The Man Who Came to Dinner

Monty Woolley as Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)


Monty Woolley as Sheridan Whiteside, catty, cantankerous, and “celebrated author and critic”

Ohio, Winter 1941

Film: The Man Who Came to Dinner
Release Date: January 1, 1942
Director: William Keighley
Costume Designer: Orry-Kelly


Based on a play of the same name by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, the holiday-centered screwball comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner was released 80 years ago this year. Inspired by Hart’s own experiences with critic and writer Alexander Woollcott, the eponymous “man” is Sheridan Whiteside, an acerbic radio personality whose well-publicized national tour includes a stop in the invented town of Mesalia, Ohio, where his prestige has preceded him more than his condescending attitude.

Whiteside arrives in Mesalia on Thanksgiving Eve, several days ahead of his planned lecture to stay at the home of the well-to-do Stanley family, despite his snobbish protestations that “I simply will not sit down to dinner with Midwestern barbarians… I think too highly of my digestive system.” As the prim Women’s Club president Mrs. Stanley (Billie Burke) excitedly describes Mesalia’s culture, Whiteside turns to make one of his many acerbic quips at the small town’s expense, but karma sends the self-described “first man of American letters” tumbling down a staircase. Whiteside’s resulting hip fracture unfortunately extends his brief stay into an extended respite, during which he essentially takes over the Stanley home through the holidays, inviting in a parade of colorful guests and bizarre gifts.

“Christmas is Mr. Whiteside’s personal property. He invented it, it belongs to him,” explains Whiteside’s long-suffering secretary Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis) on Christmas Eve, after he’s been staying in the Stanley home for nearly a month. “Tomorrow morning, very first thing, Mr. Whiteside will open each and every present… and he’ll raise the biggest stink that you’ve ever seen in your life.”

What’d He Wear?

After weeks spent convalescing and barking out orders from his room at the Stanley domicile, Sheridan Whiteside finally makes his grandiose reappearance, resplendent in a Christmassy silk dressing gown and necktie while pushed in a wheelchair by his much-abused nurse Miss Preen (Mary Wickes, a frequent face of holiday classics like It’s a Wonderful Life and White Christmas.) “Big Lord Fauntleroy,” taunts Maggie as Whiteside attempts to be characteristically domineering from his silken-swathed throne on wheels, proving she can dish it back as much as her supercilious boss.

The first of Whiteside’s robes is festively festooned in a holly-and-berry print, likely in green and red (respectively), against a darker ground and with a matching shawl collar, cuffs, and sash in an elegant light-colored satin silk. This dressing gown also has a breast pocket and hip pockets.

Whiteside wears a woolen blanket over his lap, so the only other pieces of his wardrobe generally visible are his white shirt and his silk tie, printed with abstract swirls and a dark-dipped blade. The shirt has a spread collar, front placket, and two-button cuffs.

Monty Woolley in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

Next, Whiteside wears a darker silk dressing gown, covered in a Deco-style print of circles, lines, and swirls that reminds me of cigarettes, smoke, and ashtrays, echoing a favorite activity of Whiteside who’s rarely far from his cigarette holder. This robe is similarly detailed as the first with its light satin-finished collar and cuffs and trio of pockets, though this sash matches the body of the robe rather than the collar and cuffs. (Eagle-eyed reader Parker Cross noted to me on Twitter that this appears to be the exact same robe worn nearly a decade later by Robert Walker as the dapper but dangerous Bruno Antony in Hitchcock’s great 1951 thriller Strangers on a Train.)

“How do you like my new tie?” he asks the youngsters when trying to soften them up. “I think your tie is very pretty” replies the daughter Harriet (Ruth Vivian), with the son Richard (Russell Arms) going even further: “Now that we’re on speaking terms, Mr. Whiteside, I don’t mind telling you, I’ve been admiring all your ties!”

Whiteside: Do you like this one?
Richard: I do!
Whiteside: (untying it) It’s yours!

The tie that captures young Richard’s attention depicts jazz fiends playing an array of instruments like trumpet, clarinet, and double bass, with only the eyes and mouths of each “performer” illustrated on their pale faces against a dark ground.

Monty Woolley in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

At one point, Whiteside pushes back one of the grand silken cuffs to check his watch, a metal wristwatch on a brown leather strap.

Monty Woolley in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

His jazz-fiends tie replaced by an “air tie” with his shirt buttoned to the neck, Whiteside’s wristwatch gets some brief air-time from under the grand cuffs of his dressing gown.

On Christmas Eve, Whiteside wears a checked woolen flannel twill garment with a more intentional structure and a shorter length that suggests a comfortable smoking jacket rather than one of his dressing gowns. The colors of this tri-toned tartan plaid jacket may be lost to history, though lobby cards suggest that the darkest check is an appropriately seasonal wine-red. As with his robes, the smoking jacket has a collar and cuffs in an elegantly contrasting fabric, this time a dark velvet rather than silk. The lapels have the slim notches characteristic of the “cran Necker” or “Parisian” style, in the same dark velvet also seen facing the full belt, turned-back cuffs, and atop the set-in breast and hip pockets.

