Classic Christmas Comedy: ‘The Man Who Came to Dinner’

Original poster.

Original poster.


“The Man Who Came to Dinner” is the best of all the comedies by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, but you’d never know it from the lunkheaded screen adaptation released by Warner Bros. in 1942. The rough outline of the plot is simple: during a cross-country lecture tour at Christmastime, Sheridan Whiteside, an acerbic radio celebrity, slips on a piece of ice and fractures his hip after attending a dinner at the home of Mr and Mrs Ernest Stanley of Mesalia, Ohio. While he’s laid up in their house, he and an endless array of celebrity friends who come to visit him turn the Stanleys’ lives upside down. I’ve always had immense fondness for the play, but after seeing a half dozen miserable productions of it, I came to the sad conclusion that the story has an insoluble problem at its center: that is, Sheridan Whiteside is such a tyrannical bully that it’s no fun to spend nearly three hours in his odious company. The screen adaptation, by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein (they also co-wrote “Casablanca” with Howard W. Koch that same year), cuts about an hour off the running time, but this in no way ameliorates the problem of the ruffian cripple who is the title character. “The Man Who Came to Dinner” is a supreme example of the Well Made Play: there’s hardly a line that can be cut without the whole fabric of the piece shredding into tatters, yet unlike many a Well Made Play (the complete works of Henrik Ibsen, for example), the construction is almost invisible. The Epsteins, hoping to “open up” the play, have added an entire prologue, in which we see Whiteside arrive in Ohio, hissing unfunny, unprovoked insults all the way. For every new line the Epsteins add, more of the tightly constructed plot must be done away with. The Brothers Epstein shortened it the rest of the way by carving away every inch of glamour and sophistication. In their hands, the screenplay becomes little more than a clamorous (to borrow a line from the play) Cavalcade of Insult, spoken mostly by Monty Woolley, who never stops barking, snarling, hissing and baring his ghastly teeth. The few remaining scraps of Kaufman and Hart’s original script are further mutilated by the depredations of Production Code censorship. The result is appalling and entirely dispiriting. Pray you avoid it.

Alexander Woollcott, the real-life Sheridan Whiteside. Asked to describe him in one word, George S. Kaufman answered, 'Improbable.'

Alexander Woollcott, the real-life Sheridan Whiteside. Asked to describe him in one word, George S. Kaufman answered, ‘Improbable.’


Happily, the Roundabout Theatre produced an excellent Broadway revival of the play back in 2000, directed by Jerry Zaks and starring Nathan Lane, Jean Smart and Harriet Harris. Someone at PBS had the foresight to produce a live broadcast of its next-to-last performance on a Saturday night. A year later, the broadcast was released on DVD, not in high-definition, alas, but I’ll take what I can get. The live recording gives a fair idea of what it was like to see this inaugural production in the newly and beautifully restored Selwyn Theatre (renamed the American Airlines Theatre), which is currently the home of the Roundabout, on 42nd Street. (The DVD is out of print now, but you can still find used copies of it online, and the entire performance is available on YouTube.)

When I saw the revival in 2000, it seemed to me little short of miraculous. That production remains the single most satisfying comedy I’ve ever seen on stage. Zaks and Lane solved the play’s central problem by tackling it head on. Whiteside is still selfish and exasperating, but the way Lane plays him, most of his nastiest remarks are said in jest: he’s merely exercising his wit. And indeed, in the Roundabout production, with the notable exceptions of the aggrieved Mr Stanley and Whiteside’s long-suffering nurse, Miss Preen (the brilliantly comic Mary Catherine Wright), everyone finds him witty rather than withering. Zaks and Lane also decided early in the rehearsal process that the central relationship in the play is Whiteside’s with his secretary, Maggie Cutler (Harriet Harris). Zaks describes it as a “love story”: not romantic love, but platonic and deep: they have been together for a long time; they understand one another; they finish each other’s sentences. But when Maggie falls in love and decides to leave Whiteside’s employ, he’s desperate to prevent that from happening, even at the expense of her happiness, which he persuades himself he’s actually protecting. It’s a nice distinction, but an important one: by establishing their delight in each other’s company, they both have something to lose and the play comes vividly to life. Whiteside still says and does appalling things; he interferes in everyone’s business and never plays fair — but Lane makes him what he was always intended to be: a loveable rogue. I’m going to show you a few comparisons between it and the movie version, but I don’t intend to waste a lot of energy explaining how wide of the mark the picture is. You can take my word for it, or you can spend a very noisy, tiresome 112 minutes seeing for yourself.

