Genre: Screwball Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 52 min.
Release Date: January 24th, 1942 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: William Keighley Actors: Monty Woolley, Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, Richard Travis, Jimmy Durante, Billie Burke, Reginald Gardiner, Elisabeth Fraser, Grant Mitchell, George Barbier, Mary Wickes
elebrated author and critic Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley, reprising his role on the stage, and still perfectly cast in this theatrical adaptation) is to appear at the Mesalia Opera House in Ohio on December 9th – but sarcastic Ernest Stanley (Grant Mitchell) and his enthusiastic wife Daisy (Billie Burke) are to host the great man this very evening (in late November). While Daisy fawns over the esteemed guest’s appearance (“Mr. Whiteside’s beard is what makes him so distinguished”), Ernest has his reservations. And they’re not unfounded; when Whiteside disembarks his train, he’s quick to disparage the “Midwestern barbarians,” averse to spending his valuable time amongst commoners.
Managed and accompanied by stern secretary Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis), Whiteside eventually journeys to the Stanley mansion, but he’s rewarded with a nasty slip and fall on their doorstep. Confined to a room in the “moldy mortuary” for two weeks, Sheridan finally emerges, wheelchair-bound but intent on not only suing the Stanleys for his injuries but also taking over the household for his personal and professional affairs. He sleeps till noon, requires exclusive space for private dining and meetings, demands that the homeowners not tie up the phone line, smokes specialty cigarettes, and refuses to allow the Stanleys (including their adult son Richard [Russell Arms] and daughter June [Elisabeth Fraser], as well as Ernest’s daffy sister Harriet [Ruth Vivian]) to come and go through the front door and up their own staircase.
“Doesn’t that bird brain of yours ever function?” Content with insulting everyone who crosses his path – including, or perhaps especially, those who wish to help him – Sheridan is quite the acerbic curmudgeon. Yet his perpetual irascibility is undeniably charming; he’s more fiendishly mischievous than outright villainous. And so, when Maggie decides that she’s fallen in love with local newspaperman Bertram H. Jefferson (Richard Travis), an act which would disrupt Whiteside’s routines should he have to train a replacement assistant, Sheridan opts to play an anti-cupid of sorts, arranging for sultry actress Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan, a coincidental name to be cast) to show up unexpectedly for a disorderly love triangle.
“I have enriched your feeble life beyond your capacity to repay me.” As the Stanley residence transforms into a madhouse (at times like the gatherings in “Arsenic and Old Lace,” “You Can’t Take It With You,” and a manic Marx Bros. episode), Whiteside’s mile-a-minute dialogue remains absolutely hysterical. There’s no shortage of screwball laughs as he upends the household and plots finely calculated machinations – matched only by Maggie’s own unshakeable sharpness.
Although the series of feuds – and makings and un-makings of romantic entanglements – are regularly amusing, they tend to carry on a touch too long. By the time Jimmy Durante shows up for an extended cameo, some of the sustained hysterics have already worn thin. Fortunately, however, a climactic, literal countdown (due to a long-awaited strong-arm eviction) reinstates the rapidity, leading up to a ludicrous yet terribly fitting finale.
– Mike Massie