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Theatre / The Man Who Came to Dinner

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Monty Woolley as Sheridan Whiteside.

A 1939 farcical stage play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, adapted to film in 1942.

Sheridan Whiteside, a cranky, irascible New York author and critic, is conducting a nationwide lecture tour. As a publicity stunt two weeks before Christmas, he is the reluctant dinner guest of prominent Mesalia, Ohio businessman Ernest Stanley and family. While climbing the icy front steps at their house, Whiteside slips and breaks his hip, putting him in a wheelchair and forcing him to remain with the Stanleys over the holidays while he heals.

Whiteside quickly takes over the entire household, to the extreme annoyance of Mr. Stanley. His famous friends send their most "heartfelt condolences", and equipment is set up for him to broadcast his weekly radio program direct from the Stanleys' living room. Meanwhile, his trusted secretary, the eternally patient Maggie Cutler, falls in love with Bert Jefferson, editor of the local Mesalia newspaper. Whiteside, horrified at the prospect of losing his right-hand woman to marriage, decides he must put a stop to the romance. Bert has written a play, so Whiteside hits upon the idea of bringing theater actress Lorraine Sheldon to town, ostensibly to discuss starring in the play but really to seduce Bert away from Maggie.

The Film of the Play was released in 1942, directed by William Keighley and starring Monty Woolley as Whiteside, Bette Davis as Maggie, and Ann Sheridan as Lorraine. Woolley had originated the role on Broadway but was not the studio's first choice, being relatively unknown to film audiences at the time. John Barrymore read for the part, but his severe alcoholism kept him from getting the role (he died not long after). Orson Welles and Charles Laughton were also interested, but Woolley ended up reprising his role after all.

Future Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton co-wrote a musical adaptation called Sherry! in 1967. Hallmark Hall of Fame aired a remake in 1972, starring Welles and updating the story for the television age. Meanwhile, the original play has been revived a number of times, including a 2000 production starring Nathan Lane.

Contains examples of:

