Turner Classic Movies will conclude their month of Spencer Tracy today, 29 October, with an evening of the four films he made with director Stanley Kramer. GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (1967) was Spencer Tracy’s final film and will be showing at 1:30 am EST. It was the ninth film he and Katharine Hepburn had made together since WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1942). It now stands as a touching tribute to their personal and professional relationship.
The film was controversial for its time because it is a love story about an inter-racial couple. Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), the black son of a black mail man, and Joey Drayton (Katharine Houghton), the white daughter of a wealthy white newspaper editor, meet while on vacation in Hawaii and immediately fall in love. They fly home to introduce him to her parents and announce that they wish to be married. Unbeknownst to Joey, John has given her parents a sort of ultimatum: if they don’t approve the marriage and give it their blessing, he will call the whole thing off. The situation is intensified when John’s parents, still unaware that Joey is a white girl, decide to come out and meet the girl their son has fallen in love with.
Spencer Tracy was not at all well when he made this film. He was plagued by a number of illnesses and Katharine Hepburn had taken five years out of her film career to take care of him. When director Stanley Kramer decided to direct this film, and cast Spencer Tracy in it, all three of them had to put their salaries in escrow because the studio doubted Tracy would complete the film so they refused to insure it.
“I don’t think I consciously formulated the thought that as long as Spencer would be working, he had a purpose to go on, that his future would be more certain. I believed that Spencer wouldn’t let me down. He had a strong will, and couldn’t die because he wanted me to get paid. And he didn’t want to let others down either.” (Chandler 232)
“Spencer and I felt that our films were our children. I thought this film would be our last child, a late-life child.” (Chandler 229)
GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER was only the third film in which the Tracy and Hepburn characters have a child (WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1942) and THE SEA OF GRASS (1947)), but unlike the others this child is not the cause of a breakdown of their marriage. The brief monologue Mrs. Drayton delivers to her husband, about how they raised their daughter, could not have been more appropriate for Hepburn/Tracy’s own child, if they had had one:
“She’s 23 years old, and the way she is is just exactly the way we brought her up to be. We answered her questions, she listened to our answers. We told her it was wrong to believe that the white people were somehow essentially superior to the black people, or the brown, or the red, or the yellow, for that matter. People who thought that way were wrong to think that way – sometimes hateful, usually stupid, but always, always wrong. That’s what we said. And when we said it, we didn’t add ‘but don’t ever fall in love with a colored man.’”
Critics and audiences alike were quick to point out that this film is as much about its stars as it is about the characters the stars are portraying. Kathy Houghton stated how it often seemed that “the [Tracy/Hepburn] relationship almost overpowers the scripted relationship” (A Love Story of Today documentary). Feminist/Marxist Hepburn scholar Andrew Britton points out that “[critics expressed a] most extravagantly uninhibited displays of plangent personal feeling about the actors” (Britton 172).
“The simple fact of their presence in the same film for one final curtain call is enough to bring a lump to your throat. They bicker fondly together in their patented manner, and for me, at least, their performances in this movie are beyond the bounds of criticism.” (Richard Schickel, Life)
“When, at its climax, her turns to her and tells her what an old man remembers having loved, it is, for us who are permitted to overhear him, an experience that transcends the theatrical.” (The New Yorker, Dickens 187)
If one looks for it, one can find a number of little nods to previous Tracy/Hepburn movies. For instance, Mr. Drayton at one point recounts a conversation with a sports journalist on his paper about baseball, reminding us of his character Sam Craig in WOMAN OF THE YEAR, when he took Tess Harding (Hepburn) to a baseball game for the first time. Tracy also does a very funny impression of Hepburn’s Bryn Mawr accent, which reminded me of the scene in ADAM’S RIB (1949) when he accuses her of using the Bryn Mawr accent whenever she got “causy.” The most heart-wrenching scene of GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER is when he makes his final speech at the end of the movie:
“Because in the final analysis it doesn’t matter a damn what we think. The only thing that matters is what they feel, and how much they feel, for each other. And if it’s half of what we felt, that’s everything.” [turns to KH, who is tearing up, and my heart breaks into a million tiny pieces!]
Newsman Tom Brokaw quoted the old Hollywood adage that if you want to send a message, call Western Union. Then he added, “If Stanley Kramer wanted to send a message, he made a big and important film.” Kramer’s wife Karen talks about how “Stanley used film as a weapon to fight against all the injustices of the world, against bigotry, discrimination, against man’s inhumanity to man, and the excessive abuse of power.” Director Steven Spielberg was also a big fan of Kramer’s, crediting him with making the most “amazingly socially conscientious pictures ever made by Hollywood.” Some of the controversial films he made before GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER include THE DEFIANT ONES (1958), INHERIT THE WIND (1960), JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961), PRESSURE POINT (1962), and SHIP OF FOOLS (1965).
Joey Drayton (Kathy Houghton)
Houghton’s performance in GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER is one of the few disappointments of the film. Her flippant, happy-go-lucky, innocence about the whole thing is both unrealistic and unbearably annoying! She seems completely unaware of any problems that might arise form her marriage to a black man. When she and John are driving from the airport, he expresses his concerns about meeting her parents, to which she replies:
“After 23 of living in the same house with them, don’t you think I know my own mother and father? [Turns his face towards her] There’s no problem.”