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

Big Lord Fauntleroy

Here are two versions of the scene in which Maggie tells Whiteside that she’s leaving him. In the movie version, Bette Davis is straight-forward and earnest, but she’s not the least bit funny. It’s not her fault: without the reaction of a live audience, there’s not a lot an actress can do above saying the lines in a reasonably credible way. Besides, except for the one zinger at the end of the scene, Maggie doesn’t have any punchlines. Still, when I watch this scene, I can’t help feeling that instead of driving the scene forward, Bette Davis keeps letting the air out of its tires. This happens throughout the course of the entire picture. Davis isn’t bad, she’s boring; Woolley is bad and boring.

But now have a look at what the wonderful Harriet Harris does with the same material. What’s most striking about the Roundabout’s production is this: for the first time, Maggie Cutler has fully as much personality as all the zanies who are Sheridan Whiteside’s friends.

Maggie’s outburst occurs about two-thirds of the way through Act One. In the Roundabout production, it was the second time a character exited to a big round of applause. After Maggie’s exit, nearly every major exit by a principal character was accompanied by loud applause. I’ve never seen anything else to match it.

Enter Beverly Carlton

Here is Reginald Gardiner as Beverly Carlton, a thinly disguised Noël Coward, in the screen version. I’m always glad to see Reginald Gardiner, but he holds back in this picture — he’s far more vibrant and funny in “Christmas in Connecticut”; he’s also more amusing (though probably for the wrong reasons) as Ginger Rogers’ hag-ridden husband in “Black Widow.”

Here is Byron Jennings as Beverly. It’s not often that I like to hear American actors attempt English accents (for some reason, American actresses fare a little bit better), but I like Jennings’ accent a lot. This is almost certainly because Noël Coward himself essentially invented his own accent, which — though it was certainly that of an Englishman — was not like anyone else’s. Jennings’ accent as Beverly Carlton is a nice riff on Coward’s invention, and as such, I think it works splendidly.

A Respite from Hilarity

In this next clip, Beverly performs a song specially written for the show by Cole Porter, who created a dead-on parody of Coward’s musical and lyrical style. Porter was great pals with Monty Woolley, who had been one of his professors at Yale. He wrote the song as a favor to his friend and the two authors, who thanked him with a gold cigarette case. I hasten to add that this is most definitely not a great song: it’s a brilliant parody of the second rate. It’s show-offy in precisely the way that Noël Coward so often was. In Stephen Sondheim’s book about lyrics, “Finishing the Hat,” he mentions that he “cordially but intensely dislike[s]” Coward’s lyrics and condemns them for coming in only two flavors, brittle and sentimental; according to Sondheim, when Coward’s sentimentality is in full flower, his lyrics veer into nonsense. Guilty as charged, I’m afraid. Cole Porter’s parody catches precisely Coward’s brittle flippancy, the sentimentality and artificiality of his lyrics, with their crowds of internal rhymes (e.g., “Softly a fluid/Druid/Meets me” — that slays me!), predicates that nonsensically precede their subjects (e.g., “Up to the stars/I climb”), and most devastatingly of all, Coward’s humdrum melodic invention, gussied up with chromaticism to give the banal melody “class.” Sondheim writes that Coward’s harmonic language is something he avoids like “dengue fever.” Well, at least he didn’t say he hates it.

“What Am I to Do?” is not in the picture, which I consider to be a serious miscalculation. To explain why, I must digress for a moment. Nine years before “The Man Who Came to Dinner” was a hit on Broadway, Moss Hart collaborated with Kaufman for the first time, on a farce about Hollywood called “Once in a Lifetime.” In the earliest out-of-town tryouts for this play, the first act was a sure-fire crowd-pleaser, but the laughs suddenly died halfway through Act Two, and Act Three played to ponderous and sepulchral silence. Many drafts later, Kaufman and Hart managed to keep the laughs going through the whole of Act Two, but Act Three still played to the crickets. Eventually, Kaufman became so discouraged he withdrew from the show (temporarily), and it died (temporarily) out of town. It was Sam Harris, the show’s associate producer (later, the sole producer of “The Man Who Came to Dinner”), who gave Hart the solution to the mystery of the disappearing laughter. Here is Moss Hart’s account (from his tremendously entertaining memoir, “Act One”) of what Harris told him:

