After all, a lot of people are going to think we are a shocking pair.
The Bottom Line
Two well-off liberal parents (Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn) are put off when their young daughter (Katharine Houghton) tells them she has fallen in love and plans to marry a black man (Sidney Poitier). Soon, their own idealist views on life are put to a very practical test.
The Rest Of The Story
Stanley Kramer had made a name for himself in the movie business as a finessing director who brought intensity and detail to socially liberal character dramas such as Inherit The Wind (about the Scopes Monkey Trial) and On The Beach (about a post-apocalypse Australia). He had even made a classic buddy-buddy film with The Defiant Ones, a tale of two prisoners, one black and one white, who escaped from jail chained together and must get along to survive.
When he was tapped to helm Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, he immediately knew where to turn: he got his friend Spencer Tracy (who had starred in many of the Kramer films to date) and Katharine Hepburn, both of whom seemed made just to star in movies opposite each other, to star as the Draytons. For the role of the young black Dr. Wade, he went to his co-lead in The Defiant Ones, Sidney Poitier. For the role of the precocious daughter Joey, Hepburn suggested her own niece Katharine Houghton, who had never acted onscreen before.
Columbia Pictures, who bankrolled the job, refused to insure Tracy - he was in very poor health due to his drinking and heart problems. Instead, Tracy set aside his salary in escrow as collateral for the studio if should die before the filming finished.
Shooting took place in just 3 weeks, with most of the footage coming from the "Drayton house" sound set. Poitier remembers that he was so nervous acting in front of the legendary Tracy and Hepburn that he asked them to leave, and performed his scenes with them to empty chairs. Ten days after filming wrapped up, Tracy passed away of a heart attack.
The film itself was a rather large hit, although the storyline received criticism from both sides of the aisle: many people protested the movie simply because it portrayed an interracial marriage, while others thought that the relationship was unrealistic. Some people felt there was no romance on scene - editor Robert Jones later revealed that the studio had forced him to cut several kissing scenes and other displays of affection. Other people still thought that Poitier's character (a doctor for the United Nations) was "too perfect" - one review went so far as to call his performance "blackface."
In 2000, the American Film Institute named Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? to their 100 Greatest Films list at #99.
You're two wonderful people who happened to fall in love
and happen to have a pigmentation problem.
SO what about the movie itself? Well, as light fish out of water comedy goes, it succeeds on many levels. In the end, it is what it is - a middling comedy made more powerful by a plotline firmly wrapped around a pressing issue of the day.
First off, the movie is a casting director's wet dream. Tracy and Hepburn look like they've been playing these roles all their lives - it is absolutely priceless watching their faces desperately avoid contorting in horror when they meet Poitier's Dr. Wade and sit through dinner with him. Every awkward moment and rushed apology seems par excellence. Poitier himself plays the quiet and sincere doctor well, his classic understatement of the strong black man shining through. Houghton is delightful for a debut role, bubbling over with the colorblind innocence that her parents have instilled in her. Half of the gags involve her thinking her parents are as excited about her find as she is, and Houghton shows a surprising maturity when the scenes call for subtler moments.
The movie also handles the moral message aspect of the film nicely, putting it in the words of real people and never blowing it out of proportion. When the Draytons' housekeeper Tillie tells Wade, "I don't care to see a member of my own race getting above himself," it speaks volumes about Tillie's own perceptions of her race, and the rather understated idea that blacks, too, might complain about interracial marriage. The film never gets too hamfisted, but instead remains cavalier: "It never occurred to me that I would fall in love with a Negro, but I have, and nothing's going to change that," Joey states matter-of-factly. In the end, the message is, of course, love conquers all, although that seems lost on a lot people today.
Perhaps the biggest flaw with the movie is it's simply dated. Interracial marriage is a big deal to some even in today's time, but in 1967 there were still many schools in the United States that were segregated, lynchings were still common, and it was a chore for black people to vote. Showing such a thing on the silver screen was akin to blasphemy in some communities. Without that context, the movie loses a lot of its sheen. In addition to that, the above plot contrivances, such as Dr. Wade's job and the rather mechanical and unconvincing romance between he and Joey, leave the film a little flat when it tries to evoke empathy for the muddled pair.
Still, the sheer joy of watching Hepburn and Tracy onscreen again (and, sadly, for the final time) is enough to make this any moviegoer's delight. The two were the consummate acting pair - it is virtually impossible to gauge their impact on American filmmaking and acting. The movie certainly has enough bells and whistles to entertain any crowd, and its hilarious dialogue and subtle satire truly do make it one of the classic pieces of cinema history.
Spencer Tracy ......... Matt Drayton
Sidney Poitier ........ John Prentice
Katharine Hepburn ..... Christina Drayton
Katharine Houghton .... Joey Drayton
Cecil Kellaway ........ Monsignor Ryan
Beah Richards ......... Mrs. Prentice
Roy Glenn ............. Mr. Prentice
Isabel Sanford ........ Tillie
Virginia Christine .... Hilary St. George
Alexandra Hay ......... Carhop
Barbara Randolph ...... Dorothy