By Leo Racicot
The Man Who Came To Dinner – 1942 – dir. William Keighley
We call a film ‘classic’, while sometimes forgetting why and how it came to be labeled that way. “Oh”, we say, “The Man Who Came To Dinner. A classic movie!!” But why?
In the case of this Epstein Brothers-produced gem, the answer is easy. A super boffo comedy romp, it follows all the rules of how to make a movie that lasts, past time, past fashion: keen direction, faultless dialogue and performances, perfect pacing, plus a theme whose lessons remain timeless.
Seamlessly directed by William Keighley, it tells the story of that most dread of nightmares: the obnoxious guest who comes for dinner and NEVER goes away!
Based on the hit by the Broadway writing genius team of Geoge S. Kaufman and Moss Hart (before you die, you MUST read “Act One”, his autobiography, at least once, if not twice!), the plot revolves around the character of Sheridan Whiteside, whom Kaufman and Hart based upon their famous friend, Alexander Woolcott, a flamboyant (to the point of being absurd) theater critic and radio star of their day. Whiteside comes, reluctantly, to dine at the home of two of his detested “fans”, breaks a leg in a fall on their stairs and is forced to stay his recovery there. Let the fireworks begin!
And fireworks they are: a dizzying, dithering array of them that, once launched, never let up. The movie — all rapid-fire dialogue and movement, all choreographed perfectly — is a blizzard of a film, and we are instantly and willingly caught in the flurry of it, hardly knowing where to aim our eyes, aim our ears; the film aims straight for our funny bone, so choc-a-bloc with wit, speed, craft and talent is it. Thus, as with any classic film, it merits repeated viewings, and those ardent admirers of The Man Who Came To Dinner say they still notice something new in it after seeing it a dozen times and more.
This movie, in 2009, is still hilarious, a fast and furious ensemble piece paced exquisitely and as spot-on as the bullseye on a dart board.
Treasured because it is one of the few comedies Bette Davis played, and one of the only movies in memory where she is part of a theater-esque ensemble (no single actor here is the star), The Man Who Came To Dinner boasts a wall-to-wall all-star cast from the mincing, bitter, witty Monty Woolley to vaudeville’s and Broadway’s beloved Jimmy Durante (playing ‘Banjo’) to Reginald Gardner who navigates a perfect take-off on satirist and bon-vivant, Noel Coward. And never enough good can be written about the wonderful Mary Wickes (“Miss Stomach Pump”) whose comic timing and scarecrow face graced movies and television shows straight through to the 1990s. Surely she is one of God’s gifts to entertainment!
Fluttery Billie Burke (Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz) is here, too, and pretty Ann Sheridan and penguins and octopi and everything but the kitchen sink — a house full of so many wacky characters, you are swept up in its energy, which is tremendous — mouths are going like motors — people are coming and going like trains — and in its fun, which is ageless.
Few comedies lift you up and out of reality and out of yourself and your doldrums as this one does. Almost 70 years after it was made, it still shines as brightly as the angel on top of the Christmas tree. One never gets tired of looking at it. A surefire sign of an everlasting classic!