Friday, December 10, 2010

The Man Who Came to Dinner: The worst Christmas movie of all time

It is impossible to spoil something that is already rotten. However, this post reveals certain details of the plot of the film “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” If you don’t want your mind polluted with any knowledge of this smug, artless, hateful film, stop reading now.

There are plenty of entertaining Christmas-related films – “Die Hard,” the original “Miracle on 34th Street,” the “Stumpy Claus” films, and “A Christmas Story,” for instance. Unfortunately, those films are the exception. Most Christmas films are unentertaining junk like “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” "Babes in Toyland," "Babes in Toyland," "A Christmas Carol," "A Christmas Carol," "A Christmas Carol," "A Christmas Carol: The Movie," "Scrooged," “White Christmas,” "Elf," “Santa Claus The Motion Picture,” “Prancer,” “Four Christmases,” “Home For the Holidays,” “Jack Frost,” "I'll be Home for Christmas," etc.

Bad films, all. Check out this list of Christmas films and decide for yourself. But I submit that the worst of the worst is a film that features as its protagonist a man who is so full of the curdled milk of human unkindness that he actually blackmails a man whose parents were brutally murdered and has been protecting the sister falsely accused of the crime. To cover his own crime of kidnapping.

The Man Who Came to Dinner” purports to tell the hilarious story of a supposedly clever wit called Sheridan Whiteside, the host of an inexplicably popular radio program. Upon arriving in a small town in Ohio where he has been asked and paid to give one of his supposedly intelligent lectures, he is taken (against his will), to the home of Ernest and Daisy Stanley (and oh by the way how deliciously ironic are the names of the characters!), where he promptly and stupidly (it’s winter in Ohio, what did the sophisticated and well-traveled Sheridan expect?) slips on the Stanleys’ steps and seemingly injures his hip, or his leg, or the muscle in his leg, or something.

Rather than be taken to a hospital to recuperate, as might happen in reality, The human irritant Sheridan is installed in a bed in the Stanleys’ mansion. After spending a week in bed, Sheridan is wheeled out into the main living room, where he announces that (a) he is suing the Stanleys for $150,000; (b) he is taking over the downstairs rooms and the Stanley’s servants for himself and his assistant, Miss Cutler – Ernest and Daisy and their children, Richard and June, will be confined to their bedrooms upstairs; and, (c) he is an obnoxious twit. (C) is implied.

 Obnoxious twit.

Obviously, this film makes no real sense. So if we, the audience, are to spend two hours in a fantasyland in which nothing makes any real sense, can we at least be treated decently and not treated with open hostility for daring to suspend our disbelief for two hours? No. The rest of the film is an assault on the audience’s stand-ins, the Stanleys – although that’s not entirely fair to assaults, since it is the rare assault that lasts two hours.

For some reason, Sheridan’s friends and acquaintances insist on sending him exotic gifts, ranging from live animals to, comically, more live animals. Also, for lazy plot purposes, there are ancient Egyptian artifacts. Apparently Sheridan’s friends are as openly contemptuous of those who dare to show an injured man any hospitality that they will send live penguins to a private residence in Ohio. At least the penguins only leave turds lying around.

Sheridan is supposedly a magnificently clever man. We know this because the characters keep telling us. Yet at no point are we, the audience, given any indication that he is anything other than a belligerent, pretentious boor with delusions of grandeur. Some examples of his supposed wit:

Sheridan Whiteside: Strange? She's right out of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Sheridan Whiteside: Go in and read the life of Florence Nightingale and learn how unfitted you are for your chosen profession.

Sheriden Whiteside: Will you take your clammy hand off my chair? You have the touch of a love-starved cobra.

Sheridan Whiteside: This ageing debutante, Mr. Jefferson, I retain in my employ only because she is the sole support of her two-headed brother!

Sheridan Whiteside: I simply will not sit down to dinner with midwestern barbarians, I think too highly of my digestive system.

Sheridan Whiteside: Get your fish-hooks off me!

Sheridan Whiteside: Is there a man in the world who suffers as I do from the gross inadequacies of the human race?

