Spencer Tracy’s father of the bride (again)…
A controversial film from the late 60s tells how after a whirlwind holiday romance, a white American woman brings home her African American fiance to meet her liberal parents.
Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner Trailer, RationalSaneThinker and photos © Columbia Pictures
Meeting your loved one’s parents can be super daunting at the best of times. But what about if you add that you are planning on marrying the object of your affections and you’ve only known him ten days. He also is a widower, just over ten years older and has a prolific career as a doctor. Surely your family would be super happy for you? Dr John Prentice is all of the above and more. and would therefore be every in-laws’ dream? But it’s early 1967 in this scenario and he’s a black African American…
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) tells of a then controversial love story between a black African American man John Prentice, and his American white fiancee, Joey Drayton. This film pair having met got engaged and planned their wedding in ten days. Joey has decided that it’s time for them both to meet their respective in-laws for dinner.
This is the same day and just before he jets off to a New York meeting. At the time of filming, interracial marriages were illegal in seventeen American States. This decision was reversed just under three weeks after the filming was completed (and six months before the film’s release date).
Off-screen, there was an ongoing romance between the film’s leading stars the single, Katharine Hepburn and the married, Spencer Tracy. This romance was reportedly an open secret in Hollywood, yet at the time it was never spoken about publicly by those headlining stars. Hepburn only spoke openly about their over 25-year-old affair, after Tracy’s wife passed away.
This was Hepburn’s ninth film with him, and Spencer Tracy was reportedly very ill during filming. Tracy completed the film – with her support both on and off-screen – and passed away just over two weeks after the film wrapped. Sadly he never learned of this change in the law, which he (and the cast) would have been happy about. This change in the law was just two days after his death.
These two moving off-screen true stories, one happy, one more poignant make this film compelling (and for me quite teary) viewing. The powers that be off-screen couldn’t have given this on-screen married pair better on-screen support, as their on-screen daughter was played by Hepburn’s niece, the actress Katharine Houghton.
This film was her debut film role. Houghton’s on-screen love interest was played by the Oscar-winning Sidney Poitier. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? was nominated for ten Oscars. These included an Oscar win for Hepburn as Best Leading Actress and a posthumous Oscar Best Leading Oscar nomination for Tracy.
The film tells of young 23-year-old Joey Drayton (Houghton) who returns early from her Hawaiian holiday with a fiance in tow. Their whirlwind romance had begun just ten days previously and now both are in San Francisco. The man is Dr John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), a 37-year-old widow who lost his child and wife many years previously. We see them loved up and happy in the opening credits – where is obvious warm chemistry and love is definitely in the air – as they navigate their way from their flight to a taxi.
She’s obviously super keen on him to meet her parents. This is on the same day and just before he flies to New York later that evening. He is then due to fly to Geneva the next day where he has a new job as a Doctor at the World Health Organisation. She plans to join him in Geneva and then they’ll get married. She feels their interracial relationship won’t be a problem for her upper class and liberal parents.
However, despite this, this news is a shock for everyone, but her closest friends and a friend of their fathers, a cleric. Her mother’s employee at the art gallery, Hilary is polite (yet appears to be masking the fact she is quite taken aback) and the Drayton family’s outspoken African American maid, Tilly. Tilly tells Prentice quite openly that he’s marrying above himself and is quite brusque and short with him. Despite their apparent animosity, John is polite with them both.
On her mother Christine (Katharine Hepburn)’s return home from work, Joey happily tells her about this romance and his life story. Joey looks more than a bit besotted as she raves on about just how much she adores him. Seeing her infectious enthusiasm for her fiance, John has Christine clearly happy for her daughter.
As Joey talks with her mother, John talks to his parents on Drayton’s phone about his new love. He omits the fact she is a white American believing this too much of a shock for a phone call chat. He tells Joey he’ll write about it instead. His parents are also happy for him despite the couple’s age difference and sudden engagement and are keen to meet her.
Christine is a wee bit surprised after she meets him, her shock is apparent. On her father Matt’s (Spencer Tracy) return, Matt seems like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car. He is concerned, in their haste to marry. Both her parents are concerned their daughter will be the victim of prejudice because of her fiance’s colour.
Without Joey’s knowledge, John gives her parents an ultimatum. If they can’t give their blessing before his flight that evening, he will break things off with Joey. Joey then impulsively invites John’s parents, the Prentices (Beah Richards and Roy Glenn) to join in the family dinner party, at the Drayton’s home the same evening.
