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Popular radio broadcaster Sheridan Whiteside arrives in Mesalia, Ohio, where he is to give a lecture. Against his will, he must first dine at the home of Ernest and Daisy Stanley, but climbing the snowy steps to the house, Sherry falls and hurts his hip. The Stanleys' staff is overwhelmed by the get-well presents and phone calls that the bedridden Sherry receives, and Sherry runs the household ragged with his demands. When Sherry finally emerges from his sick bed in a wheel chair, it is to announce that he plans to sue the Stanleys for $150,000. He then commandeers the downstairs rooms, the telephone, and the cook and butler for himself and his secretary, Maggie Cutler. Bert Jefferson, the handsome young owner of the local paper, asks the broadcaster for an interview, and Sherry instructs Maggie to turn him away. Bert charms Sherry, however, and is invited to lunch along with five convicts from Sherry's fan club at the state penitentiary. While Sherry rules the downstairs, the Stanleys and their two children, Richard and June, are confined to the upstairs. Although Ernest demands that Sherry leave their home immediately, Sherry counters that he will sue for an even larger sum if he has to leave. Meanwhile, Maggie and Bert go skating together, and Bert reads her a play that he has written. Maggie thinks it is so good that she gives it to Sherry, hoping he will send it to his friend, actress Katherine Cornell. When Sherry learns that Maggie has fallen in love with Bert and intends to marry him, he determines to break up the affair and keep his secretary. He telephones his friend, Lorraine Shelton, a glamorous actress, and suggests that she could have the lead role in Bert's play if she came to town right away. Sherry then learns that his hip was never injured, but that the doctor had looked at the wrong x-rays. Sherry, however, is determined to stay in town long enough to prevent Maggie from marrying Bert. He also suggests that June and Richard leave home so that June can marry Sandy, a union organizer who is working at her father's ball bearing plant, and Richard can pursue his interest in photography. On Christmas Eve, Bert gives Maggie a charm bracelet and Ernest's strange sister Harriet gives Sherry a picture of herself as a young woman. After Lorraine arrives in town, dressed in furs and jewels, Sherry warns her not to mention the play in front of Maggie and urges her to use her charms on Bert. Lorraine immediately goes to work on Bert, but Maggie quickly understands Sherry's intentions. She thinks her problem is solved when writer Beverly Carlton arrives and does a devastating imitation of Lorraine's latest millionaire lover, Lord Bottomley. At Maggie's request, Beverly telephones from the train station, pretending to be Lord Bottomley, and asks Lorraine to marry him. At first Sherry is furious that his plans are failing, but when Bert innocently mentions seeing Beverly phoning from the station, Sherry reveals the trick to Lorraine, who then doubles her attentions to Bert. On Christmas morning, after Maggie quits her job, a drunken Bert tells her he is going away with Lorraine to work on his play. Then a penguin that was sent as a gift to Sherry bites his nurse, Miss Preen, and she quits, and Ernest finds his runaway children and hires a couple of sheriffs to evict Sherry. In the midst of this chaos, Sherry's friend Banjo arrives from Hollywood, and a contrite Sherry, realizing that Maggie really loves Bert, begs him to get rid of Lorraine. The two men maneuver Lorraine into a mummy case, and Sherry, having recognized Harriet as an ax murderer, blackmails Ernest into taking the case to the airport. With Maggie's happiness now assured, Sherry warns Ernest that his children should be allowed to follow their own paths, "Or else." To everyone's great relief, Sherry is on his way out, but then he falls down the slippery steps and is carried back into the Stanley house to begin his reign of terror all over again.