In retrospect, Houghton remembered having difficulty sinking her feet into Joey’s character, stating, “A girl like Joey is a concept. She’s not a real girl… It was a pretty lie to begin with.”Apparently, Kramer was a bit dubious at first about casting Kathy Houghton as the daughter, but Katharine Hepburn was all for it:
“[Kathy Houghton] would play Spencer’s and my daughter. I loved that! She’s beautiful and she definitely had a family resemblance. It was my idea.” (Chandler 229)
Houghton remembers being nervous working with her famous aunt, especially since she hadn’t seen her since she was six. On the first day of shooting, Hepburn announced to the whole crew, “In case my niece drops dead from the excitement, I’m here and I know all her lines, too!” (Edwards)
Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier)
1967 was a big year for Sidney Poitier. Having made TO SIR, WITH LOVE and IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT that same year, he was Hollywood’s wonder boy. One of the criticisms of Poitier’s work through the years, a criticism that comes primarily from the African American community, is that his characters are often “too good to be true.” Why should the black character have to be some sort of god just to be allowed to sit down with white people? This point applies all too well for Dr. John Prentice in GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER. Not only did the good doctor attend the best schools and earn the highest degrees, he also wants to save Africa! He is noble and brave and upright, etc. In this role, in this time, he had to be perfect. The part required perfection in order to make the argument. Only if the character concepts are flawless can a debate about race as the obstacle to marriage be played out. Poitier enjoyed making GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER, but was often intimidated by his legendary co-stars. He was in awe of Hepburn’s fantastic energy, which “never seemed to run down.”
“The film was a real strain because you couldn’t help but suffer for Spencer, and then you couldn’t help but suffer for Kate, who was suffering for both of them. But I was always glad I did it.” (Chandler 232)
Mr. and Mrs. Prentice (Roy Glenn and Beah Richards)
Dr. Prentice’s parents, like the other characters in the film, are representatives of a frame of mind present in the African American consciousness of the time. Mrs. Prentice, like Mrs. Drayton, views the young people’s relationship as a love story. She holds to the dictum “love conquers all,” even racial prejudice.
“If we’re going to accept the thing at all, it seems to me, we’ll have to trust the two of them and accept that they know what they’re doing”
“What happens to men when they grow old? Why do they forget everything? … I believe that men grow old and when sexual things no longer matter to them, they forget it all! Forget what true passion is.”
The confrontation between Mr. Prentice and his son is one of the best bits of acting from Poitier that I’ve ever seen. The whole debate about interracial marriage is condensed, on the black side of things, into a generational argument:
“You and your whole lousy generation believes that the way it was for you is the way it’s got to be! And not until your whole generation has laid down and died will the dead weight of you be off our backs! You understand? You’ve got to get off my back!”
“But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.”
Tillie (Isabel Sanford)
Tillie is the Drayton’s black maid, who has been a part of the Drayton family since Joey was a baby. The role is performed by the incomparable Isabel Sanford of “The Jeffersons.” At first, the part seems insensitively clichéd – Tillie provides the sarcastic comedy we have come to expect from the traditional “Mammy” figure. On the other hand, because that figure was such a mainstay in classic films, she has a place here. Here we get the chance to ask a representative of that type-cast what she would think about an inter-racial marriage. And boy, do we get an answer! Tillie’s hostility to Dr. Prentice and his proposed relationship with a white girl, represents a sort of reverse racism, also found in Mr. Prentice’s character. When Tillie confronts John while he is changing (she is essentially “dressing him down”), the scene is shot at a canted angle, leading the audience to view the exchange as something more serious than the comic relief the dialogue can imply. Tillie calls John a “smooth-talking, smart-assed nigger” and warns him not to bring in any “Black Power and trouble-making nonsense.”
In another shot of her observing the family, she mutters to herself, “Civil Rights is one thing, but this here is something else.” She is essentially answering the question many liberal, white, liberal civil rights activists of the time, like the Draytons, were asking themselves: Equality is all very well, but would you want your daughter to marry one? Another scene in which the white delivery boy and the younger black maid go off together, dancing, indicates what Dr. Prentice pointed out to his father, that this was as much a generational issue as a race issue.
Spencer Tracy passed away less than two weeks after finishing his final scene for GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER. During filming, Katharine Hepburn had arranged his schedule so that he only worked a few hours each day and had enough breaks. Tracy was so proud about finishing the film that on the final day, he phoned round to all his friends telling them he had done it! He had completed the film! Kevin Thomas, a critic and writer for the Los Angeles Times remembers the wrap party, which Tracy could not attend. Kramer had just made a movie speech in which he gushed about what an honor it had been for him to make Spencer Tracy’s final movie:
“Leaping like a gazelle, Katharine Hepburn landed gracefully on the stage. She laughed her wonderful laugh and grabbed the microphone and put her arm around Kramer… She treated it all light-heartedly like a joke. She never gave a performance more worthy of an Oscar… It was an unforgettable, brilliant moment. She turned it around and saved the day from being a premature funeral.” (Chandler 234)