Although set at Christmas, the charms of this film version of Kaufman & Hart’s famed play come in the rapid-fire dialogue and the numerous references to celebrities from the 1930s and early 1940s. It’s a fairly faithful screen version of the original stage play, with only a few outside scenes to open up the story and add some visual and romantic interest. Bette Davis seems an odd choice for the romantic lead in this film, but she actually was instrumental in getting it made and wanted the role as Sheridan Whiteside’s secretary to be a romantic change of pace from her previous more serious films. The play is an acerbic take-off on Alexander Woolcott, one of the leading members of the famed wits of the Algonquin Round Table. In fact, though Monty Woolley originally played the role on Broadway, eventually Woolcott took the role himself when the play went on tour. Other roles in the play are modeled on other celebrities from the 1920s and 1930s. Beverly Carlton is Noel Coward; Banjo is Harpo Marx, who was also an occasional member of the Algonquin Round Table and who even briefly played the role when the play toured the West Coast. Lorraine Sheldon was modeled on the actress Gertrude Lawrence. Of course, there are many wonderful character actors, especially from the Warner Brothers studio, and we have seen most of them in earlier films on our Christmas watch list.
Noted author and radio personality Sheridan Whiteside is visiting Mesalia, Ohio, several weeks before Christmas during a nationwide lecture tour. Stopping for lunch at the home of one of the city’s leading citizens, Whiteside slips on the icy front steps, injuring his hip and forcing him to stay at the home for several weeks recuperating. His dominant personality takes over the entire household, which is flooded by phone calls, packages and visitors calling on the famed Whiteside. His secretary, who accompanies him, meets an attractive local newspaperman and begins to fall in love. Whiteside tries to break up the budding romance through nefarious manipulations, but all ends well on Christmas day, until Whiteside now recovered is ready to leave …. and slips on the ice again!
The story begins a few weeks before Christmas and culminates on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. There is a lavishly decorated tree, scenes of ice skating and snow-covered streets.
Monty Wooley (Sheridan Whiteside) has already been seen in The Bishop’s Wife, where we posted more information about his career.
Jimmy Durante (Banjo) was on our Christmas watch list for his role in The Great Rupert.
Billie Burke (Daisy Stanley) appeared in The Cheaters.
Grant Mitchell (Mr. Stanley) has already been seen in a smaller role in It Happened on Fifth Avenue.
Reginald Gardiner (Beverly Carlton) played Barbara Stanwyck’s would-be husband in Christmas in Connecticut.
Mary Wickes (Miss Preen) was seen previously in White Christmas. She, Monty Woolley, and Ruth Vivian (who plays Harriet Stanley) were the only three actors from the original Broadway production to appear in the film version. Wickes again played Miss Preen in a 1972 TV version of the play.
George Barbier (Dr. Bradley) had roles in such classics as Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and Little Miss Broadway (1938).
Edwin Stanley (John the butler) appeared in such screwball classics as Libeled Lady (1936), Easy Living (1937), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Too Hot to Handle (1938) and Ninotchka (1939).
Fred Kelsey (detective) has been seen several times on our holiday watch list, including roles in Christmas in Connecticut and O. Henry’s Full House.
Frank Moran (Haggerty) has been seen in two previous films on our list: Meet John Doe (1941) and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943). His other film credits include The Good Fairy (1935) and Another Thin Man (1939). Moran appeared in nearly every film directed by Preston Sturges: The Great McGinty (1940), Christmas in July (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), The Great Moment (1944), The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947) and Unfaithfully Yours (1948),
Ralph Peters (cab driver) had a wonderful role as one of the gangster’s stooges in Ball of Fire (1941) and appeared again as a cab driver in Lady on a Train (1945), which is a new film on our holiday watch list.
Frank Moran appeared in three films with Fred Astaire: Shall We Dance (1937), A Damsel in Distress (1937) and Carefree (1938).
WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE
The rapid-fire dialogue, the acerbic wit and the name-dropping references to celebrities in the 1930s. I appeared as Mr. Stanley in a stage production of the play at Chamberlayne Actors Theatre in 1993.
WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM
Turner Classic Movies shows the film at least once every December.