Whiteside wears another swirly tie, uniquely trussed to present a conservative repp stripe over the knot with the rest of the tie printed in more colorful swirls echoing the eyes of storms.

Monty Woolley in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

Whiteside wears dark woolen trousers, almost certainly pleated and finished on the bottoms with turn-ups (cuffs). Regaining some mobility, he’s swapped out his slippers for brown leather plain-toe ankle boots with straps across the tops like jodhpur boots.

Monty Woolley in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

Though Whiteside’s grand loungewear may be his most memorable attire, he bookends the movie wearing his traveling suit—a striped broken-twill two-piece tweed clabber—for his arrival the day before Thanksgiving and on Christmas Day.

This sporty suit consists of a single-breasted, two-button ventless jacket with softly padded shoulders, notch lapels, four-button cuffs, and patch pockets, with a plain white linen kerchief in the breast pocket. His trousers have an appropriately long rise to meet the jacket’s buttoning point at Woolley’s natural waistline, and the bottoms are finished with turn-ups (cuffs).

Monty Woolley in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

Even with his staid tweed suit, Whiteside continues his tradition of wearing flashy ties. His Christmas tie is patterned with a series of white and dark balanced stripes that are perpendicularly cornered and overlaid by large white polka dots.

To combat the wintry weather, Whiteside layers with a dark wide-scaled broken twill tweed Balmacaan-style overcoat, with a Prussian collar, five woven leather buttons, slanted welt hand pockets, turnback cuffs, and the requisite raglan sleeves characteristic of a classic Balmacaan coat. He also wears a dark soft felt or velvet trilby and a dark tri-toned tartan plaid woolen scarf with fringed ends.

Monty Woolley in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

Careful on those icy steps, Sheridan!

What to Imbibe

Maggie’s beloved playwright paramour Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis) offers to mix up a quick quartet of his self-titled Jefferson Special cocktails to celebrate Lorraine’s faux engagement. “My Jefferson Special will cure anything!” the amiable newspaperman promises. Unfortunately, we never get to learn more about these drinks, other than the fact that a rejuvenated Sheridan Whiteside requests that his be a double.

Monty Woolley in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

Just because Bert Jefferson doesn’t tell us what’s in his Jefferson Specials doesn’t mean we can’t figure something out for ourselves!

Given what little we had to go on—primarily, the appearance of the cocktail with its foamy finish—I set out to look for an adequate alternative, preferably incorporating bourbon so that I could pay tribute to Bert’s surname by using Jefferson’s Bourbon, which also happens to be one of my favorites.

The search for a frothy seasonal cocktail with bourbon as a base spirit led me to Julie Kotzbach’s recipe for a Bourbon Flip, found on Bread Booze Bacon and described as “a lighter take on eggnog.”  You’ll need these ingredients:

  • 2 ounces of bourbon (Ms. Kotzbach used Maker’s 46, but I’d use Jefferson’s for reasons stated above)
  • 1 ounce of simple syrup
  • 1 large egg, raw
  • Nutmeg, freshly grated

Break the raw egg and pour its entire contents—sans shell, of course—into a shaker with the bourbon and simple syrup, then shake it vigorously for more than a minute. Strain it into a coupe or vintage martini glass, top with the freshly grated nutmeg, and serve!

The “flip” category of mixed drinks originated at sea during the 17th century, though by the time Jerry Thomas published his seminal bar guides nearly 200 years later, the overall definition of a flip had evolved into hot or cold drinks made with a spirit, egg, sugar, and spice, though lacking cream to differentiate them from nog. Base spirits were typically brandy, rum, or gin, though even port wine and sherry were often used, such as the pair of sugared-rim sherry flips ordered by William Holden and Nancy Kwan in The World of Suzie Wong (1960).

Nancy Kwan and William Holden in The World of Suzie Wong (1960)

The sherry flips served in The World of Suzie Wong don’t look very appetizing, and Suzie’s reaction informs us that these lacking qualities aren’t limited to its presentation.

Historical examples of flip drinkers include:

  • Future U.S. President Ulysses Grant, who enjoyed hot rum flip while he was a young West Point cadet in the 1840s
  • Roaring ’20s bon vivant Harry Crosby who drank porto flips with New York Journal columnist Molly Cogswell
  • Scottish-born ambassador R.H. Bruce Lockhart who cited daily rations of brandy flips to overcome his malaria in the early 1910s

How to Get the Look

Vegging around the house during Christmas more frequently means T-shirts and sweatpants or a family in matching pajamas, but Sheridan Whiteside sets a template for dignified loungewear in his silk robes or velvet-collared smoking jacket with white shirts and fanciful ties.

Monty Woolley in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie. “With so many sentimental movie takes on Christmas, especially in the 1940s, the dose of irreverence is refreshing,” wrote Jeremy Arnold in TCM’s Christmas in the Movies.

You can also read more about Orry-Kelly’s glamorous costume design in this piece by GlamAmor.

The Quote

Is there a man in the world who suffers as I do from the gross inadequacies of the human race?

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