have a certain innocent charm and are bereft of any gratuitous indecencies.

But one romantic comedy from that bygone era slipped under my cinematic radar—until now. “The Man Who Came to Dinner” (1942) was originally written for the stage by award-winning playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Directed by William Keighley, the film is a hilarious tale of what can happen when one entrenched world collides with another.

When the film begins, highfalutin radio personality and lecturer Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) is dragging his secretary Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis) along on a speaking tour leading up to Christmas. One of their stops is in a small Midwestern town in Ohio. Although Sheridan considers Midwesterners beneath him (he considers them barbarians), the speaking engagement is part of a publicity push that will garner more radio listeners.

old man and women riding train
Snobby Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) and his secretary Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis) ride a train into town, in “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” (Warner Bros.)

During their short stay, Sheridan and Maggie are scheduled to dine with Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Stanley (Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke), a prominent family from the town. From the moment Sheridan meets his hosts at the train station, his acerbic tongue casts forth barrages of snobby remarks and thinly veiled insults. But the Stanley family’s Midwestern values, primarily those of Mrs. Stanley, downplay Sheridan’s elitism as crude attempts at humor, and the couple try to remain congenial.

When the hosts and their guests arrive at the Stanley family’s home, Sheridan slips on the icy stairs leading up to the front door and injures himself. Furious, he blames his fall on the Stanleys and threatens to sue them for $150,000.

However, instead of going to the local hospital, Sheridan insists that a doctor visit him, and he sets up shop in the Stanley home. The injured radio personality immediately begins to make demands on the family and takes over the house, holding his threatened lawsuit over their heads unless they do what he bids them.

Soon, Sheridan is maneuvering himself around in a wheelchair, adorned in gaudy robes—either ordering people around or being an obnoxious thorn in the side of his hosts.

woman and man in wheelchair
Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis) knows that Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) is milking his injury for all it’s worth, in “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” (Warner Bros.)

From there, a number of subplots develop, including a burgeoning romance between Maggie and local newspaperman and playwright Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis). As everything unfolds, visitors arrive to engage with the core group of characters. These interruptions typically consist of someone suddenly showing up at the Stanley home (mainly the living room, where most of the action takes place), delivering some taut bits of comedy, and exiting just as rapidly. The wit in this film is delivered in sudden bursts, so you have to be quick on your comedic toes in order to catch everything.

man talking to woman at typewriter
Romance is in the air between Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis) and Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis), in “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” (Warner Bros.)

Kaufman and Hart’s original stage play could have been mishandled here, as it can sometimes be tricky to adapt such fast-moving theater dialogue (along with some great physical comedy) to the silver screen. But fortunately, Keighley was not only a film director but also a Broadway director with years of experience as a stage actor as well.

Additionally, the skilled cast has fantastic comedic timing with the dialogue that is delivered in bursts. Those viewers who favor slower-paced speech rhythms may not enjoy this movie as much.

The incomparable Bette Davis stars in a secondary role here, which was unusual for A-list actors in Hollywood’s Golden Age—especially since she was at the height of her powers at the time. Nonetheless, she handles her role with more than ample aplomb.

Jimmy Durante
Jimmy Durante (C) stars as one of the surprise guests visiting the Stanleys’ home. (Warner Bros.)

Monty Woolley, whom I’ve seen only in a couple of similar roles, such as the snooty upper-crust ex-officer Col. William G. Smollett in “Since You Went Away,” fully disappears into his role as a brainy big-city elitist. And it’s no wonder, since he also starred in the original stage play of “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” which ran from 1939 through 1941.

Simply put, those who appreciate quick-witted humor and an interestingly satirical clash of two different worlds—the sophisticated and the down home—should definitely check out this classic.

‘The Man Who Came to Dinner’
Director: William Keighley
Starring: Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, Monty Woolley
Running Time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Not Rated
Release Date: Jan. 1, 1942
Rated: 4.5 stars out of 5

Ian Kane
Ian Kane is an U.S. Army veteran, author, filmmaker, and actor. He is dedicated to the development and production of innovative, thought-provoking, character-driven films and books of the highest quality. You can check out his health blog at IanKaneHealthNut.com