Interracial Cinema Classic Revisited
by Judson Hammond
6 October 2004
[From Instauration, June 1999]
As a lifelong movie buff, I eyeballed the recently published list of the best 100 American movies with interst. Turns out I'd only missed two of them. One was "The Sound of Music," which I saw on video at a friend's house over the holidays. That left only one "classic" I had missed, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."
Though I had scrupulously avoided this movie -- decades before I even heard of Instauration -- I now felt an urge to see it, so I could say I'd touched all the bases. I figured I'd look for it at the local Blockbuster, but before I did so, it showed up at a local revival house. Might as well see it on the big screen the way nature and Columbia Pictures intended.
For those unfamiliar with the film, I can synopsize it in one sentence: "Wealthy white liberal parents face the ultimate test of their philosophy when their daughter brings home her fiance, a black doctor." In the celluloid trade, this is what they would call a "high concept" flick -- thought they didn't use that term in 1967 when the film was produced. Above and beyond its controversial theme, the film achieved a place in cinema history as the last pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, who played the liberal parents. In poor health during shooting, Tracy died two weeks after principal photography ended.
Though the film has the feel of a photographed stage play, it was written directly for the screen by one William Rose, who received the 1967 Oscar for best story and screenplay. Hepburn was named Best Actress and the film received nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (Stanley Kramer), Best Actor (Spencer Tracy), Best Supporting Actor (Cecil Kellaway) and Best Supporting Actress (Beah Richards, the mother of the black boyfriend).
Katharine Houghton, the perky actress who made her film debut as the renegade white girl, is particularly painful to watch, as she is a classic exponent of Nordic beauty. Though she should have received lifetime job security in Hollywood as payback for undertaking such a politically correct role, she was never heard from again. One can only speculate why. Also fodder for speculation is the motivation of her aunt, Katharine Hepburn, who must have played an active part in persuading her to undertake this role.
The black swain/sawbones, portrayed by Sidney Poitier, belongs more properly to science fiction than to a comedy of manners. Talk about being a credit to his race! Try these on for size: Johns Hopkins, Yale, monographs galore, textbooks, the World Health Organization. Even though his girlfriend tries to drag him to bed, he begs off -- for her own good! Ye gods, the man's a saint! One would have to be an incorrigible bigot to object to someone simply because he was a Negro! Who among us is fit to judge a person of such obviously superior intelligence and sensitivity? As film critic John Baxter noted, Poitier is "a catch so impressive that one senses it would not have mattered if he had been a midget as well."
Casting Poitier as a dusky doctor was hardly an original idea. Poitier had been playing M.D.'s since his 1950 debut in "No Way Out" when he had to contend with a leering racist gangster played by Richard Widmark. In "Pressure Point," a 1962 opus produced by Stanley Kramer, he plays a psychiatrist who treats a young neo-Nazi, Bobby Darin. Even when he wasn't a physician, Poitier was ministering to white folks, like the nuns in "Lilies of the Field" (1963), the blind girl in "A Patch of Blue" (1965), the suicidal woman in "The Slender Thread" (1965) and the white teenagers in "To Sir With Love" (1967). The rest of the time he was clashing with bigots like Jack Warden in "Edge of the City" (1957), Rod Steiger in "In the Heat of the Night" (1967) and the never-to-be-forgotten "The Defiant Ones" (1958), again produced and directed by Stanley Kramer, where Poitier and a fellow convict, who just happens to be a white racist, though shackled together, make a daring attempt to escape. Since the bigot was played by Bronx Chosenite Tony Curtis with a cornpone accent, it's easier to feel more sympathy for Poitier than Curtis.
The in-your-face symbolism of white man and black man bound together, each dependent on the other, is too obvious to miss, but such is typical of the output of Jewish filmmaker Stanley Kramer. Despite his ultraliberal politics, his utter lack of subtlety earned him only scorn from the cognoscenti. Film critic Andrew Sarris dismissed his career in one pithy paragraph:
If Stanley Kramer had not existed, he would have had to have been invented as the most extreme example of message cinema. Unfortunately, he has been such an easy and willing target for so long that his very ineptness has become encrusted with tradition. He will never be a natural, but time has proved that he is not a fake.
At first it may seem odd that a polemicist like Kramer would favor a seemingly apolitical actor like Spencer Tracy (four of Tracy's last five movie appearances were in Kramer's films). Tracy portrayed thet Clarence Darrow figure in Kramer's "Inherit the Wind," an American judge in the soporific "Judgment at Nuremberg" and a police chief in "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." Though the latter film, a megabucks comedy, is the least typical of their collaborative efforts, it might contain a clue as to Tracy's true persona. In that film he plays a straight-arrow police captainn who absconds with the loot when no one's looking. Though Tracy generally played an all-American square-shooter, he was believable in the role of a crook.
