Friday, April 6, 2018

Bette Davis in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

 (This post is part of the 3rd Annual Bette Davis Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood)

By the early Forties, Bette Davis was among the most powerful actresses in Hollywood.  Her films saw such success that she was Warner Bros.' most profitable star. She had also received her share of acclaim, winning Oscars for Dangerous (1935) and Jezebel (1938), and receiving Oscar nominations for Dark Victory (1939), The Letter (1940), and The Little Foxes (1941). Such was Miss Davis's power that she had some control in the movies in which she was cast and even who else was cast in those movies. Indeed, Bette Davis was largely responsible for The Man Who Came to Dinner(1942) being made.

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) was based on the 1939 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. The play starred Monty Woolley as Sheridan Whiteside, an acerbic radio host who winds up staying with an upper middle class family (the Stanleys) when he slips on the steps of their home at Christmastime. George S Kaufman and Moss Hart based several of the characters in the play on actual people. Most notably, Sheridan Whiteside was loosely based on critic and radio personality Alexander Woollcott.  Gertrude Lawrence provided the inspiration for actress Lorraine Sheridan, while Noel Coward provided the inspiration for Beverly Carlton. Harpo Marx was the inspiration for the character of Banjo. The play proved extremely successful, running for 739 performances  and enjoying success in London and on the road as well as Broadway.

As to how Bette Davis helped bring The Man Who Came to Dinner to the big screen, after having played serious roles in such films as Dark Victory and The Little Foxes, she decided she was ready for a change of pace. Miss Davis saw The Man Who Came to Dinner on Broadway and thought that she would be perfect for the role of Sheridan Whiteside's secretary Maggie Cutler. She persuaded Jack Warner, then head of Warner Bros., to get the rights to the play as a vehicle for her and John Barrymore (who would have played Sheridan Whiteside).

John Barrymore did test for the role, but ultimately did not get the part because of he had problems with the play's fast paced dialogue, as well as concerns over his alcoholism. Laird Cregar and Robert Benchley also tested for the role of Sheridan Whiteside, but executive producer Hal B. Wallis objected to both of them. Jack Warner suggested Cary Grant for the role of Sheridan Whiteside, but both Hal B. Wallis and Bette Davis objected to Mr. Grant being cast in the role. Mr. Wallis thought Cary Grant was too young and too attractive for the part. Bette Davis flatly said she would rather act opposite John Barrymore while he was drunk than Cary Grant. Finally Monty Wooley, who had originated the role of Sheridan Whiteside on Broadway, was cast in the part in the movie. Miss Davis was not particularly happy with the casting of Monty Wooley, but in her later years she simply said of his casting, "I guess I never got over my disappointment in not working with the great John Barrymore."

In addition to Monty Wooley, two other veterans of the Broadway show would be cast in the movie. Mary Wickes made her screen debut in the film playing Miss Preen, the nurse who has the unenviable task of taking care of Sheridan Whiteside. Ruth Vivian played the part of Ernest Stanley's crazy sister Harriet. Much of the rest of the cast was filled by rather well known performers. Ann Sheridan, already known as "the Oomph Girl", played Lorraine Sheldon. Reginald Gardiner was cast as Beverly Carlton. Jimmy Durante played Banjo.

Bette Davis was not particularly happy during the making of The Man Who Came to Dinner. She was not particularly happy with William Keighley's direction of the film, which she felt "...was not directed in a very imaginative way." For the first few days of shooting Bette Davis and Monty Woolley did not get along, although she eventually warmed to him. During rehearsal Miss Davis was bitten by a dog on her nose and she was not able to film any scenes for several weeks.

While Miss Davis was not particularly happy making The Man Who Came to Dinner, the film proved to be a success. The film received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote of the movie, " It makes laughing at famous people a most satisfying delight." Variety described it as, "One of the most welcome comedies of the season." Audiences also enjoyed The Man Who Came To Dinner, which proved to be a hit at the box office. Strangely enough, while The Man Who Came to Dinner is set at Christmas, it premiered on January 1 1942 in New York City and went into wide release on January 24, well after Christmas was over.

The Man Who Came to Dinner is notable for more than being a classic comedy (and perhaps Bette Davis's most famous comedy as well). Even though Bette Davis received top billing, there can be no doubt that the star of the film is Monty Woolley. As Sheridan Whiteside he is on screen for the majority of the film, and it is Whiteside's various machinations that fuel the plot of the film. That having been said, Bette Davis gives one of her best performances as Maggie. Maggie is one of the few characters who can match wits with Sheridan Whiteside, as well as the one who serves as a his conscience. She also happens to be a love interest in the film, falling in love with local newspaperman Bert Jefferson (played by Richard Travis). Maggie is also one of Bette Davis's most sympathetic roles, as well as one of her most understated. Unlike many of the characters Miss Davis played over the years, Maggie Cutler is down-to-earth and sensible, but possessed of a biting wit when necessary (which with Sheridan Whiteside can be often).

Of course, The Man Who Came to Dinner is filled with great performances, and the entire cast is in top form in the movie. It is a classic comedy where the funny lines come so swiftly it takes multiple viewings to catch them all. It is also proof of Bette Davis's talent as an actress, playing a secondary character in an ensemble and remaining memorable all the same.


Michaela said...

Sometimes I actually forget that this is a Bette Davis film. It's just so different than what you'd expect from her. As you pointed out, though, she is marvelous as Maggie. Honestly, the whole cast is great. (Aside from Maggie, I think Banjo might be my favorite. Although Beverly is pretty funny, too...)

Caftan Woman said...

A fine and very interesting review of a movie that I grow fonder of, and enjoy more as the years go by. I also appreciate it for turning my daughter into a Grant Mitchell fan! Hey, you never know how a movie will affect a person.