2016 TCM Classic Film Festival
In a pre-screening interview with Katherine Hougton, Donald Bogle called Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), directed by Stanley Kramer, “a movie that is just about as famous and as popular as when it was first released, almost fifty years ago . . . Even people who haven’t seen it, they know that title and they know something about it and it has become a part of the culture.”
As the film begins, John Prentice (Sidney Poitier) and Joanne “Joey” Drayton (Katharine Houghton) arrive in San Francisco so John can meet her parents. They take a cab from the airport. They’re young, he’s thirty-seven and she’s twenty-one, nicely dressed and seem very much in love. So, why does the cab driver grimace when he sees them kiss in his rear view mirror?
She’s white and he’s a “Negro.” Interracial relationships were not only uncommon but illegal in sixteen states until the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Loving v. Virginia, only six months before the movie opened.
Joanne isn’t worried about how her parents will react because they’re staunch San Francisco liberals. Matt Drayton is a newspaper publisher who champions the underdog. In addition, John is a doctor with an international reputation so why on earth wouldn’t they embrace him? The parents, Matt and Christina, are played by none other than Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.
“This is their ninth film together,” said Bogle, “and ultimately it was their last [Tracy died before its release]. So, there’s a significance in this movie because Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is also another kind of metaphor. It is classic ‘Old Hollywood’ opening their arms, ultimately, to the ‘New Hollywood’ represented by Poitier who’d ascended to heights that no black actor in the movies had.”
Predictably, racial panic sets in for Matt and Christina. Matt worries that the engaged couple’s future unborn children won’t be accepted. Listen to John’s response.
Their initial reaction suggests the anguish of another prominent Bay Area couple, Randy and Katherine Hearst, when their daughter Patty was kidnapped.
The Draytons eventually come around, first Christina, then Matt. After his wife and daughter work on him, Matt comes to realize that he’s become the hypocrite he’s always despised. Tracy gets to the core of Matt’s stubbornness but also his decency. The movie could have ended there but “guess who’s coming to dinner?”
Yes, John’s parents (Roy Glenn and Beah Richards) have flown up from Los Angeles. Mr. Prentice is a mailman so there are class differences besides the obvious racial ones between the prospective in-laws. Glenn is excellent as a black Archie Bunker, a man of the older generation. What he also has in common with Matt besides age is bull-headedness. Mrs. Prenctice has a sweetness, though, that familiar face Richards brings naturally to the role.
There’s an emotional scene when father and son confront each other. “Dad, you’re my father, I’m your son, I love you. I always have and I always will. But you think of yourself as a ‘colored’ man, I think of myself as a man.” William Rose won an Academy Award for his original screenplay for crafting scenes like these.
John’s sweet-voiced mother contrasts with the Drayton’s maid Tillie (Isabel Sanford). She’s protective of her Joey and doesn’t trust the young interloper. She calls him “boy” and worse. The “sassy” black maid is a Hollywood stereotype but Sanford brings some humor and humanity to the part.
John appears to have little in common with his working-class parents. With his British- sounding inflection, Poitier seems out-of-sync with his character’s inner city background. Looking at it another way, this serves the story by showing him alienated from even his own family. Tillie doesn’t warm to the stranger in the house and sees him as “uppity.” “I don’t care to see a member of my own race getting above himself,” she says.
In her interview with Donald Bogle, Katherine Haughton spoke of the challenges of playing Joanna. Haughton is Katherine Hepburn’s niece but that didn’t guarantee she’d get the part. Hepburn was lukewarm about the idea of her theater actress niece, who she hadn’t seen “since she was twelve,” in the part. It turned out to be a good decision by director Kramer who was first told about Haughton by Carl Reiner. Besides the family resemblance with Hepburn that works to the film’s advantage, Haughton brings a sparkle and an idealistic optimism to Joey.
“It was a very difficult time because of Spencer’s health. Needless to say, my Aunt adored Spencer and they’d been a couple for twenty-six years. She was seeing her favorite person in the world die . . . Each day was a blessing that we got him in another scene on film. So, it was very, very tense.” It was Stanley Kramer who convinced him to do the part despite his ill-health and told him, “Spencer, are you going to do something with the last days of your life that mean something?”
Haughton went on to say that Columbia nearly backed out of financing the movie when they found out what it was really about, saying “no one will go to see it.” “The movie was made for white America, for the fence sitters. The movie is a wonderful fable, structured very much like a fable. Spencer Tracy’s part is you, the audience, and that central character had to be challenged when he said, ‘don’t do this, don’t do this marriage.'”
“After the movie came out, I began to get hate mail and death threats. ‘The next time you go onstage, you’re going to be in the cross hairs of my rifle.’ And that was an education for me. . . We still have a great problem and we have to decide, as a society, every individual, are we going to hate or are we going to love?”
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