"Did you ever get the feeling that you wanted to go, and then you got the feeling that you wanted to stay?" This musical question was sung by Jimmy Durante as a Harpo Marx-like character created by Moss Hart and George S. Kauffman in their hit play turned movie, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942-William Keighley, dir.). Based on the premise of an Alexander Woolcott's disruption of an average upper middle class household in the Midwest, it is chock full of moments that captivate and entertain, threaded together well by Monty Woolley and company, (Ann Sheridan nearly steals this movie). While there are some curiously flat junctures too, (the whole bit about the maiden aunt's notorious past), when Jimmy Durante shows up the movie is injected with high test adrenalin.
Durante, a nightclub entertainer who usually came across as too hot and intense on screen, only rarely found his niche there, though he certainly can't be faulted for trying. This was especially so after his disastrous teaming with the delicately comic, (and usually silent) Buster Keaton in an early '30s series of sound movies at MGM. Later, in some MGM comedies of the 1940s, particularly in the sentimental Music For Millions (1944) and in a few Esther Williams aquatic epics, Durante found a spot that suited him in the movies. When television came along, he became a surprise hit. He had neither good looks nor blazingly innovative talent, but great warmth and a lifetime of show biz know-how under his belt. He reached a final peak with his enjoyable roles in the circus themed Jumbo (1960), though as the catalyst for all the frantic, fitfully funny action in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), (seen at right) he cracks me up, no matter how many times I've seen him "kick the bucket." Even after his death in 1980, Jimmy's career has had quite an afterlife. Many filmmakers, especially Nora Ephron in the '90s blockbuster, Sleepless in Seattle, found his expressive, imperfect singing voice perfect for capturing the wistful hopes and sorrows of their characters. Of his own looks, which included his signature large nose, he once explained that he learned to accept himself after being made fun of by his peers at school. "I'd go home and cry. I made up my mind never to hurt anybody else, no matter what. I never made jokes about anybody's big ears, crossed eyes, or their stuttering."
In The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) he has the relatively small role of a mischievous loki-like character, playing "Banjo", a Hollywood fixture and wild man who "walks softly and carries a big id," according to Moss Hart's reflections on the character. Banjo is expected to wreak havoc in his trail. He does his best to do so here, with a game Mary Wickes as his confused foil. All my life, I think that I've been looking for a guy who could put so much comically erotic meaning into lines such as "Come to my room in half an hour...with some rye bread!" and "I can feel your hot blood pumping through your varicose veins". *Sigh*...enjoy kids, even if Durante's charm eludes you. Ah, there's something about that gravely voice, manic energy and piano pounding that I like...could it be because he's from Brooklyn?