During a cross-country lecture tour, notoriously-acerbic New York radio personality Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) slips on the icy steps of the house of the Stanleys (Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke), a prominent Ohio family, and insists on recuperating in their home during the Christmas holidays. The overbearing, self-centered celebrity soon comes to dominate the lives of the residents and everyone else who enters the household. He encourages young adults Richard (Russell Arms) and June (Elisabeth Fraser) Stanley to pursue their dreams, much to the dismay of their conventional father Ernest.
Meanwhile, Whiteside's spinster assistant Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis) finds herself attracted to local newspaperman Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis). When she reads Bert's play, she is so impressed she asks Whiteside to show it to his contacts and then announces she will quit his employment and marry Bert. However, her boss is loath to lose such an efficient aide and does his best to sabotage the blossoming romance. He also exaggerates the effects of his injuries to be able to stay in the house. He suggests actress Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan) would be perfect for one of the leading roles, intending to have her steal Bert away from Maggie. Lorraine convinces Bert to spend time with her to fix up the play. When Maggie realizes Whiteside is behind the underhanded scheme, she quits. Somewhat chastened, Whiteside concocts a plan to get Lorraine out of the way, with the help of his friend Banjo (Jimmy Durante). They trap Lorraine in an Egyptian sarcophagus, and Banjo ships her off to Nova Scotia.
Finally fed up with Whiteside's shenanigans, insults, and unbearable personality, and realizing that he has been "faking" his injuries for quite some time, Mr. Stanley orders him to leave. Before he does, Whiteside blackmails him into allowing his children to do as they please by threatening to reveal Stanley's sister Harriet's past as an infamous axe murderess. As Whiteside departs, he falls on the icy steps again and is carried back inside, much to Stanley's consternation.
Cast notesMonty Woolley, Ruth Vivian, and Mary Wickes reprised their roles from the original Broadway production.
In an uncredited bit part, a nearly unseen Gig Young, in his distinctive voice, has one line, "How's the ice?", in the after-skating scene, about 26 minutes into the film.
Mary Wickes, who reprised her role from the stage, was making her screen debut in this film.
Also making his screen debut was Russell Arms.
Four of the leading characters are based on real-life personalities. Sheridan Whiteside was inspired by celebrated critic and Algonquin Round Table member Alexander Woollcott, who eventually played the role on stage; Lorraine Sheldon, by musical stage actress Gertrude Lawrence; Beverly Carlton, by playwright and renowned wit Noël Coward; and Banjo, by Harpo Marx.
When Bette Davis saw the Broadway production of The Man Who Came to Dinner, she decided the role of Maggie Cutler would be a refreshing change of pace following her heavily dramatic role in The Little Foxes. She urged Jack L. Warner to purchase the screen rights for herself and John Barrymore. He tested for the role of Whiteside but was deemed unsuitable when, as a result of his heavy drinking, he had difficulty delivering the complicated, fast-paced dialogue, even with his lines posted on cue cards throughout the set.
Both Charles Laughton and Orson Welles, who wanted to direct the film, campaigned for the role, and Laird Cregar and Robert Benchley made screen tests; but executive producer Hal B. Wallis thought the former was "overblown and extravagant" and the latter "too mild mannered." Warner suggested Cary Grant, but Wallis felt he was "far too young and attractive." Although Monty Woolley, who had created the role on stage, was not familiar to movie audiences, Wallis finally cast him in the role, despite Warner's concern that the actor's homosexuality would be obvious on screen. Orson Welles played the role many years later in a television adaptation of the play.
Bette Davis was unhappy with the casting of Woolley. In later years, she observed, "I felt the film was not directed in a very imaginative way. For me, it was not a happy film to make; that it was a success, of course, did make me happy. I guess I never got over my disappointment in not working with the great John Barrymore."
Bosley Crowther of The New York Times observed, "Any one who happened to miss the original acid-throwing antic on the stage – and any one, for that matter, who happened not to have missed it – should pop around, by all means, and catch the cinematic reprise. For here, in the space of something like an hour and fifty-two minutes, is compacted what is unquestionably the most vicious but hilarious cat-clawing exhibition ever put on the screen, a deliciously wicked character portrait and a helter-skelter satire, withal." He added, "Woolley makes The Man Who Came to Dinner a rare old goat. His zest for rascality is delightful, he spouts alliterations as though he were spitting out orange seeds, and his dynamic dudgeons in a wheelchair are even mightier than those of Lionel Barrymore. A more entertaining buttinsky could hardly be conceived, and a less entertaining one would be murdered on the spot. One palm should be handed Bette Davis for accepting the secondary role of the secretary, and another palm should be handed her for playing it so moderately and well." In conclusion, he said, "The picture as a whole is a bit too long and internally complex for 100 per cent comprehension, considering the speed at which it clips. But even if you don't catch all of it, you're sure to get your money's worth. It makes laughing at famous people a most satisfying delight."
Variety made note of the "superb casting and nifty work by every member of the company" and thought the "only detracting angle in the entire film is [the] slowness of the first quarter. [The] portion in which the characters are being built up, before the complications of the story actually begin, is overlong."
Time stated, "Woolley plays Sheridan Whiteside with such vast authority and competence that it is difficult to imagine anyone else attempting it" and added, "Although there is hardly room for the rest of the cast to sandwich in much of a performance between this fattest of fat parts, Bette Davis, hair up, neuroses gone, is excellent as Woolley's lovesick secretary."
Time Out London said, "It's rather unimaginatively directed, but the performers savour the sharp, sparklingly cynical dialogue with glee."
Monty Woolley was nominated for a New York Film Critics Circle Award in 1942 for Best Actor.
Warner Home Video released the Region 1 DVD on May 30, 2006. The film has an English audio track and subtitles in English, Spanish, and French. Bonus features include The Man Who Came to Dinner: Inside a Classic Comedy, the Joe McDoakes comedy short So You Think You Need Glasses, the musical short Six Hits and a Miss, and the original theatrical trailer.