Nurse Preen: Mr. Whiteside, I can only be in one place at a time.
Sheridan Whiteside: That's very fortunate for this community.

Bertram H. 'Bert' Jefferson: How do you think Ohio women stack up?
Sheriden Whiteside: I've never gone in for stacking women up so I really can't say.

Ha, ha. You will note that in the last two quotes, the authors go to great pains to present Sheridan with set-ups for his witticisms. The result is somewhat like the Fantomas books – everything is tilted in the evil protagonist’s favor. Even with this help, the best he can come up with are lines that are so creaky even the arch Dorothy Parker would have been embarrassed by them. (Sheridan’s line about “stacking women” is a less funny version of Ms. Parker’s “laying Yale women end-to-end” line, which itself isn’t all that funny and might not have been her line anyway.)

It doesn’t help that Sheridan is portrayed by a shrill, irritating man called Monty Woolley. Apparently, someone told Mr. Woolley that the key to good acting is to scowl and yell and flare his nostrils. This is “The Method” he employs throughout the entire film. That said, I suppose it’s fine that his performance is one (atonal) note, since the character he portrays has no arc, learns nothing, and behaves with the same boring callousness and cruelty throughout.

Back to the tedium of the plot: The owner of the local newspaper, Bert Jefferson arrives hoping to get an interview. Bert Jefferson is completely bland – a total zero as a character played to wooden imperfection by someone called Richard Travis – and it is because either Sheridan doesn’t like being around compelling people or he is so dull himself that he cannot tell interesting people from non that he takes a liking to Bert and invites him to stay and have lunch with him and the five convicts he’s invited from the state penitentiary (more on that later).

Sheridan’s secretary, Maggie Cutler, goes on a date with the nonentity Bert, and reads the play he’s written. At no point did I ever believe that a woman who looked like Bette Davis, and acted like Bette Davis, would even work for a boorish lout like Sheridan (and for ten years!), let alone go out on a date with Bert. I kept hoping that Ms. Davis would put on a baby dress and smear some white makeup on her face and kick Sheridan Whiteside out of his wheelchair, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane style.  Alas.

The main rival for the drippy Bert's affections is a fabulous, famous actress called Lorraine Sheldon. Because she looks like Ann Sheridan, Lorraine Sheldon is astonishingly beautiful. Unfortunately, because she acts like Ann Sheridan, she appears uncomfortable and unconvincing even when she says “Hello.” Lorraine leaves Palm Springs to visit Sheridan in Ohio the day before Christmas because he called her and told her to come, because the ridiculous plot required it. Sheridan wants Lorraine to read Bert’s play (there might or might not be a part in it for her!), and then seduce him away from Maggie so that Maggie will not marry Bert and stay on as Sheridan’s secretary.

Goddam this movie sucks. But it gets worse. Oh you haven’t seen anything yet – this films sinks to almost unimaginable depths of stupidity and cruelty.

First, the stupidity: One of the many gifts that Sheridan received from his friends was a mummy case from Egypt. You might have learned about this in school: the ancient Egyptians used to mummify themselves, and place their bodies in large cases that were made of wood and had metal hinges on them, for easy and opening and closing. So that one could conveniently place people inside them, when the plots of lazily-written films required it. Anyway, Sheridan decides that Maggie, who hasn’t stopped moping since failing in her attempt to trick Lorraine into leaving (don’t ask, it’s stupid and involves describing another tedious character) is entitled to happiness with Bert after all, so he asks his friend Banjo, a man as irritating as his name (casting Jimmy Durante, the human equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard, completely doomed him) to help get rid of Lorraine. This they do by tricking her into standing inside the mummy case, closing it, and then locking it.

Lorraine does nothing to resist. She does not bang on the mummy case. She does not rock it back and forth (it is tall and flimsy). She does not cry out for help. When the case is lifted by delivery men, she makes not a peep. Banjo then kidnaps Lorraine by taking the mummy case on an airplane bound for New York or Los Angeles. Some city without Midwestern barbarians.

