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Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (1967) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

spencer film katharine tracy

Principal social theme: racism/civil rights

Columbia. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn, Katharine Houghton, Cecil Kellaway, Beah Richards, Roy Glenn, Isabel Sanford, Virginia Christine, Barbara Randolph. Written by William Rose. Cinematography by Sam Leavitt. Edited by Robert C. Jones. Music by Frank De Vol. Produced and directed by Stanley Kramer. Color. 108 minutes.

Overview

When the milestone Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was first released, it was criticized from both ends of the cultural spectrum as being either too controversial (for simply exploring the subject of mixed marriage) or too lightweight (since its approach seemed too fluffy and lacked seriousness). Thirty-five years later, the film remains a remarkable one, perhaps a bit of a balancing act, but nevertheless a comedy that managed to take on the issue of racism with a laser-like clarity. It was also Spencer Tracy’s last film. Tracy turned in an exceptional performance, along with his longtime friend, Katharine Hepburn, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner probably provided a stronger sounding board for discussion of racial issues in the mid-1960s America than any two more serious films combined.

Synopsis

Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy) is a wealthy, liberal newspaper publisher in San Francisco. His twenty-three-year-old daughter, Joy (Katharine Houghton), returns home from a holiday in Hawaii with surprising news: She is engaged. Her fiancé, Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), a specialist in tropical medicine, however, is a black man. Privately, Dr. Prentice tells Matt that there will be no marriage if he does not approve. The publisher only has a few hours to make his decision, because Dr. Prentice has to be on a flight to Switzerland that evening. After her initial amazement, Matt’s wife, Christina (Katharine Hepburn), accepts the concept rather quickly. Her husband is stunned that she does not see any problems, particularly the hostility any grandchildren would face. Matt’s best friend, Monsignor Ryan (Cecil Kellaway), also approves. Matters become more complicated when Joy invites the parents of Dr. Prentice to fly up from Los Angeles and join the Draytons for dinner. His parents are unaware that Joy is white. When they finally meet, John’s father is stunned and displeased. Joy makes up her mind to leave on the plane with John that evening. As the two families meet at the Drayton house for dinner, everyone divides into groups of two for private discussion, with the two fathers opposing and the two mothers approving. Finally, Dr. Prentice’s mother tells Matt that he is a dried up old man who has no memory of what it felt like to be in love. This troubles Matt, who spends a long time on the patio thinking the matter over. He then makes his decision and gathers everyone together before the meal. He discusses the events of the day in a long monologue, finally concluding that if his daughter and John love each other as much as he loved Christina when they married, nothing will spoil their marriage. He gives them his blessing, and everyone sits down to the long-delayed dinner.

Critique

In this production, Stanley Kramer clearly demonstrates how the familiar framework of a film can be extended to embrace new concepts. The model for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? is undoubtedly Father of the Bride (1950), another Spencer Tracy classic, but in this case race consciousness and the entire background of the civil rights movement substitute for the relatively banal concerns of the earlier film. A lot of this is etched into the screenplay in shorthand. When Spencer Tracy talks about the problems his daughter and new son-in-law would face, he never spells them out. He does not have to; he lets the audience do that for him in their own minds. With that one suggestion, the issue of bigotry, racial prejudice, and human dignity is brought front and center without belaboring the obvious. Yet this same technique is used in many other circumstances, such as when Sidney Poitier tells his father, “You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.” The implications of that line are also considerable, embracing not only self-awareness and racial pride, but also a larger sense of community.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? is also extraordinary for its use of stock characters to remarkable effect. First, there is the black maid played by Isabel Sanford, who at first seems drawn out of a line of racial stereotypes leading back to the early days of silent movies. At first, she opposes Joy’s marriage, thinking Dr. Prentice to be an uppity black who does not know his place. The postponed supper becomes her main concern, until Spencer Tracy’s big speech, which he interrupts to bring her out from the kitchen since she is “a member of the family.” This last bit looks at first to be a throwaway, but it helps to establish her as a person of importance in the Drayton household, moreover a person whose opinion matters. The second stock character is the fashionable but catty Hillary St. Joseph, played by sceen veteran Virginia Christine, who manages Katharine Hepburn’s art gallery. (Some viewers tend to forget that her character, Christina, is a businesswoman in her own right.) When she offers her snide condolences to Christina over Joy’s forthcoming marriage, it provides the opportunity for Hepburn to execute the classiest dismissal of an employee in screen history, snuffing out rather than tolerating her “holier than thou” prejudice. The final stock character is Cecil Kellaway as Monsignor Ryan, a delightful parody of the old busybody Irish priest. When he delivers his line about being a dispenser of religious platitudes, it is one of the highlights of the picture. His presence also seems to briefly uncover an anti-Catholic attitude on the part of Dr. Prentice’s father, another example of the various ripples of prejudice that can exist among individuals. The use of these stock characters helps to focus the emphasis on the subtext of the picture, which is the attitude of society about race. Although Tracy’s character gripes about the slowness of the changes in society, he ironically epitomizes it as his own attitude evolves in the course of the film.

In essence, a lot more appears to be going on just under the surface of the screenplay than is apparent during a first, or even second, viewing. The film, however, is undermined by a number of flaws. First is the dreadful music score by Frank De Vol, which endlessly grinds out the popular song “The Glory of Love.” Next is the awkward editing, which makes a muddle of the middle third of the film. Finally, it is somewhat disturbing at times to watch Spencer Tracy, who looks so unwell during most of his scenes. In fact, he was dying as he made the film and passed away two weeks after completing his work on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner ? Tracy’s magic is still there, undoubtedly, but his obvious frailty can detract from viewer’s enjoyment of the story. The rest of the cast is magnificent. Katharine Hougton, Hepburn’s real-life niece, is perfect in her role, and Sidney Poitier delivers an understated but powerful reading that would have stolen the show if the other leads were not Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

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