Each year the Alternative Christmas Film Advent Calendar takes a look at the perhaps lesser-known Christmas films. The ones that we don’t make a point of re-watching each year as festive tradition. With that in mind this year the Calendar, with slight inspiration from last year’s selection of The Curse Of The Cat People, delves into the world of forgotten classics, the ones that may have been slightly left behind in exchange for the likes of It’s A Wonderful Life and The Bishop’s Wife.
After taking a glance at the workplace and getting ready for time off for Christmas let’s take a step in a different direction with today’s potentially forgotten classic Christmas film. Let’s prepare for the inevitable guests and family members by taking a look at 1942’s The Man Who Came To Dinner.
Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley – providing gift enough with his smashing facial hair alone!) is perhaps the worst kind of guest you would want taking up the entire downstairs floor of your home, particularly if you’re then excluded from it. It’s the fate that Ernest (Grant Mitchell) and Daisy (Billie Burke) Stanley find themselves meeting when the famed New York radio personality slips on ice outside their home before a publicity meal with the pair. Threatening to sue them otherwise he commands the house with his authoritative voice as if it’s his own and transforms the festively decorated living room into his own personal office and work space; with the help of his eye-rolling, yet confined, assistant Maggie (Bette Davis).
While providing plenty of excellent, often uncaring, asides and insults – “my Great-Aunt Jennifer ate a whole box of candy every day of her life. She lived to be a hundred and two and when she had been dead three days she looked better than you do now” – it’s clear that the brilliantly performed, and now wheelchair-bound, Whiteside is far from a pleasant character. He creates a very civil kind of havoc within the Stanley’s home, creating disorder and a change to the standard dynamic that seems to have been so peaceful and orderly up until now. Particularly when it comes to the young adults who come in and out of the place, thinking about their own futures and feeling somewhat restrained by their father. The place almost begins to feel like an unrecognisable luxury zoo, and not just because of the penguins running around.
In some respects there’s a slight vein of good within Whiteside and his actions and the effects that they have, although in most cases only initially. Yet, his mind is firmly set on his own status, reputation and gain, particularly in the build-up to his annual Christmas message broadcast. A heightened affair which he clearly relishes for the attention which it gains him, boosting his reputation at this most charitable time of year. His ‘public’ persona throughout the film is very much one of faux seasonal goodwill.
Throw into the mix Maggie’s growing relationship with newspaper owner Bert (Richard Travis) one or two other blossoming festive romances there’s plenty of standard Christmas conventions on display when it comes to such relationships. It contrasts with Whitehead’s views and attitudes where he seems intent on keeping Maggie working for him as long as possible, doing what he can to stop her from quitting, simply because of how much work she actually does for him. There’s a clear divide amongst a number of the characters, and clearly one that goes beyond just the Christmas season. Conflictions are obvious and it certainly creates cold tensions between various figures to match the weather outside the house, which caused Sheridan’s injury in the first place. It may reflect out worst-case scenario feelings and ideas about friends, family and general guests over the Christmas period, or it may make us very thankful that we simply don’t have to put up with anyone quite like the inflated celebrity personality of Sheridan Whiteside.
The Man Who Came To Dinner can be watched in the following places:
If you don’t have a physical copy of the film available/ anywhere then it’s always well worth checking JustWatch to see where the film might be available to buy, rent or stream in your country.