The Man Who Came to Dinner is, a little too obviously, an adaptation of a play. There are occasional moments outside the main setting–the home of Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke–but director Keighley doesn’t do anything with them. All involve Richard Travis’s character, which suggests maybe his subplot (local reporter in the center of a media sensation) should have been expanded. Except Travis wouldn’t have really done anything with it so maybe not.
Instead, Travis is simply a cog in Dinner’s gear, much like everyone else.
The film concerns Monty Woolley getting injured while visiting Mitchell and Burke’s house (under duress) and having to stay. Woolley’s character is a famous radio personality who, in private, is a manipulative, abusive egomaniac. The screenplay, from Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein, never quite works as various characters see Woolley being viciously mean to other characters, yet still warm to him. It makes everyone in the film a moron (except Woolley), even Bette Davis, who plays his suffering secretary.
The film’s at its most honest when Woolley, (an annoying) Jimmy Durante and (an utterly misused) Ann Sheridan get together and bask in the fruits of their manipulations. It’s a cruel, mean-spirited film and utterly tone-deaf about it. Seeing as how it’s a studio picture about celebrities secretly being atrocious, I guess the tone-deafness shouldn’t be a surprise. But Keighley’s direction is pretty lame anyway.
The best performance is easily Davis, though Sheridan eventually gets some good material (when she’s not just there to be Woolley’s stooge). Mitchell and Burke are both good. Travis is likable if weak. Mary Wickes is great as Woolley’s nurse; she manages to weather the film, which plays his cruel treatment of her entirely for laughs, with dignity.
As for Woolley… is he good as an utterly reprehensible jerk? Sure. Is there any point to watching almost two hours of it?
Directed by William Keighley; screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart; director of photography, Tony Gaudio; edited by Jack Killifer; music by Friedrich Hollaender; produced by Jack L. Warner; released by Warner Bros.
Starring Bette Davis (Maggie Cutler), Ann Sheridan (Lorraine Sheldon), Monty Woolley (Sheridan Whiteside), Richard Travis (Bert Jefferson), Jimmy Durante (Banjo), Billie Burke (Mrs. Ernest Stanley), Reginald Gardiner (Beverly Carlton), Elisabeth Fraser (June Stanley), Grant Mitchell (Mr. Ernest Stanley), George Barbier (Dr. Bradley), Mary Wickes (Miss Preen), Russell Arms (Richard Stanley), Ruth Vivian (Harriet), Edwin Stanley (John), Betty Roadman (Sarah), Charles Drake (Sandy), Nanette Vallon (Cosette) and John Ridgely (Radio Man).