Thursday, December 24, 2009
The Man Who Came to Dinner - 1942
Bette Davis is his competent secretary, who is something of a revelation in this role. We’re used to seeing strong performances from her as larger-than-life characters, and waxing melodramatic in weepy flicks, but here she makes a smaller, quiet role pivotal to the story by being the sane and sassy anchor. She is one of the few people who cannot be bullied by Mr. Woolley by virtue of her sense of humor.
At the beginning of the film, we see the ever ditsy society matron Billie Burke fawning over Monty Woolley and inviting him to her home for dinner. She casts a brief sort of “also-ran” inclusion of the invitation to Bette Davis as his secretary. Davis accepts, quietly, with gracious humility and the self-deprecating smile worn by one who is used to being dismissed as unimportant in the great man’s shadow, but who really runs the show. It’s a subtle gesture and tells us more about her character in 30 seconds than another actress would take the entire film to convey.
Grant Mitchell (excellent here in “The Secret Bride”), plays the industrialist, proud of his ball bearing factory contributing to the war effort. In his own way he is as equally self-important as Woolley, but is only a big fish in a small pond. Ruth Vivian, playing his fey, fragile, and quite weird sister, along with the wonderful Mary Wickes who plays Nurse Preen, are the only ones in the cast, besides Mr. Woolley, to have appeared in the original Broadway play. (Ruth Vivian went back to Broadway next for “The Strings, My Lord, Are False”, the Elia Kazan flop mentioned in this week’s Tragedy and Comedy in New England.)
The lines are fast and funny, and almost too numerous to quote. All the lesser characters, just as with Miss Wickes’ final scene, all get great lines to say, too. The local doctor attending Wooley aspires to be an author, and seeks Woolley’s help.
“I’ve just got one patient who’s dying, then I’ll be perfectly free.”
“Come to my room in a half hour and bring some rye bread!”
The son and daughter of the house, teenagers who befriend the really-a-nice-guy-under-all-the-bluster Woolley are encouraged to pursue their own dreams and escape from their bourgeois parents. About the only weak link in the chain is Richard Travis, who plays the newspaperman in love with Davis. Probably he does not stand out simply because everyone else in the cast is so over-the-top.
Possibly the funniest aspect of this script is the constant name-dropping. We are told that Woolley’s character is so important, that he is friends with Winston Churchill, the Roosevelts and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, that he has received Christmas gifts from Gypsy Rose Lee and Deanna Durbin. New York Governor, and presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey is his lawyer. The film ends memorably with the voice of Eleanor Roosevelt on the phone calling her dear friend to wish him a Merry Christmas.
The play was revived on Broadway in 2000 with Nathan Lane in the role. I didn’t see it (though I have seen another production), and I’m not going to review or compare it, except to imagine that these same topical references would not have had quite the same impact coming from Nathan Lane as from Monty Woolley, no matter how knowledgeable the audience might be on this time period.
And speaking of name-dropping, I’m not going to explain who Tenley Albright is. If you don’t know, shame on you and too bad.
A revival, or film remake, is always nostalgic. But this film produced in 1942 was not nostalgic. It was up to the minute and topical, and late-breaking news. Watching it, it still feels that way, decades later. That is the marvel of it.
May your Christmas have a little glitz, and glamour, too. But without the escaping penguins.