Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming Home to Dinner is an old-fashioned, but heartfelt and endearing drama with a weighty topic (for the 1960’s and even in some regard today). That topic is the theme of interracial marriage. The 1960’s was when the African-Americans were fighting for their civil rights and eventually succeeded in getting them. But the white population were wary of them, even the liberals who supported their cause. This movie has such a strong premise, so strong that it has been known the principal actors signed on to the film without reading the screenplay. This was far from low-key because these actors happened to be major names like Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, two of Hollywood’s greatest stars ever to be seen on the big screen. This controversial premise, interracial marriage, was seen as a positive factor in the film and that was a rarity for Hollywood productions back in the day.
Despite the use of the big theme, there is nothing new about the film hence me describing the film as old-fashioned in my opening sentence. William Rose’s screenplay is rather predictable and the characters, especially the minor ones were given the usual Hollywood stereotypes. We have the black maid who is seen as a mother figure and knows how to whip up a fine meal. There is the Irish monsignor who acts very Irish with those twinkly eyes and hearty laughs. Because the central premise is a black man marrying a white woman, of course each one’s family will vehemently oppose the marriage due to being different colors. But despite these predictable tropes and stereotypes…..the film won me over in a big way. The story is very charming and the performances are wonderful and they have even have a sense of poignancy thanks to the rapidly failing health of Spencer Tracy during production. Even the cheesy moments were charming, such as the opening song performed by Frank DeVol and the dance sequence by the milk delivery boy that was utterly pointless, but somehow brought a smile to my face.
Now the plot revolves around interracial marriage, as mentioned previously. Joanna Drayton (Katherine Houghton), a white 23-year old daughter of a liberal newspaper editor, Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy) gets engaged during her Hawaiian vacation to a black man named Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier). Everything is perfect about Prentice…..except his skin color. Joanna or as her friends and family call her Joey, decides to introduce her fiancé to her family. The problem is, they want her parent’s blessing in one night because he has to fly to Geneva for a WHO conference. Joey’s mother, Christina (Katherine Hepburn) immediately agrees and takes the situation rather well. On the other hand, Matt doesn’t take too kindly to be given a single night to come up with a decision. Christina decides its a good idea to invite John’s parents (Beau Richards and Roy Glenn), who were flying a short distance from L.A to San Francisco, to dinner. At the dinner table, along with Monsignor Ryan (Cecil Kellaway), Joey and John try to convince everyone why they should get married.
I loved all the performances in the film, which shouldn’t be too surprising because of the talent of the actors. But in a way, these performances come across as emotional not only because of the timely themes, but this would be the last role Spencer Tracy would ever do. He died only two weeks after production ended, and you can tell he was hurting during the film. But he delivered a powerhouse performance and an incredible speech at the end. He was the first actor ever to receive a posthumous nomination at the Academy Awards, but he did not win. Nonetheless, he delivered a very strong performance. He shared the screen in this movie with his long-time lover and co-star Katherine Hepburn, who assisted Spencer with this movie because of his ailing health. Hepburn delivers a mighty fine performance which was awarded with a Best Actress win. She was past her prime looks-wise, but her talent never left. One of the emotional scenes of the movie is the glistening tears she produced when Spencer gave his heartfelt speech. You could tell this would be the final hurrah for Spencer, and Katherine knew that. Miss Hepburn also got her niece, Katherine Houghton to play Joey. She did an okay job, although you could tell she hasn’t been around acting for that long. The final powerhouse performance was from Sidney Poitier, as the perfect John Prentice. His character was handsome, intelligent, has a good career, and graduated from a top school, but his skin color raised questions. Poitier, coming off massive box office successes, does incredible work here. It felt like his performance were overshadowed by Spencer and Katherine’s performance, but don’t overlook his performance. Finally, I also liked Cecil Kellaway’s supporting turn as Monsignor Ryan. The old man was funny and I loved his rogue Irish personality.
Despite all the flaws, I very much liked Guess Who’s Coming Home to Dinner. I guess timely themes and the combined star power of Tracy and Hepburn are enough to turn mediocre movies into great movies. Despite some serious undertones, the film has a light atmosphere thanks to the fluid direction of Stanley Kramer. Kramer had an idea what to do with this movie from day one and he succeeded in making that movie. The film has accomplished its purpose in taking a stance with interracial marriage. Not only that, but it is very entertaining. It is one of those films that will make you laugh and will make you cry. In that regards, that is where you can find the term “old-fashioned.” Some scenes are cheesy (dancing milk man, anyone?), and some are mighty powerful (Spencer’s speech). The film proves love has no bounds and you can marry whomever you want, no matter the skin color.
My Grade: A