I wish, kid, that this weren’t such a noisy play. . . . It’s a noisy play, kid. One of the noisiest plays I’ve ever been around. . . . Just think about it. Except for those two minutes at the beginning of the first act, there isn’t another spot in this whole play where two people sit down and talk quietly to each other. Is that right, or isn’t it? . . . Maybe noisy is the wrong word. But I’ve watched this play through maybe a hundred times, and I think one of the main things wrong with it is that it tires an audience out. It’s a tiring play to sit through, kid. . . I can almost feel them begin to get tired around me. That stage is so damn full of actors and scenery and costumes and props all the time they never get a chance to catch their breath and listen to the play. Sure they laugh, but I think they’re longing to see that stage just once with maybe two or three people on it quietly talking the whole thing over. Give them a chance to sit back themselves and kind of add the whole thing up. Once this show gets under way nobody ever talks to each other. They just keep pounding away like hell and running in and out of that scenery. It’s a noisy play, kid, you take my word for it.

Hart came up with the idea of jettisoning the most expensive set in the show and inserting one short, crucial scene at the beginning of Act Three — more bittersweet and nostalgic than funny . . . and quiet. This one short scene gave the audience a respite from the sidesplitting hilarity, Kaufman came back on board, and “Once in a Lifetime” became a smash hit. A much-needed respite from hilarity is exactly the effect of Beverly Carlton’s musical number: it’s charming in its own right, but in context, it becomes something approximating the Sublime. No, it’s not a great song: it’s faux-Coward, so it can’t be great. The point is that it captures the essence of Coward; it’s not first rate: it’s charming, nonsensical, flippant, bittersweet, irresistible. I’ve never been able to tell for sure whether or not Byron Jennings is actually accompanying himself on the piano, but when I saw the show, the sound definitely came from the instrument, not from a loudspeaker, and he certainly looks as if he’s playing it. Whatever the truth is, the possibility that he’s his own accompanist adds an unexpected virtuosity to his performance that makes it unforgettable.

Oh, hell, I like Byron Jennings’ performance so much, here’s the rest of it.

“The first baby will be named Beverly” is in the original script. “Then I hope it’s a girl” is new. I don’t know who came up with the line, but it’s terrific. For a topical play from 1939, the script has been left remarkably intact. Even in Kaufman’s day, when he directed his own plays, he had to call rehearsals in the middle of a run to “take out the improvements” (his expression) that the actors had incorporated. On one occasion, Kaufman stopped in to catch a matinee performance of the first act of “Of Thee I Sing,” the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize, after it had been running for a few months. At the intermission, he sent a telegram to William Gaxton, the leading man: “WATCHING YOUR PERFORMANCE FROM THE LAST ROW STOP WISH YOU WERE HERE” . . .

Here’s another important element that was left out of the picture. The story of Elias P. Crockfield does not advance the plot, but it is our first (and really only) glimpse of Whiteside’s sentimental radio persona. And, like Beverly Carlton’s song in the second act, it follows a lot of break-neck comedy and gives the audience a chance to catch their breath. Lane’s performance of the speech is not as marvellous as much of the rest of his performance, but at least he approximates the idea well enough to get the job done. It’s a shame Claude Rains never played this role. I can’t imagine anyone who could handle Whiteside’s overt sentimentality and venomousness more deftly.

Enter Lorraine Sheldon

“The Man Who Came to Dinner” is notable for the number of characters in it who are based on celebrities of the day (i.e., 1939), with no attempt to conceal the identities of their real-life counterparts. Sheridan Whiteside is clearly based on the owlish radio personality, Alexander Woollcott; Beverly Carlton is unquestionably based on Noël Coward; the character Banjo is obviously based on Harpo Marx. I have been startled to discover that it is widely believed that Lorraine Sheldon is based on Gertrude Lawrence. Many sources, including the Library of America’s edition of Kaufman’s plays, blandly offer this as a matter of fact. Au contraire: she’s much closer in personality and background to Tallulah Bankhead. Lorraine Sheldon is not exactly like Tallulah Bankhead, either, but she certainly has much more in common with Bankhead than she has with Gertrude Lawrence. At any rate, an actress is bound to get more laughs playing Lorraine as if she were Tallulah than as if she were Gertie. Jean Smart (a very shrewd and capable comedienne) plays the role exactly as if she were Jean Smart, and that seems the best plan of all: she’s hilarious. She has two long moments on the telephone in Act Two that are about as broad and funny as anything I’ve ever seen. Out of context, I’m afraid they won’t mean much, so I’ll show you her entrance instead, which is plenty great.

