Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Great Performances: Monty Woolley in The Man Who Came to Dinner


Today, I'm reviewing  The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), starring Monty Woolley as famed broadcaster and writer Sheridan Whiteside. In this publicity still, Whiteside is accompanied by his faithful secretary (Bette Davis) and his friendly rival (Reginald Gardiner). 

This article was originally written for the Summer Under the Stars blogathon hosted by Journeys in Classic Film.



Sheridan Whiteside, the pompous writer and broadcaster who is at the center of The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), is one of the great screen characters of the 1940's. The bearded blowhard is the creation of four very different men: George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, who wrote the original play; writer, radio host and famed wit Alexander Woollcott, who was the inspiration for Sheridan's character, and the great character actor Monty Woolley, who played the role on Broadway, film, and television. 

Monty Woolley, Bette Davis, and Ann Sheridan in a publicity still for The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942).
By 1939, Kaufman and Hart were highly successful playwrights -- they had just received a Pulitzer Prize for You Can't Take It with You -- when they came up with the concept for a play that would satirize some of the more outrageous figures in New York's literary and theater circles. The play would center around the pompous character of  Sheridan Whiteside, who was closely based on New Yorker writer Alexander Woollcott.

Algonquin Round Table members (from left to right) Art Samuels, Charles MacArthur, Harpo Marx, Dorothy Parker, and Alexander Woollcott.
Woollcott was a household name in the 1930's and 1940's. He was an influential critic who championed the careers of the Marx Brothers among others, and he was beloved by millions for his sentimental radio broadcasts on The Town Crier. Although Woollcott presented himself as a cuddly uncle in public, in private he was quite eccentric and was widely known for his vicious wit (he often greeted others with a not-so-friendly, "Hello, Repulsive").


Kaufman, Hart, and Woollcott moved in the same social circles -- they were all at one time or another associated with the famed literary group, The Algonquin Round Table -- and The Man Who Came to Dinner is based on actual events. Woollcott, who often invited himself to stay at friend's homes, showed up unannounced one day at Hart's country estate. He promptly kicked Hart out of the master bedroom, screamed orders at the servants, and  then left in a huff, writing to Hart that, "this is to certify that I had one of the most unpleasant times I ever spent." (If you've got an hour to spare and would like to know more about the Algonquin Round Table here's a full-length PBS program from the 1980's).


Out of that unhappy experience came comedy gold. The Man Who Came to Dinner follows Sheridan to the rural Ohio town of Mesalia where he is invited to dinner with a local family, the Stanley's, before he continues his cross country lecture tour. Sheridan slips on a patch of ice outside the Stanley's home and fractures his hip, which forces him to become an unwelcome house guest through the holiday season. Sheridan promptly commandeers the entire first floor as his living space, changes the dinner menu to suit his gourmet taste buds, and confiscates the only telephone line so he can receive important calls from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Monty Woolley in a 1949 publicity still for a stage performance of The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942).
 The Man Who Came to Dinner was a huge hit on Broadway, running for 783 performances. Kaufman and Hart tapped Woolley, a then little known character actor, to play Sheridan. One of the great strengths of Woolley's performance is that he makes Sheridan his own character rather than just a Woollcott impression. Woolley is helped a great deal by the fact that he looks quite different than Woollcott; Woolley's magnificent beard and snazzy ties are far removed from the chubby, bespectacled Woollcott.

Also, the play requires precise comic timing, and Woolley has that in spades.  It's not easy to upstage Davis, Jimmy Durante, and Billie Burke, but Woolley effortlessly dominates the film from a wheelchair. He's certainly helped along by some of the funniest lines in movie history, including, "You have the touch of a love starved cobra," and my personal favorite, "Why are you standing there like the kiss of death?"

However, the most important element Woolley brings to Sheridan is his massive sense of entitlement.  He's really an overgrown --  albeit really, really funny --  3 year old who throws temper tantrums when he doesn't get his way. As the movie progresses, the arrogant Sheridan becomes more and more frustrated as those surrounding him can't satisfy his every whim. Finally, he shouts, "Is there a man in the world who suffers as much as I do from the gross inadequacies of the human race?"

Woolley played many memorable characters during his screen career, receiving Academy Award nominations for his performances in The Pied Piper (1942) and Since You Went Away (1944), but he will always be remembered for playing the acerbic critic with the rapier wit in The Man Who Came to Dinner.

TCM will air The Man Who Came to Dinner at 8 p.m. Dec. 11 and 2:15 p.m. Dec. 25. It is available for streaming on the Internet Archive and on DVD.





2 comments :

  1. I first saw this as a play at my college. It was very good and when I discovered there was a movie I wanted to watch it. I got to watch it a few months ago. It was very good! It was interesting to see Bette Davis in a smaller and calmer role. My favorite line was when Jimmy Durante picked up Mary Wickes and said something about loving the blood running through her varicose veins.

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