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Warner Home Video presents
Nurse Preen: Oh my, you mustn't eat candy, Mr. Whiteside. It's very bad for you.
DVD ReviewThough Bette Davis and Ann Sheridan receive top billing in The Man Who Came to Dinner, William Keighley's sprightly adaptation of the hit comedy by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, the picture's real star is Monty Woolley. After all, the acerbic bearded actor plays the title role and even created the lovably cantankerous crank on the Broadway stage. He devours the part of Sheridan Whiteside once again in the film version, bringing plenty of sarcastic bite to the pompous, prima donna commentator who becomes the eternal houseguest of Ernest and Daisy Stanley (Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke) when he slips on the icy steps of their Mesalia, Ohio home while on a lecture tour. The fall renders Whiteside a virtual invalid, but he doesn't take the accident lying down. With more efficiency than Mussolini, he quickly commandeers the Stanley residence, turning the living room into his executive suite and banishing a stunned Ernest and Daisy to their bedroom upstairs.
During his convalescence, Whiteside subsists on chewing up and spitting out an endless parade of intimidated underlings (including his terrified nurse, charmingly played by a young Mary Wickes in her film debut), and occasionally meddles in their personal affairs. No one and nothing escapes his ire, but he really hits the ceiling when his indispensable secretary, Maggie Cutler (Davis), announces she's fallen for local newspaper man (and aspiring playwright) Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis), and intends to quit her job and marry him. Panicked by the thought of losing the equivalent of his right arm, Whiteside sets in motion a devious plot to sabotage the relationship—and Maggie, who knows her boss all too well, tries her best to foil it.
The Man Who Came to Dinner brilliantly combines screwball and drawing room comedy, yet its superb writing hides the nuts and bolts of its complicated construction. Screenwriters Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein (who would pen Casablanca later the same year) open up the play just enough to let it breathe, but wisely retain most of the original dialogue and all of the chaotic action. And what wacky chaos it is! How many other films feature an octopus, roaming penguins, a saintly boys choir, and a bona fide Lizzie Borden all vying for attention? Yet despite such zany distractions, The Man Who Came to Dinner still presents a focused narrative and tempers its lunacy with several scenes of heartrending warmth and meaning. The film mirrors You Can't Take It With You (another Kaufman and Hart gem) in style and structure, as it introduces a host of seemingly disjointed subplots that somehow intertwine by the final curtain. And with such an eccentric cast of characters, even the smallest bit players find a way to shine.
Topical references abound, and if you're not well versed in the pop culture of the 1930s and 40s, they're likely to zoom over your head. Old movie buffs, however, will get a kick out of hearing Whiteside and his cronies—many of whom are based on famous personalities of the period—namedrop and diss the era's legends. Few emerge unscathed, yet even viewers without the faintest knowledge of Elsa Maxwell or ZaSu Pitts can still appreciate the film's humor. The madcap storyline alone wrings plenty of laughs, and advances with breathless alacrity.
Whiteside's sourpuss demeanor makes him at once irritating and endearing—oh, what wouldn't we all give to bark orders and make outrageous demands, and actually have people carry them out!—but just as he's about to go beyond the pale, his heart of bronze (gold would be a gross exaggeration) ever-so-slightly redeems him. Woolley, of course, savors every alliterative insult, withering glare, and perfunctory put-down, and his spot-on performance never fails to shock and delight. Rarely has an actor so snugly filled a character's shoes—so much so that Woolley's Hollywood employers (and the moviegoing public) had trouble divorcing him from the role. Though Woolley would be trapped playing Whiteside knock-offs for the remainder of his career, such a fate seems a small price to pay for such a juicy, exquisitely written part.
Davis doesn't try to compete, and in fact purposely underplays to provide a welcome and distinct contrast to Woolley's blustering. As a result, she's quite believable as the mousy secretary, and her subtle portrayal supplies the human balance the film craves. Former "Oomph Girl" Sheridan (whose sexy moniker is cleverly inserted into the screenplay) also shines as a self-absorbed, gold-digging actress (supposedly based on Gertrude Lawrence), and seems to relish her change-of-pace comedic role, while Reginald Gardiner (as a Noel Coward-like wit), Jimmy Durante (who skewers his own image), and Billie Burke (who reprises the daffy housewife she patented in Dinner at Eight) supply additional laughs.
The Man Who Came to Dinner may not be as well remembered as The Philadelphia Story or His Girl Friday, but it remains one of the premier comedies of Hollywood's Golden Age—a tight, funny, and well-oiled ensemble piece that never loses its edge.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: Warner provides an exceptional black-and-white transfer, marked by crystal clarity, vivid contrast, and finely varied gray levels. Very faint grain adds some texture, but a sleek silkiness predominates, making this 65-year-old film a joy to watch. A few specks and scratches dot the print, but never steal focus from the on-screen action.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: Adapted stage plays are rarely sonic showcases, and The Man Who Came to Dinner is no exception. The rapid-fire dialogue, however, is always clear and understandable, and only minor age-related defects occasionally intrude.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 25 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Layers Switch: 41m:38s
The original theatrical trailer for The Man Who Came to Dinner completes the supplemental offerings.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsBright, sassy, and endlessly appealing, The Man Who Came to Dinner never overstays its welcome on DVD. Monty Woolley dominates this madcap farce, but Bette Davis fans won't be disappointed by the star's understated supporting turn. Warner's sparkling transfer and fine extras seal the deal, and help fuel our desire to invite Sheridan Whiteside back into our homes again and again. Highly recommended.
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