  • Ambiguously Gay: Sheridan Whiteside, while Beverly Carlton is somewhat less ambiguous. Both characters were based on Real Life closeted gay men.
  • Annoying Patient: Whiteside is one of the greatest, completely taking over the Stanley household.
  • Armor-Piercing Response: Banjo gives one to Whiteside after hearing the latter's version of what's happened: "So, Lorraine just happened to drop by, did she? I smell a rat, Whiteside! A rat with a beard!... Sure, you haven't thought of yourself in years!"
  • Asshole Victim: Just to make sure the audience doesn't sympathize with Mr. Stanley as Whiteside insults him and makes his life miserable, Mr. Stanley is shown as interfering in the lives of both of his children—keeping his son from pursuing a career in photography and blocking his daughter's marriage to a labor leader.
  • Butt-Monkey:
    • Mr. Stanley is a combination of this and The Chew Toy.
    • Not to mention Nurse Preen.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Harriet Stanley, whose general weirdness is explained when she's revealed to be a crazy murderer.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Whiteside is wheeled out of his room to see everyone's smiling faces. He takes one look and delivers his first line of the play:
    "I may vomit."
  • Distracted by the Sexy: One of the men setting up the radio show in the living room is so busy staring at Lorraine, he nearly knocks over a chair, and runs into the door.
  • Evil Cripple: Whiteside, who screws with everyone from the comfort of his wheelchair.
  • Flyover Country: Whiteside, the consummate East Coast snob, expresses this opinion vis-à-vis Mesalia and its denizens. His first line in the movie:
    "I simply will not sit down at dinner with Midwestern barbarians."
  • Fun Personified: Banjo.
  • Girl Friday: The loyal, eternally patient Maggie is this to Whiteside.
  • Here We Go Again!: Right at the end, as he's finally leaving the Stanley home, Whiteside slips on the ice again and hurts his hip. Again.
  • Hypocritical Humor: When Whiteside asks to be introduced to June's boyfriend Sandy:
    June: Mr. Whiteside, he's a very sensitive boy. You... you'll be kind to him, won't you?
    Whiteside: Confound it, June, when are you going to learn that I am always kind and courteous? Bring this idiot in.
  • It's All About Me: Whiteside, especially when he tries to break up Maggie's romance just because he doesn't want to get a new assistant (leading her to call him out on it; see "The Reason You Suck" Speech below).
  • Jerkass:
    • Whiteside, persecuting Mr. and Mrs. Stanley, insulting most everyone else in Mesalia.
    • Nathan Lane, who played the part of Whiteside in a Broadway revival, expressed concern that in the movie, Wooley as Whiteside comes off as mean for the sake of being mean.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Whiteside really does care about Maggie, though, and is generally kind to people of lower social standing such as the Stanleys' children and servants.
  • Locked Out of the Loop: Bert Jefferson spends most of the second half the story blissfully unaware of Whiteside's manipulations to break up (and then patch up) his relationship with Maggie, and her heartache at the prospect of Lorraine Sheldon seducing him away from her. Lampshaded by Whiteside in his parting words to him: "Goodbye, Jefferson — you'll never know the trouble you've caused."
  • Maddened Into Misanthropy: Nurse Preen. Blame Whiteside.
    "I am not only walking out on this case, Mr. Whiteside, I am leaving the nursing profession. I became a nurse because all my life, ever since I was a little girl, I was filled with the idea of serving a suffering humanity. After one month with you, Mr. Whiteside, I am going to work in a munitions factory. From now on, anything I can do to help exterminate the human race will fill me with the greatest of pleasure."
  • Nice to the Waiter: The household servants are among the few people who Whiteside is genuinely nice to.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Where do we start?
    • Whiteside himself is based on Alexander Woollcott, a Caustic Critic for The New Yorker, radio commentator, and friend of Kaufman and Hart. One day, Woollcott showed up at Hart's house unannounced and more or less took over, sleeping in the master bedroom, terrorizing the staff and writing in the guest book, "This is to certify that I had one of the most unpleasant times I ever spent."note 
    • Beverly Carlton is based on NoŽl Coward.
    • Banjo is a cross between Harpo Marx (reference is made to "Wackko and Sloppo") and Jimmy Durante. When Durante himself played the role in the movie, the role obviously became a bit more based on his characteristics.note 
    • Lorraine Sheldon is based on Broadway actress Gertrude Lawrence.
    • Harriet Stanley is revealed to be an expy of Lizzie Borden.
  • Noodle Implements: After meeting Nurse Preen, Banjo propositions her with, "Come to my room in half an hour, and bring some rye bread."
  • The Noun Who Verbed: The title.
  • Obfuscating Disability: Whiteside's doctor pronounces his injuries fully healed by the end of the first act, but he insists on keeping his recovery a secret so he won't have to leave town. So he stays in his wheelchair for a while longer.
  • Odd Friendship: Whiteside and Banjo make for a truly unlikely pair.
  • Out-of-Character Moment: Played for Laughs; after Whiteside is able to convince Lorraine to come up to Mesalia to break up Maggie's romance, he actually greets Miss Preen pleasantly (albeit in a booming voice) after treating her like crap the rest of the time. Naturally, she's so freaked out by this she immediately runs from the room.
  • Pet the Dog: Whiteside is generally very kind and supportive to the children and staff of the house, so much so that the servants quit to work for him at the end. He's also very polite to the insane Harriet Stanley.
  • Platonic Life-Partners: Whiteside and Maggie, which is the main reason he is upset over her new relationship.
  • Pretty in Mink: Maggie has a fox cape, and a fur muff that she kicks like a football in one scene.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Maggie to Whiteside, after his scheme to use Lorraine to lure Bert away from her appears to have succeeded:
    "Shall I tell you something, Sherry? I think you're a selfish, petty egomaniac who would just as soon see his mother burning at a stake, if that was the only way he had of lighting a cigarette. I think you'd sacrifice your best friend without a moment's hesitation if he interrupted the sacred ritual of your self-centered, paltry little life. I think you're incapable of any emotion higher up than your stomach. And I was the fool of the world for ever trusting you."
  • Running Gag: "_____ minutes, Mr. Whiteside!"
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Miss Preen, Whiteside's nurse, finally snaps at the end of the film and not only walks out on him but gives up on nursing in favor of going to work in a munitions factory.
  • Secret-Keeper: Whiteside enlists Dr. Bradley to keep mum about his healed hip so that he can remain at the Stanley house a while longer.
  • Shipper on Deck: Whiteside, with regard to June and Sandy. (But not Maggie and Bert.)
  • Sophisticated as Hell: The Hays Code version; after Whiteside explains to Banjo what's been going on regarding Maggie, Lorraine, and Bert:
    Banjo: Stuck, eh?
    Whiteside: In the words of one of our greatest lyric poets, "You said it."
  • The Thing That Would Not Leave: After finding out that his hip is fine, Whiteside keeps this a secret, because he needs to stay in Mesalia long enough to break up Maggie's romance.
  • You Called Me "X"; It Must Be Serious: Maggie normally calls Whiteside "Sherry", demonstrating the close bond between them; however, when she warns him not to try anything to break up her relationship with Bert Jefferson, she addresses him by his last name.

Alternative Title(s): The Man Who Came To Dinner