The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

I like to go to plays. Not Broadway extravaganzas, but community and university theater productions. Unfortunately, my spouse doesn’t share this interest, which cuts back on my dramatical attendance, except when our daughter comes home for a visit. Fortunately, stage plays find their way onto the silver screen, and found their way to it even more in the 30s and 40s than today. Modern examples of the play-on-film would be Bug (2006) and Doubt: a Parable (2008), which I have reviewed. Unfortunately, we are not living in the age of Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder, and Tennessee Williams, except insofar as revivals and remakes allow us to do so. With all due respect, John Patrick Shanley, Tony or no Tony, is no Kaufman or Hart, the two who wrote the play from which  The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) derives, via the Epstein twins’ screenplay(the Epsteins of Casablanca fame).

TMWCTD is a comedy of great verbal energy, many fun cogs and wheels and conversational gizmos, jokes, gags, all done on the level of a New Yorker parlor drama. They don’t make them like this anymore – so dense, so many moving parts. As I watched Married Life (2007) the other night, I detected faint echoes from those lost days. Do I subscribe to the theory that civilization is headed downhill because of this and other portents? Nope, and besides, weighing and judging civilization and its components is far beyond my capacity to grok, at least in 1,000 words or less. (Do I believe the planet and the human race are headed downhill? Ulp!) But just because I don’t expect another TMWCTD to roll off the assembly line in 2010 doesn’t mean that I’ll have no chance to laugh at a movie. I watched Reno 911:Miami (2007)  again the other night with my spouse, and because she liked it, perhaps I’ll get to watch all 5 seasons again. Yay! In my defense, I think that the Marx brothers would like it too. And She’s Out of Your League (2010)? Not in TMWCTD’s league, but still, life is still good on the couch.

Most of  the topical content in TMWCTD has aged out, evaporated, leaving behind in the dialog a foundation of basic comic ideas: gone for most of us are an appreciation of Lucius Beebe’s penguins and octopus, Lana Turner’s sweater, Zazu Pitts, Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, and the larger-than-life Alexander Woolcott, who spent a weekend with Moss Hart, prompting Hart to wonder out loud, My God, what if he never left? and the play’s premise was born.

In TMWCTD, Jimmy Durante is funnier than I remember. Younger, too. Who fills the Durante niche in comedy today?  There’s bound to be someone. Early Jim Carey? It’s got to be someone who mugs outrageously and with unflagging energy. Vintage Robin Williams? Durante, suddenly seeming more  modern to me, makes me doubt the trope that some classic aspect of  screwball stage comedy is gone and isn’t coming back; perhaps it’s all just cycles and cycles and only a matter of time before we’ve gone in retrospect from Touch of Mink to Mash to Airplane to Knocked Up and back to Coconuts again. An extra four billion folks have arrived on the planet since TMWCTD was written. Even if they simply act like monkeys with typewriters, lost or missing dialogic brilliance ought to crop up now and again, out of the chaotic randomosity of crowds. Or will we just keep getting more video games instead? Great Britain bans EA’s Medal of Honor because it allows you to play on the side of the Taliban. That’s comedy, isn’t it?

Glenda the good witch works in TMWCTD without her wand.

Anne Sheridan plays the whole movie overdressed, but shows up 30s style for one scene in a thin silk blouse, confronting the camera face-to-face, so to speak, and proving without a doubt that she’s a mammal.

I’ve noticed more than once that watching two movies at the same time, interleaved as it were, or one after the other, offers perspectives that might otherwise go unnoticed. For example, I saw Ameracord (1973) one Friday night in San Diego, followed by The Godfather (1972) on Saturday. Fellini’s artistry made The Godfather, seen so soon after, seem rather amateurish to me. Now that The Godfather has entered the pantheon of great films, any crudeness in its fabrication goes largely unnoticed. Every so often, when I stop to think about this, I feel privy to a cinematical secret, just because of that Friday and Saturday a long time ago. In the present instance, the two overlapping movies are TMWCTD and Repo Men (2010). Sure, there are chuckles in both, but in this example we learn that just talking at each other real fast can pack a punch greater than that felt by  cutting the other guy open, reaching inside him, and hauling out his mechanical stomach while wise-cracking about it. Just sayin.

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2 Responses

  1. Reading your comments on Jimmy Durante, I was struck by the lack of recent comedians (please correct me if I’m wrong) who don’t seem to age well in their field, unlike other comedians like Durante who were still funny even in their old age.

    • first of all, i’m still at that novice blogger stage wherein i’m delighted and amazed just to get a comment. or maybe i’m stunned, faced with a question. so thank you for taking the time to move your fingers over the keyboard and to push some of the keys.

      i’m also at the stage of fearing that blogs will evaporate in favor of facebook, twitter, or whatever, so that any response by me to a commentor’s question will increasingly seem like some amishish act emerging from the mists of the past. but maybe i’m overthinking the InterTubes in that respect.

      so yeah, not so many older comedians these days, whereas jack benny, bob hope, red skeleton, milton berle, george burns, etc., etc., went on performing into old age. what’s up with that?

      a few comedians got old more recently while still working: red foxx, don rickles, and woody allen. does joan rivers count? i guess phylis diller hung it up at some point. eugene levy is still going strong. but none of these, except for woody, are of great stature and age hasn’t helped his schtick. although shelly berman crops up in curb your enthusiasm once and while, but he’s not working the room. chevy chase keeps trying.

      hmm. drugs and/or fat and/or murder and/or misadventure have carried off some comedians before they could get old. i’m thinking of belushi, candy, also that other heavyset guy, and the guy who got shot by his crazy wife, andy kaufman, and richard pryor.

      some comedians try the jump from tv to movies and don’t do so well, aging in relative obscurity: molly shannon, cheri oteri, chris katan, norm macdonald, to name a few.

      but mainly, these days, don’t the best comedians seem to eventually straighten out into drama with an occasional humorous role thrown in: steve martin, robin williams, jim carey, bill murray, dan ackroyd, billy chrystal, bob newhart (in the librarian series)? adam sandler, still funny, but the drama is there too.

      also, i was watching an old snl dvd last night and noticed how young will ferrell looked in the sketches on it. there is now a crop of comedians moving toward middle age, in addition to ferrell and sandler. john c. riley, ben stiller. seinfeld trying to figure it out.

      maybe the main thing is that many of the old comedians kept doing some standup late in their careers, whereas now standup is a niche that many comedians, like chris rock, susan silverman, and chris rock, work to escape.

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