7 May 2005 | oneflighthoop
Liberal Angst over Interractial Relationship in the 1960s
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner takes place during the course of one day as two families struggle to overcome their concerns about the interracial marriage of their children. This film is a treat for the eyes with lovely sets and beautiful people. It also has a nice 1960's feel that is reinforced by sophisticated wardrobing and an "easy listening" soundtrack--featuring The Glory of Love as the signature tune. The film relies very heavily on the use of dialog and reflects the elegance of a time when people were entertained by stimulating conversation. The San Francisco backdrop also is the perfect setting for a movie that challenged racial convention.
But there are a few serious flaws. This is an introductory role for Katharine Houghton (Hepburn's niece) who plays Sidney Portier's fiancé--Johanna Drayton. Her inexperience is apparent, particularly in comparison to heavyweights Portier, Tracy and Hepburn and as a result, she is unconvincing in the part. Moreover, her character is not well-written or well-developed which makes it difficult to understand why Sidney Portier's character--John Prentice-would fall in love with a woman who appears to have so little to offer intellectually --given his significant professional achievements as a doctor. One also must ask why it was necessary for his character to be cast as a doctor in order to be seen as an acceptable partner for a young white woman who had not really accomplished anything accept being born into a privileged family. The answer is simple. Making Prentice a doctor-and not just any doctor-but a world renowned expert in tropical medicine, made the interracial relationship more acceptable to white audiences during the 1960s.
The other cast members are outstanding and the on-screen chemistry phenomenal. Katharine Hepburn (Christina Drayton) and Spencer Tracy (Newspaper Publisher Matt Drayton) deliver brilliant performances as Johanna's parents. John Prentice's modest working class parents are played with great dignity by Beah Richards and Roy E. Glen. Mrs. Prentice and Mrs. Drayton favor the marriage and both characters provide passionate, articulate arguments as to why their husbands should agree. But their husbands voice serious objections and the families spend the evening in intense discussions over the issue, accurately reflecting the racial fears that existed 40 years ago. Prentice's father reminds him that in many states interracial marriage is illegal and that he is "getting out of line." There are also a number of very memorable and funny lines. In the scene in which Matt Drayton wonders why "the colored kids dance better than the white kids", Portier's response is classic--"you dance the Watusi, but we are the Watusi!"(For readers under 40, the Watusi was a popular dance in the 1960s and also an African tribe). Cecil Kelloway, who plays friend of the family, Monsignor Ryan, deftly brings a sense of humor and moral guidance that is effective because it is not "preachy". He challenges Matt Drayton's liberal credentials and suggests that Drayton's misgivings about his daughter marrying a black man reveal his hypocrisy. Isabel Sanford ("Weezy from The Jeffersons TV program) plays the feisty maid of the Draytons.
It's been said that in the final scene Tracy--who was very ill at the time and who died shortly after the movie was completed--delivered one of the longest soliloquies in American film history, in only one take. Katherine Helpurn was clearly so moved by the scene that it's hard to believe that she is just acting as her eyes brim with tears.
Although the some of the sentiments are dated, this film is highly entertaining, and provides a rare opportunity to experience outstanding performances from six gifted actors who bring compassion and depth to Stanley Kramer's film. Its' angst relative to interracial marriage also reminds us of how far we have not come.