The humor in The Man Who Came to Dinner evolves out of the conflict between two very different life-styles. A group of conservative, middle-class inhabitants of a small town in the Midwest is juxtaposed to a collection of eccentric, rich, and famous luminaries from the international set. This basic situation allows George Kaufman and Moss Hart to satirize both the limitations of conventionality and the casual cruelty of celebrity while entertaining the audience with their sparkling wit, comic one-liners, and visual gags.
The lives of the inhabitants of Mesalia, Ohio, are so dull that they willingly endure insults and putdowns just for the privilege of being in the same room with the well-known radio personality and writer Sheridan Whiteside. The Stanleys’ neighbor Mrs. McCutcheon presents to the great man a jar of her best calf’s-foot jelly, only to have Whiteside suggest that the principal ingredient is her own foot; Richard’s successful search for Players’ Club cigarettes is rewarded by Whiteside’s complaint that the young man’s mode of transportation must have been oxcart. The stuffy Mr. Stanley, whose given name is Earnest, takes the most abuse. Stanley, the town’s leading manufacturer and the embodiment of conservative values, is blackmailed by Whiteside into allowing son Richard to forgo college and daughter June to marry a labor organizer.
Would-be writers who latch onto a successful visitor in hopes of being discovered are also targets of Kaufman and Hart’s satire. Dr. Bradley, the man in charge of Whiteside’s injured hip, has written a weighty autobiography, which Whiteside derisively dubs “Forty Years Below the Navel.” When the local newspaperman wangles an interview, Whiteside assumes that the reporter’s main agenda is to ask him to read “that novel.”
While it is clear that the show-business personalities are the more entertaining set of characters, the stars come in for their share of comic thrusts. Whiteside is rude, self-centered, and manipulative. Yet he gets away with his putdowns of the other characters and invites the audience’s approval because he is so entertaining. His shower of unusual gifts—from cockroaches and penguins to an octopus and a full-sized mummy case—his constantly ringing telephone, and his parade of visitors suggest that he is a man who would be fun to know. Lorraine Sheldon is the stereotypical glamorous actress who gets roles via the casting couch rather than her acting ability. The subplot involving her also satirizes the American infatuation with European nobility: Lorraine pursues the stuttering, ineffectual Lord Bottomley in hopes of becoming Lady Bottomley. The two other show-business personalities, English actor Beverly Carlton and Hollywood comic Banjo, display a measure of professional jealousy toward Lorraine. Their amusing if callous comments about Lorraine’s sexual activities serve as an excuse to play cruel jokes on their colleague. While the audience is howling, Kaufman and Hart imply that show business is peopled with self-serving, childish brats.