“Is there a man in the world who suffers as I do from the gross inadequacies of the human race?”
For millions of people world wide Christmas is the happiest time of the year, but for some families the highly celebrated annual tradition can suddenly turn into a disastrous affair.
The famed movie family named the Stanley’s endured nothing but turbulence one snowy Christmas in Ohio when their home became a place of recovery for the acidic tongued radio personality, Sheridan Whiteside who dominated the household and controlled the first floor of the luxurious dwelling.
This bizarre situation is extremely rare in real life, but in the 1942 film, The Man Who Came To Dinner, the family were struck with the troubles and frustrations that Moss Hart experienced when the renowned writer and broadcaster, Alexander Woollcott spent a catastrophic weekend at his house. Moss Hart would later describe the incident as sheer hell. However, the chapter of events did spark inspiration for a future project, and that is when Sheriden Whiteside was born.
The story of Sheridan Whiteside was first brought to life in 1939 when a play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman opened to critical acclaim at the Music Box Theatre in New York. After a successful 739 performances the show moved to London and was a hit with English audiences. In 1942, Sheridan Whiteside and his entourage were introduced to the movie going public when Julius and Philip G. Epstein adapted the wildly celebrated play into a motion picture starring Bette Davis and Monty Woolly.
During one of those performances in New York, Bette Davis entered the doors of the Music Box Theatre and was about to witness what she thought would be a perfect vehicle for her and acting veteran, John Barrymore. Davis had been desperately wanting to work with Barrymore for years, and finally her dream was close to coming true. She persuaded Jack Warner to purchase the screen rights for her and John Barrymore, but suddenly that dream of working with Barrymore was soon extinguished when Jack Warner tested Barrymore for the role of Sheridan Whiteside, and the screen test proved to be disastrous due to Barrymore’s excessive drinking, which made it difficult for him to deliver the witty, razor-sharp and fast-paced dialogue.
For Bette Davis, The Man Who Came To Dinner was not the dream project she had envisioned it to be. She had still clung to the hope of someday working with John Barrymore, but when all those aspirations were shattered, she was faced with continual disappointment and regret. Her emotions exacerbated in May 1942 when Barrymore passed away, leaving a distraught Davis realizing that her wish would never come true.
The filming of The Man Who Came To Dinner was not something that Bette Davis fondly remembered. The casting of Monty Woolly in the role of Sheridan Whiteside fueled a myriad of problems for Davis who was not impressed by Woolly reprising the role on screen. In later years, Bette stated, “I felt the film was not directed in a very imaginative way. For me, it was not a happy film to make; that it was a success, of course, did make me happy. I guess I never got over my disappointment in not working with the great John Barrymore.”
To further complicate matters, Bette Davis had to take several weeks off filming to recover at her home in New Hampshire after being bitten hard on the nose by her dog, which caused a noticeable wound. Anxious to resume work, Davis returned to the set before her nose was fully healed. This caused a few difficulties, but any obstacles were quickly vanquished when they decided to shoot with Bette’s back to the camera. Hal B. Wallis later stated, “We shot for two days with Bette’s back to the camera,” said Wallis. “This was fine, except that every time the other actors saw her, they broke into fits of giggling led by Monty Woolley. It became impossible for them to speak their lines.”
While Bette Davis endured constant hardships on set, Ann Sheridan was also under strain. At the time of production, Sheridan was hard at work on Kings Row ( 1942 ) and was forced to rotate back and fourth between films. Her hectic schedule fueled enormous amounts of pressure, which resulted in her often feeling fatigued.
“You know, Sheridan, you have one great advantage over everyone else in the world. You’ve never had to meet Sheridan Whiteside.”
Despite Bette’s frustration over John Barrymore not receiving the part of Sheridan Whiteside, Davis would have much preferred it if one of the original choices were chosen for the role. Initially, a long lineage of stars heavily campaigned for the role. Among those actors were Charles Laughton and Orson Welles, who also wanted to direct the film. When both Laughton and Welles were deemed unsuitable, Robert Benchley and Laird Cregar done screen tests, but producer Hal B. Wallis thought that Cregar was too “overblown and extravagant” and Benchley “too mild mannered”. This led to Jack Warner urging Wallis to consider Cary Grant, though Wallis bluntly refused by saying that Grant was “far too young and attractive.”
The only possible solution to this never-ending search was Monty Woolly, the highly revered stage actor who had created the role of Sheridan Whiteside on Broadway. Prior to The Man Who Came To Dinner, Woolly had appeared in an array of moderately successful motion pictures, but his presence in films was not as recognizable as his work on stage. At first Jack Warner was hesitant of Monty Woolly playing Whiteside and was concerned that his homosexuality would be clearly apparent on screen, though eventually he agreed.
