Problem: how to tell an interracial love story in a literate, non-sensational and balanced way. Solution: make it a drama with comedy. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is an outstanding Stanley Kramer production, superior in almost every imaginable way, which examines its subject matter with perception, depth, insight, humor and feeling. Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier and Katharine Hepburn head a perfect cast. A landmark in its tasteful introduction of sensitive material to the screen, the Columbia release can look to torrid b.o. response throughout a long-legged theatrical release.
William Rose’s original screenplay demands recognition as one of the true “stars” of the superior production. Script is properly motivated at all times; dialog is punchy, adroit and free of preaching; dramatic rhythm is superb. Casting and direction by Kramer is terrific. Film can exhaust most superlatives by the time an analysis is complete. Production values are strong throughout. George Glass was associate producer.
The story covers 12 hours, from arrival in, and departure from, Frisco of Poitier and newcomer Katharine Houghton (Hepburn’s niece, in a whammo screen debut). Tracy and Miss Hepburn are her parents, of longtime liberal persuasion, faced with a true test of their beliefs: do they approve of their daughter marrying a Negro.
Poitier’s parents, Beah Richards and Roy E. Glenn Sr., also are faced with the question when they fly up for dinner (hence, the title). Peripheral characters, all of whom add a dimension to the well-developed exposition, include priest Cecil Kellaway, a family friend, Isabell Sanford, the Tracy-Hepburn Negro maid, and Virginia Christine, a biz partner to Miss Hepburn.
Between the lovers and two sets of parents, every possible interaction is explored amidst comedy angles which range from drawing-room sophistication to sight gag, from bitter cynicism to telling irony. Film must be seen to be believed.
Apart from the pic itself, there are several plus angles. This is the ninth teaming of Tracy and Miss Hepburn, and the last, unfortunately; Tracy died shortly after principal photography was complete. Older audiences who remember their successful prior pix will be drawn to this one, while younger crowds will be attracted by the interracial romance.
Also, for Poitier, film marked a major step forward, not just in his proven acting ability, but in the opening-up of his script character. In many earlier films, he seemed to come from nowhere; he was a symbol. But herein, he has a family, a professional background, likes, dislikes, humor, temper. In other words, he is a whole human being. This alone is a major achievement in screenwriting, and for Poitier himself, his already recognized abilities now have expanded casting horizons.
To point out acting highlights would be to repeat the cast listing; suffice it to say that Kramer cast with care and directed in the same sure manner. Miss Houghton is an attractive, talented girl who is off to a running start. Miss Sanford, the maid, has not been in pix before, according to associate producer Glass; well, she’s off to a strong start, too.
Recurring theme, interpolated nicely by Frank DeVol, is the late Billy Hill’s “The Glory of Love” (“You’ve Got to Give a Little, Take a Little…”). Jacqueline Fontaine sings at one point. Over 30 years old, the Shapiro-Bernstein copyright gets a deserved new lease on life. Rest of the score is good.
Production credits rate a big nod — Robert Clatworthy’s production design and the Jean Louis wardrobe in particular. What appears to be some poor process work may be attributed to the exigencies of production vis-a-vis Tracy’s terminal illness. Robert C. Jones executed the sharp editing to a very good 108 minutes.
Story ends on an upbeat note, leaving audiences not only entertained but with many a new thought on how they would face similar situations. Almost every familiar racial prejudice is brought up and, if not demolished, at least illuminated in detail to spark definite word of mouth. Certain Dixie areas may not dig the film, sight-unseen, but it is big enough, and important enough, to command screen time in those regions.
1967: Best Actress (Katharine Hepburn), Original Story & Screenplay.
Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Spencer Tracy), Supp. Actor (Cecil Kellaway), Supp. Actress (Beah Richards), Art Direction, Editing, Adapted Score