What's on the Menu of The Man Who Came to Dinner?
The Man Who Came to Dinner
1 hr. 52 mins Comedy, Romance 1942 7.6 stars
Director: William Keighley
Cast: Bette Davis - Maggie Cutler
Ann Sheridan - Lorraine Sheldon
Monty Woolley - Sheridan Whiteside
Richard Travis - Bert Jefferson
Jimmy Durante - Banjo
Billie Burke - Daisy Stanley
Reginald Gardiner - Beverly Carlton
Grant Mitchell - Ernest Stanley
Mary Wickes - Miss Preen
Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie.
The Real Star of the Show
Introduction: The movie does have a plot, but that is not the main draw for the audience. The reason one watches this movie is to see the actions and speech of its main character, Sheridan Whiteside, who I will refer to by his last name so as not to get things confused with an actress also in the movie, Ann Sheridan. Mr. Whiteside (played by Monty Woolley) steals the show. Though he is billed third he is the story. Whiteside is a radio personality and lecturer who is known for his acerbic wit. He is incredibly biting and caustic in his demeanor. Naturally he annoys many people and is easily annoyed himself, but he is loved by just as many too. He is a known celebrity and is close to many of the famous people of the time including political world leaders.
The story begins with Whiteside and his secretary, Maggie Cutler (played by Bette Davis) traveling on a train to the small city of Masalia Ohio on a cold December evening. He is to give a lecture there and as part of his itinerary is to dine at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley (played by Billie Burke and Grant Mitchell respectively). Mrs. Stanley runs the ladies auxiliary and it has been arranged that she will host Mr. Whiteside for dinner. But while climbing the icy steps to the Stanleys’ front door, Whiteside slips and falls injuring his hip. He is wheel chair bound for at least 10 days and is the unwilling guest of the Stanleys as a result and, by the way, the Stanleys are unwilling hosts.
From this moment onward Whiteside commandeers the living room and library for use as his personal office and reception suite. Whiteside has a national radio show and is thus a very famous man. All sorts of celebrities and politicians come to visit and send presents, all sorts of presents. He has kicked the Stanleys out of their main living quarters. Whiteside hosts a luncheon at the house for hardened criminals, a cause he had previously taken up. He receives an octopus and several penguins from explorers he knows. The house becomes a hive of activity much to the consternation of the Stanleys.
A newspaper reporter, Bert Jefferson (played by Richard Travis) comes to do an interview with Whiteside and meets his secretary, Maggie. Bert and Maggie hit if off very well and he gives her a play he’s written which she reads and likes it very much. She wants to show it to Whiteside and get it published and into production.
Maggie tells Whiteside that she’s in love with Bert and will probably marry him and leave Whiteside’s employ. This does not set will with Whiteside and he begins to scheme. Shortly, he comes up with a plan. There is an actress he knows in Florida named Lorraine Sheldon (played by Ann Sheridan) who has been eager to take a role in a play. She is very pretty, the type that no man can resist. Whiteside telephones her and says he’s got a role for her in a new play he’s just received. He thinks she’d be perfect for the lead role, but she must come right away, because Maggie wants to get friend of hers to take the role. Whiteside also suggests that Maggie is in love with the man who wrote it and Whiteside would like Lorraine to romance him away from Maggie. It helps that there is some vague difficulty in the past that Maggie and Lorraine have had. Without need for further persuasion Lorraine is on her way.
Maggie realizes that Whiteside is trying to get Lorraine to entice Bert away from her and she is infuriated. She then begins to scheme. Maggie knows that Lorraine is trying to hook a rich man of English nobility, Lord Cedric Bottomley, but that he has been moving slowly on popping the question and he is on a hunting trip in South Carolina. Maggie also realizes that if she could get Lord Bottomley to propose to Lorraine then Bert would be hers for the taking. A friend of Maggie and Whiteside, Beverly Carlton (played by Reginald Gardiner) comes to visit. Beverly is a comedic actor who does impersonations. He does a good impersonation of Lord Bottomley who has a distinctive English accent and a stutter.
Maggie draws him aside and asks him to do her a favor. She asks that he call the house from a phone booth after Lorraine returns and mimic Lord Bottomley proposing to Lorraine. He agrees to the prank as he doesn’t particularly care for Lorraine.
Sometime later the prank phone call is placed and Lorraine is all a flutter as she accepts his marriage proposal. Whiteside is upset; his scheme to keep Maggie from marrying and leaving has failed.
But then Bert casually mentions that he saw Beverly in a phone booth talking on the phone and making faces. Whiteside strongly suspects what has happened and calls the operator to see if there were any calls placed to that residence from South Carolina. Whiteside announces to Lorraine that she has been the victim of a Beverly Carlton prank. Eventually Lorraine figures that Maggie had set the prank up and is livid with Maggie who then doubles down on her decision to leave. Maggie insults Whiteside before leaving the room and he loves it!
At this time Mr. Stanley enters the room. He has secured the help of police officers to have Whiteside evicted from his house. He gives him 15 minutes to get everything packed up and to depart.
