Friday, October 16, 2009

Quote of the Day (George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, With a Shy Critic’s Response to the Nursing Profession)

Sheridan Whiteside: [opening a box of candy] “Ah, pecan butternut fudge!”

Nurse Preen: “Oh, my, you mustn't eat candy, Mr. Whiteside, it's very bad for you.”

Whiteside: “My great aunt Jennifer ate a whole box of candy every day of her life. She lived to be 102 and when she'd been dead three days she looked better than you do now!”—George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939)

I think of the late 1920s to late 1930s as the Restoration Period of American comedy, with playwrights like Philip Barry, S.N. Behrman, Edna Ferber, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart offering up sophisticated banter. One of the best examples of the stagecraft and style of the latter two was The Man Who Came to Dinner, which premiered on this date 70 years ago at New York’s Music Box Theatre.

Title character Sheridan Whiteside was based on their friend, the acerbic and much-feared theater critic Alexander Woollcott (in the accompanying image). The playwrights hatched their idea after Woollcott visited Hart’s plush Pennsylvania home, lorded it over his friend and terrorized the hired help, then left with this inscription in the guest book: “I wish to say that on my first visit to Moss Hart's house I had one of the most unpleasant evenings I can ever recall having spent."

As Hart related the incident to Kaufman, he concluded it could have been worse—what if Woollcott were forced to stay longer because of illness or injury? Kaufman stopped dead in his tracks and stared at his collaborator. In an instant, they knew they had their next play.

Instead of taking offense at the show, Woollcott loved it so much that he played the role in touring companies!

If you haven’t seen the show in a theater, you might have caught it on TV sometimes, in one of the following incarnations:

* the 1942 movie, starring Monty Woolley, repeating his stage success, with Bette Davis assuming the slightly beefed-up role of Whiteside’s long-suffering personal assistant;

* a PBS telecast of the 2000 Roundabout Theatre revival starring Nathan Lane; and

* the rarest seen of all—the 1972 “Hallmark Hall of Fame” production, updated from the radio to the television era, starring Orson Welles.

The Welles version is the most problematic. Critics scoffed at the topical references in Sam Denoff-Bill Persky teleplay, but the real difficulty lay with the orotund, rotund actor himself.

At a post-show “talk-back” for the Roundabout production, I asked Kitty Carlisle Hart, Moss’s widow, what she thought of Welles’ version. “Oy vey!” she groaned.

By Ms. Hart’s account, Welles was nearly as insufferable as the character he played. He started by getting the producers to film the special in England because that’s where he was living at the time.

Worse than that, though, was that the actor had gone deeply into what might be termed his “Paul Masson” phase—i.e., he loved the grape so much that he drank copious amounts of it at lunch, rendering anything he did after that point in the day distinctly subpar.

Joan Collins, I think, would agree with Ms. Hart’s assessment. The poor man’s Elizabeth Taylor, who played mantrap Lorraine Sheldon to the hilt (naturally!) in this TV version, wrote later that the actor read “every single line” from cue cards.

Does anyone read Woollcott anymore? I doubt it. But he left such a strong impression on people in his own time that two indelible characters have been based on him. In addition to Sheridan Whiteside, he also inspired the creation of Waldo Lydecker, the waspish critic (what else?) in the 1944 film noir Laura. (See my post on it from earlier this week.)

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