The Fifth Day of Christmas: “The Man Who Came To Dinner” from 1942, Sealed in Vain

Twelve Days of Christmas

Today is the fifth day of “The Twelve Days of Christmas with the Code.” During this Yuletide event, I have reviewed Breen films which celebrate the season while complying with the Code. Today, however, I am going to review a Christmas feature which, although made during the greater Breen era (1934-1954), is far from being up to the Breen standard. The Man Who Came to Dinner from 1942 is my selection for today. In my article “A Crack In The Code,” I discussed the eight month period in 1941 and 1942 when Joseph I. Breen was the head of RKO, leaving Geoffrey Shurlock in charge of the Production Code Administration. This movie, which was released on January 1 of 1942, was made right during the non-Code period, also known as the RKO period. Films of this kind are very strange, since they have the PCA Seal of Approval, they were made during the twenty Breen years, but they are far from Code-compliant. Let’s begin by considering the movie’s story; then we will examine its Codishness to show that it was “sealed in vain.” (I borrowed this phrase from “Take, O Take Those Lips Away,” a poem attributed to William Shakespeare.)

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Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) is an international wit, famous speaker, widely-read author, and radio personality who has as many famous friends as acidic replies. He and his personal secretary, Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis) arrive in a small Ohio town, where he is going to give a lecture and have dinner with a prominent business man, Ernest Stanley (Grante Mitchell) and his wife, Daisy (Billie Burke). Mrs. Stanley is thrilled about Mr. Whiteside’s stay, but Mr. Stanley doesn’t see what it so dignified and fascinating about the bearded man. Maggie is also having a difficult time convincing Sherry to be civilized to the Midwestern couple. Eventually, after a slue of witty and impolite comments and actions on the part of Sherry, they make it to the house. Just as Mr. Whiteside is ascending the front steps, he slips on the ice, falls, and breaks his hip. The whole household is thrown into a tizzy, to say nothing of Sherry’s schedule, since lectures, appearances, and engagements have to be canceled. Some newspapers joke that Christmas might be canceled this year because of his injury. Since Mr. Whiteside has to stay in the Stanley house for many weeks due to his injury, he quickly establishes his regime. He demands exclusive use of the parlor, the living room, the front door, the telephone, and the front staircase. He has a personal nurse, Miss Preen (Mary Wickes), whom he terrorizes, and a physician, Dr. Bradley (George Barbier), who doesn’t understand half of his insults. The other members of the household are June (Elisabeth Fraser), a daughter who is in love with a factory striker, and Richard (Russell Arms), a son who wants to be a photographer and travel the world. At first Mr. Whiteside scares them, but he eventually encourages them to pursue their dreams. The servants are John (Edwin Stanley), the butler, and Sarah (Betty Roadman), the cook, who are completely ignorant of Sherry’s mean-spiritedness, since he is rather kind to them. The final member of the household is Mr. Stanley’s mad spinster sister, Harriet (Ruth Vivian), who frequently sneaks up to Mr. Whiteside and says strange and admiring things. The enterprising young editor of the local newspaper, Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis), comes to the Stanley house to get an interview with the overbearing lecturer, and his persistence endears him to the disagreeable old man. However, Mr. Whiteside is not the only one who begins to like Mr. Jefferson. Maggie, a hardened spinster who has been yearning for romance, quickly feels herself falling for Bert, and the feeling seems to be mutual. This is very concerning to Sherry, since he selfishly puts his own need for a good secretary above Maggie’s happiness. When Dr. Bradley tells him that his hip is completely well, he says that he wants to keep it a secret, pretending that he is interested in the doctor’s memoirs. Meanwhile, he begins concocting an elaborate scheme to break up Maggie’s romance with Bert. He sends for his flirtatious actress friend, Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan), whom he interests in a play Bert has written. The glamorous actress begins to use all her tricks on Bert. However, Maggie is not going to lose Bert that easily; she has some tricks of her own. To add to the chaos, two of Sherry’s friends drop in for the holidays. First, he is visited by a British actor and writer, Beverly Carlton (Reginald Gardiner), then he receives a crazy Hollywood personality, Banjo (Jimmy Durante). When Maggie decides to quit Sheridan’s employ because of a broken heart, he decides that, since he is losing her anyway, she might as well be happy. It will take all of his nefarious tricks to get Lorraine out of the picture before Mr. Stanley throws him out on Christmas morning. The ending is hilarious and ludicrous. I can’t describe it; you have to see it for yourself.

So much for the story. The acting is brilliant, the dialogue is extremely clever and quick, and the combination is riotous. This movie came from the 1939 Kaufman and Hart of the same name. It featured an Epstein brothers script, William Keighley direction, and Warner Brothers production. The Warners’ touch is all over this picture, and Geoffrey Shurlock did nothing to wipe it off. The synopsis of the play is identical to that of the film. I’m sure that some of the dialogue was changed, but the feeling is identical. I enjoy this movie, since it is funny, well-acted, and very entertaining. I enjoy it like I enjoy Footlight Parade, Night World, and other pre-Code films. Since it was made during the non-Code period, I really don’t mind that it defies the Code in oh so many ways. Just in case you haven’t seen this picture, let me review just a few of the innumerable Code violations in this film.

Section I (Crime): Mr. Whiteside tells Maggie to tell the party on the telephone that the Stanleys were arrested for peddling dope, a clear violation of the rule forbidding references to the illegal drug traffic. Mr. Whiteside blackmails Mr. Stanley when he figures out that his crazy sister is the infamous Harriet Stanley who murdered her parents forty years ago. He recites a jump rope rhyme about how she killed her parents with an axe. The rhyme and incident are a clear parody on the real axe murderess Lizzy Borden.

