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    The scenery in the play was beautiful, but the actors got in front of it.
        -Alexander Woollcott

The Stanleys of Mesalia, Ohio, are quite honored to have the famous critic and radio personality Sheridan Whiteside come to dinner.  Whiteside, an irascible, elitist, buzzard of a man is less thrilled.  When he slips on their front steps, is confined to a wheelchair, and effectively commandeers the Stanley house, no one's very happy.  Soon the tyrannical Whiteside is dispensing flippant advice to the Stanley children, having octopus and penguins delivered to the house, and dining with convicted murderers on loan from the state penitentiary.

On a more serious note (though still played for laughs, of course), he meddles in the nascent love affair between his devoted secretary (Bette Davis) and a local newspaper man (Richard Travis), who just happens to be an aspiring playwright.  When it begins to look like she'll leave his employee to marry her young man, Whiteside brings in a vampish gold digger, who thinks she'll get to be the lead in what Whiteside assures her is the young man's masterful drama.

The whole thing is as madcap and zany as it gets, but the film is completely dominated by Monty Woolley as Whiteside.  Woolley had played the role on Broadway too, a role that George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart based on the profoundly unpleasant but very powerful NY Times drama critic Alexander Woollcott.  Rarely has egomania been more amusing, though it's sure to offend some sensibilities.  In particular, he's just brutal to his nurse, Mary Wickes, though she does get off a great line when she finally quits :

    If Florence Nightingale ever had the misfortune to take care of you, she would have forgotten about founding the Red Cross, would have quit
    nursing, and would have married Jack the Ripper.

Even less politically correct is a cameo by Jimmy Durante as a lecherous vaudevillian.  But if these antiquated bits don't entertain you, there's a thoroughly modern homosexual subtext to the whole affair that's sure to grab your fancy.

It begins with Woollcott, who at one point conceived a mad passion for Harpo Marx, unrequited we're told.  Meanwhile, Woolley was Cole Porter's cruising partner, though the two supposedly parted ways because Woolley only wanted to dally with black men while Porter was less finicky.  Finally,  there's a character in the film named Beverly Carlton, who's supposed to be Noel Coward.  The movie's practically a prequel to Can't Stop the Music.

Today's viewers can be excused for finding this classic both hoary and whorey, but it remains great cruzzardly fun and it's worth seeing just for Woolley's brilliant performance.

(Reviewed:28-May-02)

Grade: (B)

Websites:

See also:

    -INFO : The Man Who Came to Dinner (Imdb.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : William Keighley (Imdb.com)
    -PROFILE : MONTY WOOLLEY : The Man Behind the Beard (Noel Coward Society)
    -ESSAY : Before He Came to Dinner (Judith Ann Schiff, April 1999, Yale Alumni Magazine)
    -PROFILE : Alexander Woollcott - The Man Who Came to Dinner
    -xrefer - Woollcott, Alexander (1887 - 1943)
    -ESSAY : The Odd Couple Alexander Woollcott and Harpo (Ned Stuckey?French, Culture Front)
    -The Man who Came to Dinner (Stage to Screen)
    -ESSAY : Screw the Algonquin, Let's catch the Stooges : Apparently yesteryearís brilliant wags are this yearís terminal bores (ALAN VANNEMAN, Bright Lights Film Journal)

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