The making of The Man Who Came To Dinner was onerous for all involved, but the result of a dismal set and the bitter disputes was a successful motion picture that would be profitable at the box office. Bosley Crowther from the New York Times observed, “Any one who happened to miss the original acid-throwing antic on the stage – and any one, for that matter, who happened not to have missed it – should pop around, by all means, and catch the cinematic reprise. For here, in the space of something like an hour and fifty-two minutes, is compacted what is unquestionably the most vicious but hilarious cat-clawing exhibition ever put on the screen, a deliciously wicked character portrait and a helter-skelter satire, withal. Woolley makes The Man Who Came to Dinner a rare old goat. His zest for rascality is delightful, he spouts alliterations as though he were spitting out orange seeds, and his dynamic dudgeons in a wheelchair are even mightier than those of Lionel Barrymore. A more entertaining buttinsky could hardly be conceived, and a less entertaining one would be murdered on the spot. One palm should be handed Bette Davis for accepting the secondary role of the secretary, and another palm should be handed her for playing it so moderately and well.” In conclusion, he said, “The picture as a whole is a bit too long and internally complex for 100 per cent comprehension, considering the speed at which it clips. But even if you don’t catch all of it, you’re sure to get your money’s worth. It makes laughing at famous people a most satisfying delight.”, while Time wrote, “Woolley plays Sheridan Whiteside with such vast authority and competence that it is difficult to imagine anyone else attempting it” and added, “Although there is hardly room for the rest of the cast to sandwich in much of a performance between this fattest of fat parts, Bette Davis, hair up, neuroses gone, is excellent as Woolley’s lovesick secretary.”
In a film directed by William Keighley and produced by Jerry Wald, audiences are invited to join the misadventures that occur when New York radio personality, Sheridan Whiteside ( Monty Woolly ) visits the home of Ernest and Daisy Stanley ( Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke ) during his cross-country lecture tour. Problems arise when Whiteside slips on the icy steps of their house and is confined to the Stanley’s home for several weeks to recuperate.
“Go in and read the life of Florence Nightingale and learn how unfitted you are for your chosen profession.”
From the moment Sheridan Whiteside enters the property, the Stanley’s are immediately thrust into the throes of destruction when Whiteside monopolizes the entire household and dominates the lives of everyone in it. For the Stanley’s, disaster continues to flow. First they are banned from using the first floor. Then they discover a hefty telephone bill from Mr. Whiteside’s use of the phone, and next they find their house cluttered with peculiar gifts for Whiteside, which include an octopus, penguins, and an Egyptian mummy.
The Man Who Came To Dinner is not your average Bette Davis film. Despite being first billed, Davis really only has a supporting but pivotal role. Here she plays Maggie Cutler, Whiteside’s unyielding secretary who knows the tricks to her employers egotistical games and cannot be fooled by his match breaking plans. It’s interesting to watch Bette Davis playing second fiddle to Monty Woolly’s, Sheridan Whiteside. We’re so use to seeing Bette portray the central protagonist in larger than life and often villainous roles. Instead, Bette’s scene stealing attempts are eclipsed by Monty Woolly playing Sheridan Whiteside, the antagonist of destruction.
As I mentioned before, Monty Woolly was still relatively unknown to movie going audiences when he made The Man Who Came To Dinner. Prior to donning the famous role of Sheridan Whiteside on stage and screen, Woolly had starred in a few films, but his soul focus was the stage. It’s true to say that Sheridan Whiteside was his passage to stardom.
In addition to Monty Woolly and Bette Davis, the film features a stellar ensemble cast. Ann Sheridan portrays, Lorraine Sheldon, a selfish and uncouth actress who is not shy to chase after men, while Billie Burke and Grant Mitchell play the Stanley’s whose home is turned into a hospital and museum when Sheridan Whiteside arrives. Mary Wickes and Ruth Vivian reprised their roles from the original Broadway production. Also present in the film are Reginald Gardiner and Jimmy Durante who both deliver memorable performances.
“My great aunt Jennifer ate a whole box of candy every day of her life. She lived to be 102 and when she’d been dead three days she looked better than you do now.”
After The Man Who Came To Dinner, Davis would go on to make two more films in 1942. The second was In This Our Life, in which she teamed up with her frequent co-star, Olivia de Havilland for the third time. The most successful of these three films is the perennial classic, Now Voyager, where Davis plays Charlotte Vale, an unattractive and frumpy spinster who undergoes therapy and transforms into an elegant and sophisticated young woman of society. For her performance, Bette attained an Academy Award nomination, but lost to Greer Garson who received the Oscar that year for Mrs. Miniver.
For a film that is lively, witty and contains sharp biting dialogue as well as vibrant characters, look no further than The Man Who Came To Dinner, a timeless classic that can be enjoyed any time of the year.
The authors asked Alexander Woollcott if he would like to play the part of Whiteside when the play opened on Broadway. He declined. The authors then approached Monty Woolley, who at that time was a professor at Yale. They wrote him “would it amuse you to play the part of Whiteside?” to which Woolley replied “it would amuse everyone.”
In addition to Sheridan Whiteside being based on Alexander Woolcott, several of the films characters were inspired by member of the Algonquin Round Table.
Mary Wickes made her film debut in The Man Who Came To Dinner.
The poem that Whiteside quotes with the line “Harriet Stanley took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks” was actually written about the real Elizabeth “Lizzie” Borden, who was tried but acquitted of the hatchet murders of her mother and father in Falls River, MA, in 1892.
Bette Davis: Born, Ruth Elizabeth Davis on April 5th, 1908 in Lowell, Massachusetts. Died: October 6th, 1989 in Neuilly, Sur Seine, France. Aged 81. Cause of death: Breast Cancer.
Monty Wooley: Born, Edgar Montillion Woolley on August 17th, 1888 in Manhattan, New York. Died: May 6th, 1963 in Albany, New York. Aged: 74.
Ann Sheridan: Born, Clara Lou Sheridan on February 21st, 1915 in Denton, Texas. Died: January 21st, 1967 in Los Angeles, California. Aged: 51.
This post was written for the Christmas In July Blogathon, hosted by Drew’s Movie Reviews. To view the other entries being exhibited during this event, please click here.