During this time another friend of both Maggie and Whiteside arrives, Banjo (played by Jimmy Durante). He has a personality equally over the top and flamboyant as Whiteside’s.
Maggie cries on Banjo’s shoulder about her predicament and he decides to help her. Whiteside has changed his mind about Maggie and doesn’t really want to alienate her so he and Banjo start to scheme. At this point Whiteside receives a gift from the Khedive of Egypt – a mummy case which opens. They lure Lorraine into the case and shut it trapping her in it. Banjo then arranges to take it with him to Nova Scotia where he will release her.
Whiteside, fully recovered from his injury, is once again able to walk and he says goodbye to the Stanleys and walks out the door. At that moment the phone rings and Mrs. Stanley picks up the receiver; it is Eleanor Roosevelt on the other end wanting to speak to Whiteside. Mrs. Stanley rushes out the door to catch Whiteside before he departs. He is at the top of the icy steps when he turns around to receive the call and slips down the steps again presumably to recuperate another few weeks in the Stanley residence. A frustrated Mr. Stanley is seen hitting his head against the wall.
In the Living Room
Love at First Sight?
The movie really depicts a ‘40s style of a shock jock. Sheridan Whiteside is the main feature of this movie. The writers based his character on the personality and antics of Alexander Wolcott a literary critic and playwright of the time. Whiteside’s caustic sense of humor is what draws people to see this feature. As for winning friends and influencing people it may seem counter intuitive that he would have such a wonderful effect upon his audience, but of course for people are not the objects of his remarks it is a different story. But they love him and that adoration is shown by all the attention and gifts that are showered upon him. Some of the gifts are outlandish, as in the examples of the octopus that is sent to him and also the four Adelaide penguins which get out of their cage and roam about. Yet everyone loves him. Everyone, however, except Mr. Stanley his unappreciative host. Ernest Stanley is supremely frustrated and has been since before Whiteside arrived. It was Mrs. Stanley’s doing, decidedly not Mr. Stanley’s, to have him dine at their house that first evening in town, that fateful evening when Mr. Whiteside slipped on Mr. Stanley’s steps, an accident for which Whiteside plans to sue for $150, 000.
The movie has numerous subplots. Among these is the local doctor who is trying to get his book published and throughout the movie tries to get Whiteside to spend time with him and give editorial advice. Another subplot is Whiteside’s interest in the Stanley children who are adolescents. Whiteside encourages each to follow their dreams. The daughter in particular he encourages to elope that night with her boyfriend who is currently leading a strike at her father’s factory. There is also the subplot of the nurse, Miss Preen (played by Mary Wickes), whose interactions with Whiteside are so contentious that by the end of the movie she has firmly resolved to seek an entirely different career path, Mr. Whiteside being the most demanding patient anyone has ever had.
The most interesting subplot however is that of Miss Harriet Stanley. She is Mr. Stanley’s sister. She is the family secret, the black sheep. She suffers from some sort of mental illness which is obvious by her ways. Although Whiteside is constantly bombarded by friends and business associates and although his life is a never ending chaos of activity Harriet shows up when no one else is around. Whiteside is fascinated by her; she disarms him and he’s not acerbic with her and that’s quite noticeable. It’s as if he doesn’t know how to act around her. Throughout his time there he is perplexed by Harriet and senses that he has seen her before, but he can’t quite place where. She darts into the room, speaks with him, looks over her shoulder then darts back out just as quickly as she entered as if she’s hoping not to be seen. She is the only character who has the effect of shutting up Mr. Sheridan Whiteside! It finally comes to him by the end of the movie why he seems to know her. Whiteside has an interest in murderers. In fact his first luncheon at the Stanley household is for murderers from the local state prison. If this is possible, theirs is a cause he’s taken up. He realizes that Harriet is such a murderer who somehow is out of prison. Perhaps she was acquitted of the crime. He quotes the ditty that had been written about her to Mr. Stanley that ‘she gave her mother forty whacks and when she saw what she had done she gave her father forty one’ which may be familiar to you as the real life saying about Lizzy Borden – who was acquitted of the crime by the way hence the probable parallel. Whiteside holds this over Stanley’s head.
The billing order seems curious in the movie. The obvious draw of the movie is the character of Sheridan Whiteside, yet Monty Woolley is billed third, why? The answer to that question is that in 1942 Monty Woolley was relatively little known. He had been in movies before, but his career as an actor started later in life. In his younger years he was an acting teacher, but not a performer. Then when he did get into performing he spent many years on the stage. Movie acting came much later in his career. This movie was his breakout film. Bette Davis and Ann Sheridan however were well known by this time. They received top billing because they were box office draws. After this Monty Woolley became a well known actor as we think of him today.
The town of Masilia Ohio is completely fictitious, but it is stated in the movie to about an hour away from the Cleveland airport. There is a city called Massillon Ohio that is an hour’s distance from the airport. I suspect that this city was the location for the story.