Tusday is Overlooked (or Forgotten) Film day around these parts, a weekly meme hosted by Todd Mason at his blog, SWEET FREEDOM. Don't forget to check in and see what other overlooked films other bloggers are talking about today.
I'd forgotten what a wonderful humbug of a Christmas movie this is. The screenplay, after all, is based on a popular comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart - two magical names in NY theater history. (I particularly recommend, if you haven't read it, Hart's memoir, ACT ONE.)
Monty Woolley is perfection as the house guest from hell forced to spend the Christmas holidays at a hapless strangers' home. The reason? Stay tuned.
Monty Woolley as Sheridan Whiteside.
Sheridan Whiteside (Woolley) is a world famous radio personality, critic, author, lecturer and general acerbic bon-vivant who is on a mid-western lecture tour. He is ably attended to by his very capable secretary, Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis) who appears indifferent to his rampaging egomania, his constant irascibility and mock witticisms.
When Sherry and Maggie are invited to lunch at the movie-typical mid-western upper class home of Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Stanley (Billie Burke and Grant Mitchell), Whiteside slips on their icy front steps and tumbles to the sidewalk. Uh-oh.
Loudly intending to sue the Stanleys for 250,000 dollars, Sherry is wheelchair AND house bound. But that doesn't stop him commandeering the Stanleys' rather nice home complete with servants, for his own purposes - much to the Stanleys' dismay. Whiteside has a New Years Eve radio broadcast coming up and he intends to set up shop in the Stanleys' library.
"A penguin bit me!"
Equipped with a nurse played by the wonderfully peckish Mary Wickes and daily visits from a local doctor who is primarily interested in having Sherry read his manuscript, Whiteside takes over the one phone line and dining room for dinners with his own guests - excluding the Stanleys.
It is the constant comings and goings of these guests (among them, convicts from the local prison, members of a Sheridan Whiteside fan club), the press, the special deliveries of get-well mail, the presents -including a live octopus in an aquarium, four penguins and a mummy case from the Cadiz of Egypt that add to the general bedlam.
To make matters worse, Sherry interferes in the lives of the Stanley's grown-up children and tries to tamper with Maggie's love life (she's fallen for the boyish newspaper owner, Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis).
Jefferson has written a play which Maggie loves and promises to show Sherry. But, as part of his plot to stifle the budding romance, Whiteside invites his 'blossom girl', movie-glitzy star Lorraine Sheldon (Anne Sheridan) to fly up from Florida and sink her hooks into the play AND the handsome playwright.
Anything to stop Maggie from contemplating love and marriage and leaving Sherry in the lurch.
An old friend, Beverly Carlton (Reginald Gardiner) shows up to wish them a Merry Christmas - in between catching trains - and just about steals the picture.
Gardiner is simply delightful. He plays the sort of character everyone should be lucky enough to have in their lives especially around the holidays.
Jimmy Durante, shows up too, as Banjo, a bouncy actor and long time friend of Whiteside and Maggie who tries to fix things for his old friend Sherry.
An ancient mummy case eventually helps in the fixing of 'things'. Of course, in the end, a bit of timely family-skeleton blackmail doesn't hurt.
Servants putting presents under the tree. Sherry's tree. The Stanleys' tree has been relegated to the upstairs master bedroom.
On the whole this is a fun picture, especially so at this time of year.
It is filmed rather like the stage play it originally was, but I didn't mind that. The cast is wonderful, especially the aforementioned Reginald Gardiner and the sight of Bette Davis's simply awful hairdo and dowdy wardrobe has to be seen to be believed. She's supposed to look like a secretary, but ...Oh well, it only adds to the general fantasy nature of the fun.
I loved the penguins, too.
More info on the film and it's creation from a 2010 post by Joe Crisalli at STALKING THE BELLE EPOQUE. Link here.
Note: A dvd of THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER is currently available on Amazon for about six bucks.