Christine has also invited Matt’s golfing partner, Monsignor Ryan (Cecil Kellaway), a high ranking church worker to the proceedings. On meeting the loved up pair, this elderly cleric seems the only one immediately happy for the pair.
The more judgemental Hilary visits to “support” Christine, and talks of this romantic pairing in a disparaging manner. Christine fires her on the spot and supports her daughter. Christine then tells her husband of her support for Joey, even if it means she’ll go against his wishes… and tells him that the Prentices are due to join them for dinner…with the rest of this film can be found in the usual ways and please note there are a few spoilers in my discussion…
This story was credibly told, with a wide range of reactions to this (then) controversial news. It is clear from Joey’s enthusiastic and happy response to this situation, that her liberal upbringing for this time has made her have the healthiest and more modern (for that time) of responses to the colour issue.
Joey believes it won’t be an issue for her parents, and therefore shouldn’t be an issue for others. She reprimands Tilly saying that he is as black as she is, and therefore it shouldn’t be an issue for her. Her performance is one that seems to be one of ignorant and naive bliss at other possible views and the then illegal complications, yet her friends also have no qualms.
Although apparently in love with Joey, John Prentice appears to be more realistic about their marriage plans. His behaviour when he talks on the phone to his parents foreshadows their reactions. The Prentice parents and his father, in particular, are against it at first. However, his mother like Christine warms to them as a couple after seeing their love and talks to Matt passionately about their love.
However, the only real support for this couple comes from Monsignor Ryan and her friends, who wholeheartedly accept their love. Monsignor Ryan also provides support for her parents, as they explore how they feel about this then unique situation. Cecil Kellaway also brings some humour to proceedings. Kellaway’s character is aptly described by Roger Ebert HERE as having:
a brogue so fey and eyes so twinkling he makes Bing Crosby look like a Protestant
It feels that both her fiance and their parents are more aware of how others particularly of their generation, be they black or white will possibly respond to them. Her friends’ acceptance giving more hope and support for them as their life as a couple, in the future came with perfect timing with the law changing just two weeks after filming.
However, as the headlining pair in this movie, Hepburn and Tracy are a well-matched married pair. Their on-screen chemistry is a credible one and you believe in them as a couple. Ebert describes them as;
“Miss Hepburn’s perfect Rock of Gibraltar mother and Tracy’s perfect Spencer Tracy”.
Throughout the film, you can feel Hepburn supporting Tracy (and Houghton) on screen and it feels their chemistry glows in every shot, every frame and every look and nuance between them. This is beautifully seen as the pair go for ice cream where their characters talk privately about the situation.
But their support (and off-screen love) is felt at its most intense in that final scene where Tracy makes his final soliloquy. In this scene, Matt confronts the dinner party guests and Tilly, he shares his opinion of this marriage in a wonderfully warm, touching and accepting soliloquy.
In this speech, he confronts this reality and he acknowledges that life will be difficult for them, but what they as parents and the world feel about their love doesn’t matter all that matters is that they love each other. He says if the couple loves each other even half as much as he does with his on-screen wife, he will support them. Adding it would be a tragedy if they didn’t marry.
Tracy then turns to Hepburn, and in their shared looks, she’s in genuine tears at his final, heartfelt and passionate speech (and possibly his performance). Perhaps, this is her seeing the truth of this speech as related to their off-screen relationship. This speech could easily be one about him and Hepburn, but instead with a “little” marriage problem.
As he talks about his love for her character, you can’t help but cry a little. This is as you watch this on-screen “shocking pair” in their last on-screen scene together. As the final credits roll, and those lyrics of The Glory of Love return, you think of these “two wonderful people, who just happened to fall in love”… Spence and Kate.
Weeper Rating: 😦😦😦😦😦😦😦😦😦😦/10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂🙂🙂🙂🙂🙂🙂🙂/10
Hulk Rating: /10
Third Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn Blogathon 2020, No 24
Love Letters to Old Hollywood and In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood Third Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn Blogathon. Other reviews with this cast include Spencer Tracy in Father’s Little Dividend. Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond. Sidney Poitier stars in To Sir, With Love and David and Lisa. Beah Richards in Murder She Wrote. Cecil Kellaway and Virginia Christine in Bewitched and The Twilight Zone. Isabel Sanford in The Love Boat, Love at First Bite and Bewitched. Roy Glenn in Alfred Hitchcock Presents.