The authors asked Alexander Woollcott if he would like to play the part of Whiteside when the play opened on Broadway. He declined. The authors then approached Monty Woolley, who at that time was a professor at Yale. They wrote him "would it amuse you to play the part of Whiteside?" to which Woolley replied "it would amuse everyone."
Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, authors of the play from which this film was adapted, were good friends with Alexander Woollcott, a famous critic, radio personality, and lecturer at the time. Woollcott requested that they write a play FOR him, but they never came up with a plot. One day Woollcott came to visit Hart unexpectedly and turned his house upside down, taking over the master bedroom, ordering Hart's staff around and making a general nuisance of himself. When Hart told Kaufman of the visit, he asked, "Imagine what would have happened if he broke his leg and had to stay?" They looked at each other and knew they had a play.
Bette Davis saw "The Man Who Came to Dinner" on Broadway and immediately wanted to play the role of Maggie, the antithesis of her usual roles. She wanted the role desperately because she wanted to act opposite John Barrymore who was to play Sheridan Whiteside. At her insistence, Warner Bros. tested Barrymore for the role but his failing health and inability to remember his lines cost him the job.
Bette Davis desperately wanted John Barrymore to play Whiteside, but he couldn't remember his lines due to his alcoholism. Davis always said later that she'd rather have acted with Barrymore reading from cue cards than with anyone else.
Although Monty Woolley, who had created the role on stage, was not familiar to movie audiences, Hal B. Wallis finally cast him in the role, despite Warner's concern that the actor's homosexuality would be obvious on screen.
The only real snafu that happened during production was a bizarre one: Bette Davis' dog bit her hard on the nose, leaving a noticeable wound. Davis had to retreat to her home in New Hampshire for several weeks, according to Hal B. Wallis, in order to heal and be presentable for the camera. She eventually returned to the set before her nose was fully healed. "We shot for two days with Bette's back to the camera," said Wallis. "This was fine, except that every time the other actors saw her, they broke into fits of giggling led by Monty Woolley. It became impossible for them to speak their lines."
Bette Davis was unhappy with the casting of Monty Woolley, and in later years she observed, "I felt the film was not directed in a very imaginative way. For me it was not a happy film to make--that it was a success, of course, did make me happy. I guess I never got over my disappointment in not working with the great John Barrymore."
Ann Sheridan had a particularly stressful time making the film because she was shooting Kings Row (1942) simultaneously. When she was asked later if she had run into any trouble with the notoriously temperamental Bette Davis, she denied it. "Oh, no. Very little," she said. "She wasn't happy about a lot of things . . . but this had nothing to do with me. I adored her. Wouldn't dream of fighting with her at all--so she got very nice. She was just--temperamental. Who isn't now and then?"
After Banjo repeats the "Harriet Stanley took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks" poem first recited by Whiteside, he jokes, "The Dodgers could have used her." This is likely a reference to the recently completed 1941 World Series, in which the Brooklyn Dodgers were defeated by the New York Yankees, 4 games to 1.
Late in December 1941 the film's world premiere was hosted by the Capitol Theatre in Paragould, AR--the home town of star Richard Travis (aka Bill Justice), who had been one of the theater's employees.
The poem that Whiteside quotes with the line "Harriet Stanley took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks" was actually written about the real Elizabeth "Lizzie" Borden, who was tried but acquitted of the hatchet murders of her mother and father in Falls River, MA, in 1892.
Howard Hawks at one time expressed interest in directing this film. Hawks wanted Cary Grant to play the lead. A news item in "The Hollywood Reporter" reported that Grant was prepared to donate his salary to the British Relief Fund.
Despite the film's acclaim and success, it did not receive any Oscar nominations. Bette Davis blamed this on the direction. She said in 1974, "I felt the film was not directed in a very imaginative way,"
The script for this film and the play on which it was based was inspired by Alexander Woollcott's infamous overnight stay at Moss Hart's Pennsylvania country home. Woolcott's visit had been an unmitigated nightmare, both for himself and Hart. Woolcott's overbearing, outrageous, and unbearable behavior included: insisting that he would not go to bed unless a milkshake and chocolate cookies were prepared for him, demanding that all the heat in the house be turned off, refusing to sleep in any room other than Hart's bedroom, accusing the servants of dishonesty, and writing in Hart's guestbook "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."
Jimmy Durante improvised some of the dialogue as a specific reference to Ann Sheridan. The script called for Durante's character to call Sheridan's character "Old Hot-pants," but he changed the line to "The Oomph Girl," which was Sheridan's real-life nickname.
Charles Laughton desperately wanted the part of Sheridan Whiteside. He tested for the role, but the results were disastrous. Distraught and in tears, Laughton begged his agent to convince producer Hal B. Wallis to give him another test. Wallis recalled that "I was touched by the call and gave Laughton another test. But it was a disaster, worse than the first. When he left the studio, Laughton's face was a picture of despair."