Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Hollywood Queen Who Came To Dinner

The first of three classic Bette Davis films released in 1942 & the ONLY film that ever paired The Queen of Warner Brothers with The Oomph Girl, Ann Sheridan: Happy 70TH Anniversary to William Keighley’s The Man Who Came to Dinner!

The Man Who Came To Dinner was based on a smash Broadway play written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart and starring Monty Wooley as the titular Sheridan Whiteside. It was written for the screen by the legendary Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein. The Epstein Brothers went on to write the brilliant screenplay for the last film to earn Bette Davis an Oscar nomination for “Best Actress” while at Warner Bros, Vincent Sherman’s Mr. Skeffinton, but they are best known for winning the Academy Award for "Best Original Screenplay" for Casbablanca. (Casey Robinson, whose credits include Now, Voyager, Dark Victory, and Kings Row, declined to share screen credit for his own contributions to Casablanca and was thus sadly ineligible for Oscar gold.)

Bette Davis loved seeing The Man Who Came To Dinner on Broadway and persuaded Jack Warner to buy the screen rights as a vehicle that would pair her with John Barrymore. But when the eldest Barrymore proved to be too ill to play the part, Monty Wooley was flown in from Broadway to reprise his role. It made Wooley a movie star and the film a box office smash, but Bette always expressed her disappointment at not having been given the chance to fulfill her dream of playing off of John Barrymore, even though the 1942 “Warner Bros. Breakdowns” blooper reel proves she maintained a good sense of humor (jump to 3:05 below).

Until the end of her life, Ann Sheridan noted how well she and Bette got on together, in spite of attempts by the WB press department to make everyone think that The Queen and The Princess were at war on the lot. Although Bette Davis never worked again with Ann Sheridan, one can assume she also got on well with Mary Wickes, who made her feature film debut reprising the role of “Miss Preen” that she had previously played in the Broadway play. Wickes went on to be Bette Davis’s co-star later that year in Irving G. Rapper’s Now, Voyager and again in Bretaigne Windust’s June Bride (1948). In 1965, they paired up again for “The Decorator”, a failed Aaron Spelling sitcom pilot that had originally been called “The Bette Davis Show”.

Billie Burke, Reginald Gardiner, Elisabeth Fraser, and Jimmy Durante are among the other legends in the ensemble cast. It was the most celebrated of three comedies that Bette Davis made in the 1940s, but Bette’s own disappointment with the film could be in part because it never afforded Miss Davis the chance to generate the big laughs she would later get in her most celebrated film, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950), or her most underrated, Roy Ward Baker’s The Anniversary (1967). In spite of this, The Man Who Came To Dinner was a deserved smash and remains one of the major highlights of Bette Davis’s most glorious era.

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