Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Ghost in the Case: The Man Who Came To Dinner

"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 for three days she looked better than you do now!"

Ghost here!  Thanks for joining me today for yet another
Well it's that wonderful time of the year again.  The time where people stress out over money, what to buy people, and how to organize seeing everyone rather than just relaxing and enjoying the Christmas season.  Christmas is probably my favorite time of year.  While I do adore Halloween, it just doesn't have that sense of excitement and wonder that Christmas holds.  Since this is my last movie review of the year and it's only ten days till Christmas I figured I would talk about a Christmas Movie.  While there are a multitude I could choose from I've decided to touch upon the one that only recently became a favorite of mine.

I am, of course, talking about 1942's classic The Man Who Came To Dinner.  It's very likely that many of you all have never heard of this film before.  I hadn't heard of it till one December when my parents had Turner Classic Movies on and this happened to appear.  It has everything you would expect from a Christmas movie such as an octopus, a group of convicted murderers, schemes to stop two people from falling in love, and more attitude and sass than I've ever seen in a movie.  What?  You don't think Christmas when you hear those things?  Well don't let some of the strangeness about the script bother you because this is most definitely a Christmas film and it is absolutely fantastic!

Normally I wait till after the story to say whether it's any good or not but this film is a hilarious masterpiece.  Let's take a look at exactly why it's so good shall we?


Famous radio personality, Sheridan Whiteside (played my Monty Woolley) is on a cross-country lecture tour with his assistant Maggie Cutler (played by Bette Davis) when they are invited to dinner by a prominent Ohio family, the Stanleys, as a favor for a fellow colleague.  Whiteside, a very self-centered, overbearing, and sharp-tongued man, has absolutely no desire to go to this dinner but begrudgingly does for his friend.  Upon arriving at the Stanley's home, Whiteside slips on some ice and tumbles down the stairs injuring himself.  The local doctor has confined him to the Stanley's home during the days leading up to Christmas until his hip has had time to heal.  Within minutes of being wheeled out of his room, Whiteside has completely turned the Stanley's world upside down by demanding the exclusive use of the telephone, the main sitting room, the library, and dining room, along with several other demands.

As Whiteside attempts to continue his usual business from his wheelchair in the Stanley home, he meets Mr. Stanley's sister who presents him with a present, stares at him for a moment then leaves.  Whiteside is sure that he has seen her face before but doesn't have time to ponder upon it as Bert Jefferson, the local newspaper man has come calling for an interview.  After granting Jefferson an audience, Whiteside invites him to lunch which he is hosting for the Sheridan Whiteside Club at the Ohio State Penitentiary.  Being an authority on murder cases and trials, Whiteside has formed a sort of bond with convicted murderers.  The insanity continues as Whiteside keeps receiving more and more exotic gifts, keeps making extremely expensive long-distance phone calls, and invites men from the Chinese Embassy to dine one evening completely filling the house.

Meanwhile, Bert Jefferson and Maggie Cutler have started to spend a fair amount of time together.  After Bert reads Maggie the play he has written she decides she not only wants Whiteside to use his influence to put it into production but also desires to quit his employ as soon as he finds a suitable replacement so that she can stay with Bert and eventually marry him.  After this bombshell is dropped on Whiteside, the doctor comes to visit and explains that the x-rays he was looking at were the wrong ones and that Whiteside is well and able to leave at any point.  In a refusal to lose his best secretary, Whiteside convinces to the doctor to keep quiet about his health to extend his stay.  He also calls up an actress friend, Lorraine Sheldon, to inform her that Bert's play would be excellent for her but he needs her to show up in Ohio to convince Bert she is right for the part with the intention of Lorraine stealing Bert away from Maggie.  Lorraine accepts and Whiteside believes everything is going according to plan.