Section II (The Facts of Life): Where can I begin? A line violates this section every other minute. Many of Sheridan’s lines contain double meanings which were either missed or ignored by Shurlock. The majority of them are said by Mr. Whiteside, but Banjo, Beverly, Lorraine, and Maggie are not above a few double-intendres. Sherry refers to Maggie as a “simpering Sappho,” Banjo calls Lorraine by Ann Sheridan’s real nickname, “the Oomph Girl,” and Mr. Whiteside says that Nurse Preen has the touch of a love-starved cobra. (This line was stated a little more blatantly in the original script, but it isn’t very good even in its current state.) Lorraine discusses a divorced couple which is getting married again. It is very complicated because the woman has to divorce her fourth husband, and the man has to divorce his third wife, who is the woman’s mother. That certainly doesn’t uphold the Code concept of marriage; in fact, it makes light of it and implies that such situations are common. Since divorce and remarriage was unfortunately common among Hollywood people, Mr. Breen tried to keep that sort of thing off the screen. Apparently Mr. Shurlock, who had no talent for public relations, wasn’t concerned about reminding the audience that the actors themselves engaged in such casual marriages and divorces.

Section III (Vulgarity): This section was also violated in many ways. After Mr. Whiteside has fallen on the ice, a montage of newsrooms and headlines are shown. One newspaperman quickly says that he fell on his, shall we say, posterior. Until the last time I watched this movie, I didn’t hear what he said, since they cut away so quickly. In fact, he used a vulgar word which the Warner Brothers seemed to have liked. In The Public Enemy, “Putty Nose” sings the follow song many times: “Lizzy Jones, big and fat, slipped on the ice and broke her….” He is always interrupted before he can say what she broke, but it rhymes with fat. The same word is used in this instance. One particularly vulgar situation is when Sherry has lunch with several murderers. One of them, he informs the audience, chopped his victims up in a salad bowl. Please forgive the italics, but that is disgusting. Later, he asks Richard if he wants to take a picture of his left nostril. I won’t single out any more lines; I’m sure you get the idea.

Section VI (Costumes): This section is violated in word and in the flesh. Lorraine mentions a woman in Palm Beach who wore a cellophane bathing suit through which one could “practically see the waves crashing.” In discussing Lorraine’s pursuing a Lord Bottomly, Sherry reads that she chased him from one beach house to another, stopping only to check her oil and change girdles. Aside from the generally suggestive nature of this line, it indecently refers to a woman’s intimate undergarment. Finally, Banjo gives Sherry a present which he says is Lana Turner’s sweater, telling him to try it on for size. As for the actual costume which is indecent, it is one of Lorraine’s. In the scene where she is first going to meet Bert Jefferson, she is wearing a blouse with little gold hands fastening it together. That is not the worst part of it, though. The blouse is very thin and clearly reveals the fact that she is wearing no undergarment beneath it. The result is absolutely shocking.

This picture is one of the clearest examples of the non-Code era. It truly shows that Geoffrey Shurlock could be easily manipulated. Warner Bros. successfully turned a scandalous play into a PCA Sealed film with very few improvements. You know that the PCA failed when a film it approved has parental cautions on IMDb. This film openly discusses crime and depicts a real criminal, only changing the name. It features many risque lines, double meanings, hidden implications, and suggestive references. There is a great deal of vulgarity, especially in Sherry’s lines. In addition, Ann Sheridan’s costume is beyond the limits of decency, to say nothing of good taste. Thus, although this film was granted PCA certificate No. 7268, it was sealed in vain, since it was not properly self-regulated. It was not breened; it was shurlocked.

The infuriating thing is that the problems are neither deep nor rooted in the plot. Aside from Miss Sheridan’s risque costume, the problems are lines, nothing but lines! However, one must consider that this film is also little more than lines. The plot is merely that an acid-tongued radio personality goes to an Ohio businessman’s house for dinner, slips on the ice, and breaks his hip, so he stays in the home for an extended period and makes everyone’s life miserable. That alone doesn’t sound very interesting. It is the rapid lines and hilarious dialogue that make this movie funny. It is also what makes this movie unacceptable. It is really a shame, because many of the funniest things are not dirty. With Mr. Breen’s careful hand of self-regulation, this movie could have been just as funny without featuring all the questionable elements. This really shows how much Mr. Breen was needed.

Although it can be frustrating to see such clear violations of the twenty perfect Breen years, I am grateful for the non-Code period. It makes one appreciate the good years more. It also shows that the decay of the Code in the 1950s was not the result of changing times or Mr. Breen’s loosening; it was the result of him withdrawing. He was at the office less as he began to retire. In 1955, things became loose just as they had in 1941 and 42, since Geoff Shurlock was as incompetent as ever.

Take the time to watch this movie soon. Pay close attention to all the lines. Enjoy their humour, but notice how blatantly risque some of them are. We can enjoy how amusing this film is, but let’s also let it make us grateful for all the properly Sealed films which are acceptable for everyone. Be sure to come back tomorrow for the sixth day of Christmas and a real Code Christmas film!

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One thought on “The Fifth Day of Christmas: “The Man Who Came To Dinner” from 1942, Sealed in Vain

  1. Pingback: The Twelve Days of Christmas with the Code! | pure entertainment preservation society

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