A Killer Christmas: Elements of Black Comedy in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER
16 December 2012
Over twenty years before one of the darkest and funniest of them all, Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, debuted, a comedy with subtler dark references emerged in American cinema. Although this earlier effort straddles the line between dark and slapstick, its darker moments are even darker because this classic film is holiday themed. Without question, the film’s repeated references to murderers and murder, which are all designed for comedic effect, give The Man Who Came to Dinner elements of a black comedy, perhaps making it the first holiday film comedy to use dark humor.
The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), directed by William Keighley, is an adaptation of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1939 play of the same title. Briefly, the film’s setting is a small town in Ohio during the week leading up to Christmas. Famous but highly disagreeable critic, Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) slips and falls on the steps of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley’s home. The fall lands him in a wheelchair and makes it impossible for him to leave Ohio before the Christmas holiday. Whiteside and his secretary, Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis), stay in the Stanley’s home, where Whiteside consistently inconveniences the Stanley family. Meanwhile, Maggie meets a local newspaper man and aspiring playwright, Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis), and the two quickly develop feelings for one another. Fearing Maggie will leave him for Bert, Whiteside call in Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan), a famous actress, to lure Bert away from Maggie, therefore keeping Maggie and her secretarial skills all to himself. Fighting back, Maggie devises her own plan to get rid of Lorraine. As the two battle through hilarious antics back and forth, secondary characters, all played by top-rate character actors of the time, hilariously traipse in and out of scenes. Despite all the trickery and shenanigans, the spirit of the season wins out and all the characters receive exactly what they deserve in the end.
Typically, black comedies use serious and heavy subject matter for comedic purposes, which is a bold and rather difficult thing to pull off with audiences. Interestingly, aide from the Christmas tree, presents, and holiday cheer, violent death and murder are recursive topics in The Man Who Came to Dinner, and these topics are used for comedic effect. There is not enough emphasis on these topics to say the film is a black comedy, but it is clear the film experimented with dark humor to entertain it audiences with a different approach than the conventional holiday film of its time.
First, rather early on in the film, Whiteside hosts a luncheon with convicted murders from the state penitentiary, and this is one of the film’s most overt approaches to dark humor. Whiteside learns of his guests’ arrival with the sound of sirens, and his four guests, handcuffed to one another, enter the Stanley home escorted by two officers holding large rifles. According to Maggie, Whiteside is the foremost authority on murderers and murder trials, which is apparent when Whiteside greets his guest by murder, noting one as the “Drainpipe Murderer” and another as Haggerty, the hatchet fiend who chopped up all his victims and put them in salad bowls. Overjoyed by his guests, Whiteside rattles off the lunch menu, which consists of chicken livers and cherries jubilee (there’s an image), and the host tacks on how he hopes “every little tummy is aflutter with gastric juices” (another terrifically disgusting image). Clearly the brief scene evokes repulsion, as well as violent crime and gore. Yet, the scene is highly comical and offers the film’s audience a dark laugh.
Moreover, the film is full of one-liners alluding to murder. In the film’s conclusion, Banjo (Jimmy Durante), the comic relief and a character based on the comedic genius of Harpo Marx, grimly tells Whiteside, “We’ll get Lorraine out if here if I have to do it one piece at a time.” Moreover, Whiteside and Banjo actually get Lorraine out of Ohio on Christmas by mummifying her, literally. With a large sarcophagus, Whiteside and Banjo convince Lorraine to play the role of a mummy and step into the ancient resting place. When she does they lock her in and ship her out of the house. This is slapstick humor, but it is also very dark, as Lorraine entombs herself in an actual sarcophagus and becomes a living mummy. It’s morbidly hilarious, and it’s happening on Christmas Day.
Different from how American holiday films of the 1940s typically celebrate the spirit of the season, The Man Who Came to Dinner fixates on killers. Beyond the convicts from the lunch party the film also includes a Lizzie Borden character. Harriet Stanley, sister of Mr. Stanley, falls in love with Whiteside, her handicapped houseguest. Curiously, she only approaches him when there is no one else around, as though she is always lurking around in dark corners waiting for opportunities. She is an old spinster, but Whiteside eventually recognizes her as an axe murderess who hacked her parents some years back. The film even goes so far as to include the Lizzie Borden rhyme, replacing Borden’s name with the character’s: “Harriet Stanley took and axe and gave her mother 40 whacks…” Although Harriet only appears in the film a few brief times, she is a memorable character because her bizarre behavior is hauntingly funny. She speaks lovingly and sweetly, but her phantom-like walk and obsession with Whiteside are outright strange. Then, when her true identity is revealed in the conclusion her oddities are brought into the foreground as wickedly and insanely hilarious.
Lastly, the continuous one-liners also hit on murderers. When Miss Preen (Mary Wickes), Whiteside’s nurse finally decides she must quite her job, she tells Whiteside, “If Florence Nightingale had nursed you she would have married Jack the Ripper instead of joining the Red Cross.” Referencing a famous serial killer, who, like Borden was never convicted for the crime (or even identified publicly), The Man Who Came to Dinner uses a psychopath’s murder spree so Wickes’ character can get a last laugh in with the audience.
To be fair, this film is not the type of black comedy audiences are used to seeing today; this film has elements of black comedy, but does not entirely fit the genre. The aforementioned Dr. Strangelove and the Coens Fargo are better examples of what audiences contemporarily recognize as a cinematic black comedy. The focus of The Man Who Came to Dinner is not on death, murder, or murderers, but those topics are repeated unyieldingly throughout the film. However, for 1942, even elements of dark humor brought to the silver screen is a change of pace, and using and undertone of murder and murderers in a Christmas film was completely original for the 1940s silver screen, and an approach to holiday filmmaking still unmatched today.