Review: William Keighley’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” Starring Bette Davis and Monty Woolley

Monty Woolley, Bette Davis and Ann Sheridan in
Monty Woolley, Bette Davis and Ann Sheridan in "The Man Who Came to Dinner"

A heartless curmudgeon finally realizes the fruitlessness of his petulant behavior and begins to practice kindness instead. This common storyline, made famous by Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, is also the basic plot of William Keighley’s The Man Who Came to Dinner.

The film revolves around caustic radio personality Sheridan Whiteside (stage actor Monty Woolley), who, while travelling on a lecture tour across the country, falls on the icy steps of Ernest and Daisy Stanley’s home. Temporarily confined to a wheelchair, Whiteside demands that the Stanley’s host him as he recovers. During his stay, he overwhelms the family with his meticulous demands. But his meddlesome behavior and self-centered nature begin to cause friction, especially with his assistant Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis).

The film was based on George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Broadway play of the same name, which was inspired by Hart’s own experience hosting the demanding New Yorker critic Alexander Woollcott, who served as the basis for the Whiteside character. The Man Who Came to Dinner is filled with more real-life influences. The character of Banjo (Jimmy Durante), Whiteside’s unruly and obnoxious friend, was based on Marx Brother Harpo; Whiteside’s friend and ritzy actress Lorraine (Ann Sheridan) was based on English actress Gertrude Lawrence. Each character serves as a caricature of a different Hollywood archetype—the cynical critic, the bawdy comedian, or the glamorous actress—and functions as a sendup of those well-known stars.

This film is the second collaboration between Bette Davis and William Keighley, who worked together a year earlier on the screwball romantic comedy The Bride Came C.O.D. Both comedies were an unusual choices for Davis, whose career has been largely characterized by dramatic roles. But after watching The Man Who Came to Dinner on Broadway, Davis decided that the role of Maggie Cutler would be a welcome departure from her more dramatic work.

As Cutler, Davis is uncharacteristically unassuming and incredibly restrained, especially in comparison to Woolley’s larger-than-life Whiteside. And unlike her characters in films like The Little Foxes, Davis’ Cutler is both likeable and appealing. But her role seems as if it could have been filled by any actress, something that cannot be said for her magnetizing screen presence in films like The Letter. Throughout her career, Davis earned eight Best Actress Academy Award nominations and two wins—all for dramatic roles. Her forays into comedy failed to garner the same recognition, and there is certainly a reason Davis is not remembered for those films.

Atypically, in The Man Who Came to Dinner, Davis plays second fiddle to another actor—Monty Woolley. Woolley, who was once a drama professor at Yale, originated the role in the Broadway production. In the film, he effectively chews the scenery as the demanding and sarcastic Whiteside, although the relentlessness of his pointed dialogue begins to lose its appeal as the film drags on.

Davis originally wanted John Barrymore to play Sheridan, but because of his alcoholism the actor struggled to remember his lines, and Woolley got the role instead. Davis was not a fan of Woolley, although this animosity is not evident in the final product. Orson Welles also expressed interest in the role of Sheridan; Cary Grant, Fredric March, Charles Laughton, and Robert Benchley were all considered for the part as well.

You Can’t Take It With You, another comedy adapted from a play by Kaufman and Hart, won two Academy Awards in 1938—one for Best Picture, and one for Best Director for Frank Capra. Though The Man Who Came to Dinner was a box office hit, it failed to earn any Oscar nominations or have the critical success of You Can’t Take it With You, despite both films’ theatrical influence, comedic nature, and sentimental message. The latter film is more dynamic and fun, and is based on an ensemble, while the former relies too heavily on Woolley’s performance. In 1974, Davis would credit The Man Who Came to Dinner’s lack of awards to its directing, saying, “I felt the film was not directed in a very imaginative way.” 1 While the witty dialogue and Woolley’s performance make it worthwhile, as a whole, The Man Who Came to Dinner is not funny or insightful enough to be a standout film.

Where to Watch

Buy it on DVD

For More on The Man Who Came to Dinner

Read the review in The New York Times

Read the review in Variety

Watch the Trailer

References   [ + ]

1. Ed Sikov, Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis (New York: Henry Holt, 2007), 186.