Stanley Kramer ever since he started making films back in the late ’40s he bridged Hollywood entertainment with a social conscience. Kramer unlike a lot of filmmakers who make politically minded films he had enormous financial success with his films. He dealt with racism in The Defiant Ones back in 1958 and nuclear holocaust in his underrated On The Beach. He would return to the subject of racism in 1967 with his hugely successful dramedy about interracial marriage Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner which stars Sidney Poitier who was also the star of The Defiant Ones 9 years earlier.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is set during the space of one day in San Francisco. Sidney Poitier plays Dr. John Wayde Prentice Jr. who is in love with Joanna Drayton (Katharine Houghton) and they have the desire to get married after spending 10 days together in Hawaii. However the catch is John is African-American and Joanna is white and they travel back to SF to meet Joanna’s liberal parents played by Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey (in his final screen role). However despite the parents liberal leanings the film is about the parents figuring out “how liberal are they really?” and if they have any underlying prejudices. To complicate things more John’s parents aren’t aware of the Joanna’s race and decide to fly in last-minute for the dinner of the title.
The film is very much a product of its time even though the subject of interracial marriage is still a touchy subject for many families. It’s also a perfect example of a very old-fashioned film on the cusp of the New Hollywood explosion which tries to be hip to the times and succeeds in that regard. The main reason it stands the test of time is the script by William Rose which is rock solid. The fact Kramer and Rose made Joanna’s parents “liberal” instead of racist bigots makes the characterization more 3 dimensional.
However despite being a very progressive film for 1967 it seems extremely dated. The character Poitier plays is the “perfect negro” rich, handsome, intelligent etc. and this was a version of a the black male Poitier portrayed over and over. It was a positive one for the time but now seems extremely dated and phony, a more flawed version of the character would be more interesting. Poitier was criticised by the black community for playing this roles. The biggest problem however is the role of the maid who of course is played by a black woman. It’s not untrue that a black woman would probably be the maid of an upper middle class white couple but the characterization is an updated version of the black mammy character prevalent throughout Hollywood Cinema especially during the classic era.
The performances are great especially Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn. The two of them had a lifelong love affair which was a secret to the public for years and obviously due to this; the relationship portrayed in the film is very believable and touching. Tracey was in ill-health and would not live to see the finished film and both Hepburn and Kramer put up their salaries so he could be cast. Hepburn also went to her grave without seeing the film because it was too difficult for her to watch. Katharine Houghton is great as Joanna and it’s a shame her acting career never took off, she has ended up mostly writing plays. She was the niece of Katherine Hepburn in real life.
Overall Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner remains an enduring classic if an extremely dated one. 1967 was the same year Poitier was the star of In the Heat of the Night which was as different a film on racism as you could get and still seems modern now. Powerhouse has compiled a new package with a slew of featurettes including a good one on the work of Stanley Kramer. Steven Spielberg does an introduction as do three others along with footage of Al Gore winning the Stanley Kramer award and Kramer himself picking up the Irving Thalberg Award. The release also includes a lengthy booklet which includes writings by BFI’s Tega Okiti and Jeff Billington.