Another of Tracy's favorite directors was George Cukor, a gay Chosenite, who directed him in five films, including three of his collaborations with Katharine Hepburn ("Keeper of the Flame," "Adam's Rib," and "Pat and Mike"). One of his best known parts was as the mysterious stranger in "Bad Day at Black Rock," where white bigotry, directed against a Japanese man, was again the prime mover in the plot. I remember an eerie speech Tracy made in Frank Capra's "State of the Union," where he was a presidential candidate speaking out in favor of world government. The subconscious perception of the moviegoer is that if a stand-up guy like Spencer Tracy supports racial equality, global government, Holocaust sensitivity and feminism, then maybe there's something to it! Tracy was, if not a white renegade, at least a useful idiot. "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" may have been the culmination of his career in more ways than one.
"Guess" is worth seeing as a textbook example of liberal persuasion techniques. The enlightened creatures are the interracial lovers who don't see color. After her initial surprise, Hepburn comes around pretty quickly. A Catholic priest, a friend of the family, is also supportive, as is Poitier's mother. Sidney's father is not happy about the situation but by the final fadeout, we can't help but feel that he'll come around in time. Same goes for Isabelle Sanford (of TV's The Jeffersons), the family domestic whose commonsensical sassiness provides occasional stereotypical comic relief. How they missed naming her Mammy or Beulah, I'll never know. "Civil rights is one thing but this here is another," she snorts. Yet one has the feeling that in time she too will be converted. Their hearts are in the right place; they're just a little behind the times. As Poitier preaches when arguing with his father, "You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man." The younger generation, of course, is where it's at!
The moral fulcrum of "Guess" is Tracy's character. As a newspaper publisher he boldly advocated racial equality, but the vision of his daughter's marriage sticks in his craw. It appears he's not going to lend his blessing, in which case it won't happen, vows Sidney. But the old curmudgeon comes around when he thinks back to his youthful love for Hepburn. If his daughter and her blackamoor paramour feel as he did, then it's all right! "The only thing that matters is what they feel -- and how they feel about each other," announces Tracy when he waxes windy at the end of the film. Whew! What a relief! For a while there it looked as though old Spencer might come down on the side of racism. During a few quiet moments in the film, when Tracy is seen staring off into space, one can almost see the flickering pornographic image in his head. Is that daddy's little girl doing the horizontal tango with a Ubangi? But if they're really, truly in love, then what does it matter? "That's the story of, that's the glory of love!" croons the soundtrack.
Ah, but there is one character, albeit minor, who is incorrigible. At her art gallery, Hepburn employs a manager played by Virginia Christine. Admittedly a bit snoopy, when she shows up at the house to offer her sympathies, she is hastily given the gate and summarily fired from her job by old Kate at her self-righteous best. The audience responds with cheers! how to put that snobby racist in her place! Just remove her from the dialectic so she won't pollute it. Of course, this is exactly what Clinton did with his vaunted conference on race. He hand-picked the participants and controlled the debate to make sure that no untoward conclusions were drawn. Racialists were not invited, not worthy of inclusion. Their views deserved no forum. Ever notice how that big Republican tent starts to shrink when David Duke and his ilk seek admittance?
"Guess" was no shrinking violet at the box office. The film proved to be Spencer Tracy's biggest box office smash, but his death prevented a sequel. A pity, for just as Tracy's "Father of the Bride" bega "Father's Little Dividend," in which a grandchild was brought forth, we might have been treated to Tracy having a drooling contest with his mulatto grandchild.
I can't imagine why Hollywood, with its penchant for remakes, hasn't decided to remake "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." The contemporary liberal should puff out his chest with pride because we've all "grown" as a society to the point where interracial marriage is no longer a controversial topic.
Still, I can't help but feel that right now, somewhere in La La Land, someone is pitching a high-concept movie idea. "There's this real liberal couple whose gay son brings home the man he wants to marry."
1. While Hepburn and Tracy come across as the consummate upper-class WASP couple, it occurs to me that in early drafts of the script they might have been something else. She owns a modern art gallery and he's a media mogul. They aren't too keen on organized religion and the mother is annoyed that her daughter is engaged to a doctor. Sounds pretty Semitic to me.
2. John Baxter, Hollywood in the Sixties, (Tantivy/Barnes: London/New York, 1972), p. 19.
3. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 (E.P. Dutton & Co.: New York, 1968), p. 260.
4. In terms of his looks, Tracy appeared to be a classic Irishman. His father was indeed a devout Irish Catholic, but his WASP mother traced her roots back to the early Massachusetts colonists.
5. Shrewdly, director Kramer soft-pedals the kissy-face scenes. Even he must have realized that Sidney Poitier slobbering over a spunky Nordic cutie would have been too much for contemporary audiences. Today, of course, there would be plenty of fluid exchanges, no matter how strong the gag reflex in the audience.