Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

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Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is a 1967 award-winning comedy-drama film starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier, and Katharine Houghton. It was directed by Stanley Kramer and written by William Rose, who won the Academy Award for best original screenplay.

The story concerns Johanna Drayton (Houghton), a young Caucasian American woman who has had a whirlwind romance with Dr. Prentice (Poitier), an African American she met while on a holiday in Hawaii.[1] The two plan to marry and she will return with him to Switzerland. The plot centers around Johanna’s return to her upper class American home bringing her new fiancé to dinner to meet her parents, and the reaction of family and friends.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner dealt with the then-controversial subject of inter-ethnic marriage. In 1967 such marriages were still illegal in several of the United States (the movie says 13), although this would shortly be changed in the landmark case Loving v. Virginia (1967). Groundbreaking for its time, the film was criticized for its plot devices, such as the stereotyped ingénue and hero. According to Kramer, he and Rose intentionally debunked ethnic stereotypes, so the young doctor, a typical role for the young Sidney Poitier, was idealistically perfect: he has graduated from a top school, begun innovative medical initiatives in Africa, refused to have premarital sex with his fiancée despite her request, and leaves money on his future father-in-law’s desk in payment for a long distance phone call he has made. The character intentionally debunks the stereotypical black male and the story was criticized for not addressing what would have happened had the young heroine brought home an ordinary fellow, but the creators made it clear that they wanted a story where the only objection to the marriage could be the doctor’s race (the fact that the lovers have known each other only a short time is touched on as a secondary consideration).

On balance, criticism was more positive than negative, with most critics praising the elegant, understated performances. The film also attempted to touch upon black-on-black racism, as when both the doctor’s father and the household cook, Matilda Binks Isabel Sanford in a bit part take the young man to task for his perceived presumption.

The film was also memorable for being the last on-screen pairing of Tracy and Hepburn. It also featured Roy Glenn and Beah Richards as Mr. and Mrs. Prentice; although unremarkable today, the inclusion of so many blacks in a cast in roles other than servile ones was still noteworthy in the 1960s.

Production difficulties and the commitment to the project

Many films face financial difficulties and this was no exception. Stanley Kramer is quoted as stating later that the principals believed so strongly in the premise that they agreed to act in the project even before seeing the script. Spencer Tracy was dying and insurance companies refused to cover him (he did in fact die shortly after filming); Kramer and Hepburn put their salaries in escrow so that if he died filming could be completed with another actor. The filming schedule was altered to accommodate Tracy’s failing health. [2]

Notes and references

  1. The terms ‘Caucasian’ and ‘African American’ are used advisedly here. These ethnic groups are referred to as races in the movie, and called ‘white’ and ‘colored’ or ‘Negro’, as these were the polite terms of choice in the mid-twentieth Century.
  2. Liner notes in the DVD edition of the film