The films of 1967 were insanely diverse. From The Graduate to Doctor Doolittle, each and every film represented a slice of Hollywood. Some where new, groundbreaking films that brought a new voice and some where just ‘business as usual’. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner falls in a category of it’s own as it seems to (try at least) have it’s foot in both the Old and New Hollywood. Conceived as a commentary on the racial climate in America, Stanley Kramer (producer/director) made it no secret that he was using the film as a vehicle for Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Despite the “white-man” view on race relations, the film is well remembered for Tracy’s final performance.
Set over the course of one day, we are introduced to Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier) and fiance Joanna “Joey” Drayton (Katharine Houghton). After meeting and falling in love while in Hawaii, the two have decided to get married. Flying home to meet her parents, Prentice is more reserved and realistic then Joanna about their engagement. After a great shock to her parents, Matt and Christina Drayton (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn), Prentice confides with them that if they don’t approve, he will not go on with engagement. As they try to figure out how they feel about it, a revolving door of characters all volunteer their opinions (good, bad, indifferent) about the marriage. It all culminates into the final scene where Matt gives a moving soliloquy and ultimately his approval.
It is easy to dismiss the story of interracial marriage as archaic and out of date. Even when the movie came out, most the states had abolished any law against interracial marriage. The film itself didn’t break any new ground on race, at least not anything that previous films hadn’t covered before. Many of the views, even those of the black characters, come from a white perspective. Even Tillie the maid is just a characterization audience had seen since the early days of film. Yet, it’s not fair to pick at the glossing over of race in the film because that isn’t what it was ever really meant to be about. Despite what Kramer might have said, he wasn’t out to change peoples minds. He wanted to bring the most famous screen couple back to film, knowing he didn’t have much time to do so.
The time in which the movie was made, Spencer Tracy was sick and dying. The decades of alcoholism and poor choices had left his body wrecked beyond repair. Added to that was the depression he encountered as the “greats” from his time all seemed to be dying. He hadn’t worked in four years and Katharine Hepburn, who had been taking care of him full time, hadn’t worked in five years. While it wasn’t an easy road, Kramer eventually convinced the pair to work in the film. Despite the difficulties that the very sick Tracy presented, Kramer knew the draw of the pair was worth the troubles. The film was shot around what Tracy could do and when he wasn’t able to work, they had a secondary plan. Luckily, he managed to make it through production without too much issue. Seventeen days after production wrap for Tracy, he suffered a massive heart attack and died.
The long and sordid details of Tracy and Hepburn’s private lives was the major topic of gossip through the 40s and 50s. They had starred in nine movies together and long been a favorite of the tabloids. Kramer gambled that audiences would still want to see them together, even after all the years under the radar. In the film, you can’t help but see the devotion in Hepburn’s eyes when she is in a scene with Tracy. The most memorable moment of the film is the end speech. When he speaks about the love he feels for his wife, Christina, you can see Hepburn in the background through it. She begins to cry and you can just feel that this was the closest they ever got to being public with their relationship.
With Hepburn and Tracy taking front stage, Sidney Poitier is often overlooked. While his performance is excellent, it isn’t nearly as powerful nor throughly flushed out as some of his other characters. Despite the one-dimensional aspects of Prentice, Poitier is still interesting to watch. Katharine Houghton plays the fiance of Prentice, Joanna. The character’s over the top optimism can be a little hard to take at times. Mostly at the beginning of the film, she is just a flibbertigibbet. She seems to be as easily excitable as a small dog. Maybe I’m just a bitter person, but her over the top optimism seemed to be too much. While I think they may have crossed her character into the land of “over the top”, I can understand why they would do so. In order for it to work, she needed to be completely head over heels excitedly in love with Prentice. Her attitude would be needed to help win her father over by reminding him what being “young and in love” was like.
The importance of this film lies not in it’s story or it’s breaking new ground. It remains an important film for the fact it is the end of an era. With Hollywood changing more and more with each film, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner remained full rooted in the old way. What is more remembered is that it was Tracy’s last film and for many people, considered his best. He was nominated for a posthumous Oscar and Hepburn won her second Academy Award. Despite it’s short comings, the film is a genuinely sweet story and even when some of the more cringe worthy moments happen, you can’t help but know it wasn’t meant to be mean spirited. The film will always be remembered because of Tracy and Hepburn. Truly, I can’t think of a better way for him to have bowed out then with the performance he gave in the movie.