Monday, February 13, 2006

Bette Middlin'

The next big DVD box set on the horizon is The Bette Davis Collection Volume 2, featuring new special editions of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Jezebel, Old Acquaintance (which caused many reviewers at the time to write: "Old Acquaintance should be forgot"), Marked Woman and The Man Who Came To Dinner.

Of these, The Man Who Came to Dinner is the one I like best, and Davis is the weakest thing in it -- she's miscast in a small and thankless part as the long-suffering assistant to the Alexander Woolcott-esque Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley). Jack Warner was known for sometimes making his stars play these unrewarding second-banana parts just to keep them from getting swelled heads about their star status. But the cast, aside from Davis, is great -- Woolley repeating his stage role; Jimmy Durante, Ann Sheridan, Reginald Gardiner as a Noel Coward caricature and Mary Wickes as the nurse Miss Preen (who has the best speech in the movie and the play it's based on: "After nursing you, Mr. Whiteside, I am going to work in a munitions factory"). Like most Warner Brothers adaptations of plays, it sticks quite close to the stage script and is therefore very stagy and claustrophobic, but it's a lot of fun.

Leonard Maltin recently wrote that he discovered, from memos in the WB archives, that Jack Warner was initially considering hiring Orson Welles to play Whiteside and direct the movie. Welles met with WB executives for preliminary talks about the idea, but the idea was dropped, possibly due to the box-office failure of Citizen Kane.

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