Saturday, December 19, 2009

Dinner and a movie

Tonight's TCM Essential, at 8:00 PM ET, is the wonderful comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner.

That man is Monty Woolley, here in the form of popular radio critic Sheridan Whiteside. He's on a speaking tour, and as part of a stop at some small city in the Midwest, he's been invited to dinner at the home of social climbers Ernest and Daisy Stanley (Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke). However, as he's walking up to the steps into their house, he trips on the ice, breaking his leg. This forces Sheridan into a wheelchair, as well as being forced to stay in the home of the Stanleys for some weeks.

Sheridan immediately sets about becoming the most obnoxious houseguest ever. Since he thinks the Stanleys are at fault for his predicament, and because he's naturally arrogant and self-centered, he insists that they give over the entire ground floor of the house to him and his personal assistant Maggie (Bette Davis, who gets top billing even though Woolley is the real star). This enforced stay in the Midwest has actually been good for her, as she finds herself falling in love with local newspaper reporter Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis). When Sheridan discovers this, he imports actress Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan) to try to take the man away from Maggie. That, however, is not the only thing Sheridan imports; he gets poor put upon nurse Mary Wickes; a brief appearance from Jimmy Durante, doing his best Harpo Marx impersonation; and even several penguins.

The penguins are evidence that The Man Who Came to Dinner is a fairly wild comedy, but it's also a very urbane comedy. It's based on a Broadway play that was hugely popular in the early 1940s, with Woolley in the main role, and includes a lot of references to events and people who would have been well known to the literati of the time. Despite the fact that this dates the movie for younger viewers, most of the comedy translates to any time, making The Man Who Came to Dinner one of the great underrated comedies.

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