And the cruelty: Sheridan goes about insulting everyone around him, most especially his nurse and the Stanleys. Let’s examine his relationships with them. First, the nurse. At no point is she presented as anything other than attentive to him and concerned about his injury. And yet he constantly badgers and belittles her. As the great poet Stevie Smith wrote in “Childe Rolandine,” “It is the privilege of the rich / To waste the time of the poor,” and Sheridan certainly wastes the time of the servant charged with helping him recuperate (and by the way, there is more wit in those two lines from Ms. Smith’s poem than in the whole of this stupid film). He does this for no good reason other than he believes he is better than her. Because he is wealthy and famous and, as he is constantly reminded by fawning friends, clever.

At one point the attentive and caring nurse who has done nothing that the audience can see to merit her abuse, finally declares to Sheridan that she is quitting nursing:

Nurse Preen: 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. If Florence Nightingale had ever nursed YOU, Mr. Whiteside, she would have married Jack the Ripper instead of founding the Red Cross!

So, one rotten, spoiled, privileged elitist has soiled a woman who did more in one day as a nurse than the witty critic did in an entire lifetime of pomposity.

 The film "The Man Who Came to Dinner" was based on the play "The Man Who Came to Dinner," by George S Kaufman and Moss Hart. I have nothing to say about them, except to note that Stevie Smith's line from "Childe Rolandine" applies as much to wealthy playwrights as to wealthy bosses and politicians.

Now, the Stanleys. They are a well-to-do couple – the wife apparently is active in local arts programs and charities, while the husband owns a ball-bearing plant (wha-?). Their only crime is in not clearing the steps of their home before receiving a guest. I suppose one could argue that their allowing Sheridan to so completely take over and dominate their home makes them contemptible and ridiculous, but isn’t it just entirely possible they’re attempting to be hospitable? The writers make a few attempts at casting the Stanleys as villains – or, at least, at casting Ernest Stanley as a villain. Yet the attempts are so confused and poorly executed that we’re left unsure exactly of the intended effect. For instance, when Daisy speaks to Eleanor Roosevelt on the phone (Ms. Roosevelt is apparently one of Mr. Whiteside’s friends, which says a great deal about her), she tells her that “My husband voted for your opponent, but I voted for you.” Is it supposed to be significant that Ernest opposed The New Deal?

But the real confusion springs from the subplot in which Ernest is shown as being opposed to his daughter June marrying the young man who is attempting to unionize workers at his ball bearing plant. This is presented in such an off-hand, perfunctory way that we in the audience have no way of knowing if this young man is any good or not. So what if he’s attempting to unionize workers, and Ernest is opposing him? We don’t know anything about how Ernest treats him employees, and we don’t know anything about the union organizer. Maybe he’s a criminal using the union as a front. Maybe her father has good reason for opposing the marriage. That of course doesn’t stop Sheridan from butting in, and offering his advice – which for some reason is accepted as capital-T Truth – that the two run away and get married.

Regardless. There is strong evidence within the film itself that Ernest is a decent and kind man. That comes from his relationship with his sister. It’s here that the film rises to a distasteful level of moral retardation that earns it the title of worst Christmas film ever. Throughout the tedious proceedings, a strangely timid and shy older woman has been making occasional appearances. This woman turns out to be Ernest’s sister, Harriet. Sheridan is certain that he has seen her somewhere before, but it’s not until the last few minutes of the film that he remembers that many years before, when known as “Harriet Sedley,” she was accused of murdering her own parents with an axe.

Please bear in mind, that Harriet is Ernest’s sister. That means that Ernest’s parents were murdered. With an axe. And his own sister was accused. Yet he has allowed her to live in his home, with his wife and his children. She has been doing so while, apparently, still wanted by the police.

Got all that? Now consider that Sheridan, gleefully revealing to Ernest that he knows his secret, he taunts him with the “once popular jingle” about the case:

“Harriet Sedley took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks,
And when the job was nicely done,
She gave her father forty-one.”

