There is a scene in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (directed by Stanley Kramer) where Spencer Tracy struggles to remember a certain flavour of ice-cream that he had had once before, a flavour so good that in this particularly trying time he finds himself in it would be the only calming grace possible. Fresh Oregon Boysenberry Sugar is the one that he eventually recognises as being that flavour he once had, trouble is that when he tastes it again it isn’t the same. A horrifying realisation at first, but after a moment of clarity it dawns on him that just because the flavour is different, doesn’t mean it’s inferior. In fact it’s actually as good as any other flavour.
If that hopelessly clunky bit of symbology didn’t already spell it out enough, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a film about racial conflict, but as heavy-handed and overt as Hollywood’s resident message man Stanley Kramer may be, equally overt is how genuinely well intended and affectionate a filmmaker he is.
The man who’s coming to dinner is John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), a highly ethical and successful well-to-do doctor who hopes to take the hand of Joey in marriage (played by Katharine Houghton) after a spontaneous kindling merely ten days earlier. However John is a coloured man and in a time when interracial marriage was outlawed in 17 U.S states, he’s acutely aware of the fact that Joey’s family, and his own, mightn’t be so receptive to their rapidly moving relationship.
Joey is a deer joyously caught in the headlights of love, swept from reality in her affection and in doing so never even entertains the thought of her parents Matt and Christina (Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn) welcoming John with anything but open arms, but as John anticipates, his skin colour is no moot detail for the parents. Joey wants her parents’ blessing before the marriage but John, ever the gentleman, needs it, not willing to be a wedge between Joey and her family. Adding to all of this is the fact that John must leave for Geneva that night, and Joey plans to join him and be married as soon as possible, a contrived necessity for the sake of tension, giving the family only a night to either stamp the relationship with their approval, or quash it completely.
This is Kramer’s second film to be nominated for Best Picture in three years, but unlike the previous Ship of Fools, here he finds himself telling a much more polished and refined story. Kramer has narrowed his lens for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a film 50 minutes shorter than its predecessor, as he hones in and better realises his themes of tolerance and the characters that carry it.
With Tracy and Hepburn’s personal lives and careers forever being entwined (this was their ninth film together), with Houghton being the real life niece of Hepburn, and with Poitier having the year of his life, the authenticity of each relationship is unquestionable. Despite the improbable circumstances of the would-be couple, their relationship is always brimming with a palpable affection and warmth, and Hepburn and Tracy bring all their history to their onscreen marriage, a bickering couple who have seen it all but who wear their pride and love for one another on their sleeves.
What’s important to note about this film is that although it is race that’s at the heart of its drama, its drama is not fuelled by racial hatred as it is in an earlier 1967 Poitier film, In the Heat of the Night. Rather its drama is fuelled by its characters’ confronting possible changes to the world’s ideals that they had become accustomed to, and the roles that these ideals had carved out for them to play. Matt and Christina are vehement liberals. Their whole parenthood they had taught Joey that skin pigment is irrelevant, but now their own principles are being tested against them. Is it really possible that a black man and white woman be married in 1967? The film is quietly subversive in the civility it brings to its discussion of race. Tracy and Poitier find themselves discussing practicalities of interracial marriage, rather than difference in values, and when John’s parents also find themselves coming over for dinner, challenged though they may be by the marriage, they too bring an underlying respect and love to their discussions. This all paves the way for an eventual series of chunky, sanctimonious monologues analysing society and relationships, but luckily the writing finds the perfect mouth pieces. When Spencer Tracy tells us how very real and powerful his own love for his wife is, it comes across as beautifully honest and wonderfully romantic.
Sure it’s manipulation at its clumsiest, but it’s honest manipulation. It’s unabashedly good natured and sincere, and you get the feeling watching his work that Stanley Kramer couldn’t care less if his films never make a single dollar, as long as they exist to say something worthwhile. Like The Sound of Music, its heart is so firmly in the right place that you forgive it for its shortcomings, and in 2016 the film may even have found a renewed significance in a time of ceaseless discussion of relationship equality. It’s as moving as it is heavy handed, and that’s a fair deal.