Lorraine Sheldon has almost nothing at all in common with Gertrude Lawrence. Lawrence had two of her greatest successes with Noël Coward (“Private Lives” and “Tonight at 8:30”), and while her friendship with him was not without its bumps — both were highly temperamental — she was never his sworn enemy, as she is in “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” (On Lawrence’s opening night for “The King and I,” Coward sent her a telegram that read: “A WARM HAND ON YOUR OPENING.”) Nor did Lawrence ever chase “panting, from castle to castle,” an English nobleman. This latter distinction belongs to Tallulah Bankhead, who had an on-again off-again affair with Napier Stuart, Lord Alington, for many years. Most tellingly, like the fictional Lord Bottomley, Bankhead describes Alington (in her autobiography) as having “an almost repulsive mouth.” (Bring on the Roquefort cheese.) Like Lorraine Sheldon, Bankhead was American-born and was for a time considered one of the great actresses of the American theatre; Lawrence was primarily a star in Britain. And while Bankhead, like Lorraine Sheldon, was famous for her sexual rapaciousness, Lawrence was not. (Chico Marx was introduced to Bankhead at a party, but only after he was warned to behave himself in the presence of Speaker of the House William B. Bankhead’s daughter. Chico: “Miss Bankhead.” Tallulah: “Mr Marx.” Chico: “You know, I really want to fuck you.” Tallulah: “And so you shall, you old-fashioned boy.”)

In case you’re wondering, Dorothy di Frasso was an American-born café society Fascist, who married an Italian count and was close friends with Il Duce, Benito Mussolini. “Kit” (Katharine) Cornell was widely considered, in the thirties and forties, to be the finest actress on Broadway. Cornell gave Christopher Plummer a break early in his career; he was extremely fond of her, but insists that she was not, and never could be, a great actress. Beatrice Lillie was a famous (and famously scrawny) comedienne. Jock Whitney was a philanthropist, investor, U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom (under Eisenhower) and publisher of the New York Herald Tribune. Sybil Cartwright is a fictional character. This Roundabout production was scrupulous about keeping in place nearly all of the original dropped names. Most of the versions I’ve seen (including the motion picture) alter the names to more current or better-known ones, which only makes the chatter less glamorous, without making it more meaningful to the general public, who are unlikely to recognize half of the names, anyway. One name that the Roundabout production changed bears mentioning: “Have you kidnapped someone, Sherry?” “Yes: that was the Lindbergh baby.” The line gets a laugh, which is what it’s supposed to do, and it’s just waspish enough for Woollcott to have said. I don’t believe, however, audiences in 1939 — seven years after the kidnapping — would have liked such a joke. Unfortunately, the victim mentioned in the original script is “Charley Ross,” a name that few people are likely to recognize. In its way, a Charley Ross joke is even more objectionable than one about the Lindbergh baby, but also (therefore) funnier. Charley Ross was the first nationally famous kidnapping victim. The four year-old Charley and his five year-old brother Walter were kidnapped from their front lawn in a wealthy section of Philadelphia in 1874. Walter was released, but Charley was held for ransom and never returned. The case was never solved. In the play, Dr Bradley appears to be about seventy years old, which makes him the same age Charley Ross, had he survived, would have been. It’s impossible to know what Kaufman would have thought about the alteration. On the one hand, I’m sure he’d hate to lose the laugh; on the other hand, I have a hunch he wouldn’t have considered the Lindbergh baby an acceptable substitute. I’m willing to accept it for the laughter it excites and for its astringency.

The Stage Design

One of the great pleasures of the Roundabout revival was the gorgeous set by Tony Walton. Here he is, describing how he came up with the look.

As it happens, I have a younger brother who designs sets for the student shows at the college where he teaches scenic and costume design. Some years ago, when I learnt that his school had presented “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” I asked him how he approached the set. He told me that he operated on the assumption that the Stanleys, in whose home the action takes place, were social-climbing vulgarians. “How did you demonstrate their vulgarity?” I asked. “Oh, I made the books match the drapes.” “My God,” I said, “that’s brilliant! Did the set get a laugh?” He took a pause worthy of Kaufman and Hart, then answered, “No, but all the faculty wives wanted me to decorate their homes.” I don’t mind playing straight man to a line as clever as that one.

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