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s based on the “once popular jingle” about the real-life “Lizzie Borden” case.

“Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks
And when she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.”

Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the murder of her parents. In fact, there is evidence that she was victimized by an inept prosecution that decided early on that she was guilty, and they would do everything they could to convict her.

Lizzie Borden was innocent. The jury that acquitted her took only a little over one hour to do so. Harriet Sedley is Lizzie Borden. Ernest was attempting to shield his own sister from the misery of a trial – and if he of all people believes her to be innocent, enough so that he is willing to let her live with him and his family, then why should we doubt him?

And even if we are going to doubt him, then doesn’t Sheridan have a moral obligation to report that this possibly dangerous woman is loose, rather than keeping it a secret in exchange for Ernest’s hiring delivery men to take the mummy case to the airport, and agreeing to “let [his] children live their own lives”?

The kidnapping/blackmail is made doubly distasteful by the fact that early in the film Sheridan is shown entertaining a group of murderers from the state penitentiary, who are part of Sheridan Whiteside’s fan club. The luncheon could have been construed as one man’s attempt to reach out to a group who have been mistreated by the corrupt criminal justice system. (This theory is undermined somewhat by the casual way in which Sheridan jokes with them about their murderous crimes. But at this early stage of the film we’re still looking for some kind of redeeming quality in the odious man.)

But the brutal way in which Sheridan teases Ernest about his sister, and the way he threatens to expose them on his radio program if he doesn’t accede to his wishes, shows that the man is lacking even the merest shred of empathy. It is psychopathic the way Sheridan Whiteside views other human beings as nothing more than objects with which he can play. He spends time with murderers because he enjoys their company. The privileged psychopath gets an ego boost from the proximity to lowlifes who, under normal circumstances, would cut the obnoxious man’s throat after five minutes in his presence.

This would be fine, if it weren’t for the fact that we’re meant to approve of the character. He is supposed to be lovably “cantankerous.” His vulgarisms are meant to be “barbs.” Maggie Cutler, upon receiving Sheridan’s blessing in marrying Bert, speaks for the authors when she tells Sheridan he’s “wonderful!” In fact he is a pretentious, entitled asshole with not even one redeeming or mitigating quality, and the film in which he appears is loathsome.

TCM will be airing "The Man Who Came to Dinner" on Friday December 10 at 11:30 PM EST, and on  Friday  December 24 at 2:00 PM EST, so you have two opportunities to miss it.

UPDATE 12/22/2016: Want to read about two Christmas films that don't stink? Check out my Christmas with Barbara Stanwyck post!


Sketchbook said...

Great review of an idiotic play.

johncarvill said...

What absolute twaddle!

Skeptic said...

Excellent review of an odious film

Ricky Sprague said...

Thanks a lot, Skeptic! There's an awful lot to hate about that movie!

Karen McHale said...

I just found this.....I hate to break the news to you but the character of Sheridan Whiteside is based on a REAL PERSON! His name was Alexander Woollcott and, yes, he really was a theatre critic and had a radio show. And he really was THAT BAD!! He had to be thrown out of the WHITE HOUSE by Eleanor Roosevelt for overstaying his welcome. He would come uninvited, terrorize his host’s staff, eat them out of house and home and was all around unpleasant! He did this to Moss Hart and that was where the idea for the play came from. He also had the famous friends that were in the play and helped put the Marx Brothers on the map (Banjo is Harpo Marx). Beverly Carlton is Noel Coward, another famous friend of Woollcott’s. So, this story is not fictional.

Unknown said...

Pff. Someone too young to remember the popularity of vaudeville, theater, and Broadway, or your inability to view broad characters as how performing happened back in the past, wouldn't be so reflected in your "modern" view of the story and characters. And yet, somehow, YOUR pithy review is listed in the wikipedia citations for this play?! Hm, methinks the childmurderrobot doth protesth too much against this fast-paced, celebrity skewering, peek at a by-gone farce. Reading this review, I'm sure you found Animal House to be a low-brow, witless, slander against the vaunted College Fraternity system.