As Christmas Eve falls upon them, Whiteside is preparing for his Christmas Eve radio broadcast from the Stanley's home.  The Stanley's children speak to him about their ambitions; Richard wishing to be a traveling photographer, and June wishing to marry a man her father disapproves of.  Whiteside tells them to ignore their family's wishes and pursue their dreams causing them to leave that very night.  Lorraine finally arrives by train and heads off with Bert to look at the play he has written.  Maggie suspects Whiteside's involvement but gives him the initial benefit of a doubt.  With the help of another actor who came to visit, Beverly Carlton, Maggie attempts to trick Lorraine into heading to South Carolina with a fake marriage proposal over the phone.  However this plan backfires spectacularly as Whiteside figures out what has happened causing Lorraine to double her attempts to keep Bert and Maggie apart much to Bert's ignorance.  She eventually invites him to stay with her at Lake Placid for 3 weeks to work on the play.  He agrees much to his naivety.  Maggie leaves the house crying as the Stanley's discover what has happened to their children.

Christmas morning comes as something significantly less than happy.  While Mr. Stanley is off trying to find his children, Maggie comes down to explain to Whiteside that she is leaving on the 1 PM train never to see him again.  Whiteside realizes how badly he's screwed up and begins to think of a way out of this gigantic mess.  Just as this realization hits home thanks to a visit from his good friend Banjo, all Hades breaks loose in the Stanley household.  Mr. Stanley has taken out a warrant against Whiteside to have him forcibly evicted from his house within fifteen minutes!  Enlightenment, however, comes in the form of not only a gift sarcophagus from a higher-up in Egypt delivered to Whiteside, but Whiteside's recognition of exactly who Mr. Stanley's sister is.  Whiteside tricks Lorraine into posing inside the sarcophagus as Banjo slams it shut and leaves the house with it headed to Canada.  Whiteside gives his blessing to Maggie's love of Bert, and threatens Mr. Stanley that if he doesn't allow his children to follow their dreams he'll let slip to his radio audience Mr. Stanley's little secret.  Mr. Stanley's sister is actually an axe murderer who killed her parents.  Whiteside leaves all his gifts with the Stanley's and exits their house only to slip once more on the icy stairs and be brought back inside having injured his hip again!

What's Good About It?

The writing and characterization in this film are excellent.  Once you've watched this film you wouldn't be surprised in the least that it started off as a play on Broadway.  The quick wit and modern lingo of many of these fairly memorable characters is almost unparalleled from many films that I've watched from this time period.  There undoubtedly are other examples of such from older films but this is the best I've seen.  Bette Davis does an excellent job playing the antithesis of her normal film roles.  You can really feel for each of these characters they are that well written and acted.  Each character brings something fresh and interesting to the film from Lorraine's diva nature, to John and Sarah's humble serving of the family.

However the shining star of this whole film is Monty Woolley as Sheridan Whiteside.  Wooley is one of the only two people reprising their role from the Broadway show (the other is nurse Miss Preen) and it truly shows in his performance.  This is the role that he brought to life on Broadway for all those showings and though the studio tried to pick another man to be Whiteside, they chose correctly in picking the original man for the job.  Whiteside is a selfish, overbearing man who speaks whatever is on his mind no matter how nasty it is.  In many aspects he should be an absolutely despised character for being so cynical and hateful but Woolley brings such a charm to the character that you can't help but love every second he's on screen.  He is truly such a delight to watch that I am failing tremendously to put it in to words.  Sheridan Whiteside is the core of this film and your liking of it will begin and end with whether you like his character or not.  Sure there are other characters and things going on but this film is less about a situation and a group of characters as it is with one man being a beast, causing chaos then having to figure out how to undo the job he so adequately did.

What's Bad Weak About It?

