Alexander Woollcott was one of the founding members of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of actors, writers and comics who would regularly meet for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City throughout the 1920s. Their witty conversations were retold in various newspaper columns written by its members; it is a legacy that still lasts. Woollcott eventually became immortalized in the shape of Sheridan Whiteside, a fictional character portrayed in the play “The Man Who Came to Dinner” by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.
Apparently, Woollcott was just as irritating, pompous and larger-than-life as Whiteside and actually came to play the character in one production of the play.
Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley), a radio personality, has arrived in Ohio together with his assistant Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis) to give a lecture when he accidentally slips on the ice outside the home of the Stanleys. Forced to recuperate in a wheelchair during Christmas together with the Stanleys, Sheridan soon becomes a burden to everyone. Maggie knows how to handle him, but the Stanleys don’t realize at first just how annoying and acerbic Sheridan is – his private nurse becomes a target as much as the man of the house (Grant Mitchell) who has to put up with Sheridan designating the entire entrance hall of the house as his personal working space.
Soon, Sheridan gets a real problem to deal with. Maggie has fallen in love with a local journalist, Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis), and intends to marry him, which means that Sheridan will lose his invaluable assistant. He hatches a devious plan to stop the wedding…
Delivering lines with gusto
This is undoubtedly Monty Woolley’s most famous part, one he inhabits brilliantly. Screenwriters Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein feed his character with one memorable, sarcastic, hilarious and utterly brilliant line after the other and he delivers them with gusto, assisted by the shocked (or in Davis’s case, knowing and slightly amused) reaction of the supporting cast. One of them is Mary Wickes, effective as the nurse whom he depends on but could never stop insulting, simply because she’s such a thankful target. Davis allows Woolley to dominate the proceedings, but is nevertheless excellent as the assistant who’s had fun in Sheridan’s company but is prepared to move on.
Other fine performances are given by Anne Sheridan as the glamorous actress (allegedly based on Gertrude Lawrence) whom Sheridan engages as part of the plan to stop the wedding; Jimmy Durante as the half-crazed entertainer Banjo (based on Harpo Marx); and Reginald Gardiner as Beverly Carlton, a wit obviously inspired by Noël Coward. Aided by a few penguins and an octopus, director William Keighley keeps the movie very lively. Fans of His Girl Friday (1940) will also recognize the part of the story where Sheridan does everything in his power to keep Maggie close to him. He may be a devil, but one can sense a human side to him and that’s also evident in the scenes where he acts as an impromptu advisor to the Stanley kids; their parents are understandably upset over having him as a less than thankful guest over Christmas… but he’s nevertheless the one the teenagers turn to for a word or two of wisdom.
I was struck by how similar Woolley’s voice is to the animated character of Stewie Griffin on Family Guy. I have no idea if he really did inspire Seth MacFarlane… but it is likely considering the similarity of the voices. Alexander Woollcott once said of the pianist and author Oscar Levant, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with [him] that a miracle can’t fix.” Stewie Griffin, indeed.
The Man Who Came to Dinner 1941-U.S. 112 min. B/W. Produced by Jack Saper, Jerry Wald. Directed by William Keighley. Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein. Play: George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart. Cast: Bette Davis (Maggie Cutler), Ann Sheridan (Lorraine Sheldon), Monty Woolley (Sheridan Whiteside), Billie Burke, Jimmy Durante, Richard Travis… Reginald Gardiner.
Trivia: John Barrymore was allegedly considered for the part of Whiteside. Remade for TV in 1972 and 2000.
Quote: “My great aunt Jennifer ate a whole box of candy every day of her life. She lived to be 102 and when she’d been dead three days she looked better than you do now!” (Woolley)
Last word: “Jack [Warner] was afraid that Woolley’s homosexuality would be obvious in the scenes. Bette Davis hated him and threatened that she wouldn’t work with him, but we tested him anyway… He was excellent. His acid, piercingly sharp delivery of the lines, spoiled-child mannerisms, and outbursts of petulant rage were perfection itself. We felt that Bette and a strong enough cast could make up for the fact that Woolley wasn’t a box office name.” (Executive producer Hal Wallis, TCM)