This is another film where I truly cannot say that anything is bad with it.  It's quite an excellent film.  However the is one singular thing that people may consider weak about it.  Bette Davis has even said there was one weakness to the film which was that it was not imaginatively shot.  There is some justice to that statement because there is nothing overly artistic about how the actors were placed on the screen.  Don't get me wrong it does quite the adequate job, it's just that there is nothing particularly fresh or new.  That being said, it would be difficult for many people to be very imaginative in how to shoot a movie where 80% of it happens in one single room.  While this is excellent for a play because you don't need to move sets around this makes for some rather unexciting filming.  Luckily the characters and situation make up for any lack of imagination on the actual filming of the movie.  You may find it distracting to feel as though you are watching someone simply filming a play but I think it gave a sense of charm to the whole experience.

Sharp-Tongued Devil

Before I get to my conclusion, I just want to share with you some of my favorite lines of Sheridan Whiteside just so you can see why this character is a riot to watch on screen.

"I simply will not sit down with Mid-Western barbarians.  I think too highly of my digestive system."

"Stand back please, don't come too close!  I have several contagious diseases!"

"Take your fishhooks off me!"

"Will you take your clammy hand off my chair?  You have the touch of a love-starved cobra."

"Now will you all leave quietly or shall I ask Ms. Cutler to pass among you with a baseball bat?"

"Go in there and read the Life of Florence Nightingale and learn how unfitted you are for your chosen profession."

"Strange?  She's right out of The Hound of the Baskervilles!"

"If that's for Mrs. Stanley tell them she's too drunk to talk."

"There's nobody home!  The Stanley's have been arrested for peddling dope.  Go away!"

"There is only one point you make in which I see some slight justice.  I do not expect you to pay for my telephone calls and I shall see that restitution is made.  Can you provide me with the exact amount?  Good!  I shall instruct my lawyers to deduct it from the $150,000 that I am suing you for"

"Now look here, I am by nature a gracious and charming person.  I'm afraid that when we first met I was definitely unpleasant to you.  For that I am sorry and I wish that in the future you wouldn't treat me like something out of Edgar Allen Poe."

"Don't take that patronizing tone with me you flea-bitten Cleopatra."

"Doctor Bradley is the greatest living argument for mercy killing."

"Confound it June when are you going to learn that I'm always kind and courteous!  Bring this idiot in!"

"Suppose your parents aren't happy with you.  It's good for them.  It develops their characters."

"Shut your nasty little face!"

"As long as I live I shall never do anyone a good turn ever again."

"Yes, the enemy is at my rear and nibbling!"

"I have fifteen minutes... fourteen minutes to pull out of my hat the most gigantic rabbit you've ever seen."

"Is there any cyanide in this orange juice, John?  Go open the door John it's probably some mustard gas from an old friend."


The Man Who Came To Dinner is a fantastic film.  The fact that it can be centered around such a man as Sheridan Whiteside and we can still find him perfectly charming and amusing is a testament to the script writers.  It's something that never ceases to amuse me no matter how many times I watch it.  The contrast of such a cynical man portrayed at such a joyous time of year has always been of interest to people, hence the popularity of films such as Bad Santa and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Sure at first glance this movie doesn't sound like it has a lot to do with Christmas, but then again films such as Miracle on 34th Street and It's A Wonderful Life are Christmas Classics yet both only brush past "normal" Christmas themes.  It's A Wonderful Life is the story about a man tired of his life being shown what the world would be like without him; it just happens to take place at Christmas.  Miracle on 34th Street is mostly about a man being involved in a family's life while being Santa Claus at Macy's which then turns into a large court case to see if he's  the real Santa or not... ok maybe that's not a good example but you get the point.  Several Christmas films aren't in your face with Christmas cheer or sappy moments, and this is one of them.  The Man Who Came To Dinner is mostly about Sheridan Whiteside's interference in people's lives but it just happens to take place at Christmas.

If you don't mind black and white movies, can enjoy cynicism and the occasional polite nastiness for comedic effect then this may just be something you'll enjoy as well!  It's a Christmas Must-Watch for me and my family and I hope you will enjoy it as well!

This is Ghost, fading into the darkness.
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