#99 Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner

Can’t believe white girl said that. #sixwordmovies

#99 Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner 1967

 So I guess every movie from the sixties on this list will feature its own excruciatingly annoying theme song? This time around the song is “The Glory of Love.” I know what you’re thinking, but no, it’s not that awesome jam from Karate Kid 2. I’m talking about this one. “You’ve got to give a little, take a little, and let your poor heart break a little.” You know how it goes. This song plagues the film during both opening and closing credits- but that’s not all! You can hear variations of it throughout the entirety of the film. You cannot escape it. I took Burt Bacharach to task in my Butch Cassidy entry for assaulting my ears with his offensive music, but at least Burt peppered the film with a bit of variety. In Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner we have only the one song. And it’s more like a chewing gum jingle than a song really. I digress.

Unfortunately the terrible theme song is the least of this film’s problems.

The cultural impact this movie had when it was released in 1967 must have been massive. It tells the story of an interracial couple falling in love and planning to marry in a time when a marriage between a black man and a white woman was illegal in many states. They introduce each other to their respective parents, who are quite understandably astonished, but who eventually and cautiously give their consent to the union. It’s a brilliant example of the power of film to educate societies conscience, to speak plainly to society and call us out on our prejudices and bigotry. And I’m sure that’s why it’s on the list, albeit merely sneaking in at number 99. Because quite frankly there are many, many problems with this film.

Before I come down on the movie, I first must mention how brilliant Sidney Poitier is here. He’s charming, natural, effortless. Katharine Hepburn does well, as is her wont, but I’m perplexed by the fact that she won an Academy Award for this role. As far as I’m concerned, she merely stood around with her eyes brimming on the verge of tears the entire time. But anyway.

Spencer Tracy is marvelous, and I can’t help but conclude that Pixar had him in mind when they designed the characters for Up. One of my favorite movies growing up was Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. We owned a special anniversary edition VHS of it that had a rather lengthy bonus segment featuring interviews with the cast. In it Milton Berle (I think) shares the following anecdote: an extra on the set came up to Spencer Tracy during takes and told him that his greatest ambition was to be an actor. He asked Tracy if he had any advice for him. Tracy looked at the young man and said, “Acting is the easiest thing to do in the world…Just don’t ever let anyone catch you doing it.” There’s something about Tracy that feels so easy, natural and warm. He’s a pleasure to watch here, in his last film role before his death.

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner is a very presumptuous movie. It presumes that I will believe that this young couple is in love by virtue of the fact that they laugh and smile and cavort and flirt and say that they are, in fact, in love. I don’t buy it. Watching two people talk about how in love they are does not get me emotionally invested in the success of their relationship. I’m supporting them because I recognize that their romance will be met with adversity and bigotry and racism, and that’s wrong. But not because I think they are in love. Instead of a mind-numbingly boring opening credits sequence featuring that turd of a song, why not establish the couples romance by showing us how they met, how they fell in love, so that we feel for them and root for them? It could be done rather easily I think.

Then there’s the characters. Sidney Poitier is Dr. John Prentice, an incredibly intelligent, accomplished, and successful 37 year-old widower. Katharine Houghton is Joey Drayton, an annoying 22 year-old toddler. She is staggeringly naive and completely unlikable. It’s hard to understand why a man like the Dr. would be interested in Joey, her youthful exuberance and obvious attractiveness aside. You’d expect a man like that to need more than a cheerleader, but maybe I’m the one being naive now.

The plot is very straight-forward in one sense, but downright bizarre at the same time. “We have only one night for our entire family to be OK with our getting married,” Poitier says. Why? Because they have to fly together to Switzerland tomorrow. OK? They have to. It’s an arbitrary stipulation, and completely outrageous. Tracy and Hepburn are meant to be very liberal, progressive, tolerant non-religious folks from San Fransisco. They raised their daughter with the same ideals. So why in blue blazes is Joey so damn set on getting married to this guy? It’s the swinging sixties for Pete’s sake! The movie goes out of it’s way to assure the audience that the Dr. and Joey haven’t gone to bed together. Doesn’t it stand to reason that these two would just get their jollies and move on? Why so much propriety? Is she that eager to bag the first doctor that shows interest in her? I don’t get it.

But perhaps what I found most disappointing is that the conflict from the racial tensions inherent in the relationship doesn’t meet with any real obstacle. I never really felt like this couple was under very much pressure. Hepburn and Tracy have their brief moments of initial shock and mild discomfort at the prospect, but very quickly prove to be accepting of the match and begin to champion the cause. Tracy decides that he won’t allow them to marry, not because he disapproves, but because he wants to shield the couple from society. Poitier’s father is the only character who opposes the couple with any real passion, but it’s not because of the racial difference. He’s OK with that. He thinks his son is being selfish and reckless and will somehow jeopardize all that his son has achieved through his support. Dad opposes the marriage for his own selfish, irrelevant reasons. And Poitier is 37. 37! I think he can make his own decisions?

Maybe the problem is that this movie is impossible to watch and appreciate from a modern perspective. It’s just too dated, too corny, and in 2012, in a country led by a black president, the shock value of a black man marrying a white woman has gone a little flat. What did shock me, however, was the number of times characters say “negro”, “colored” and other slurs that were (I guess) not yet considered offensive.

The film is worthwhile, though. If only for the final scene featuring Spencer Tracy’s touching monologue in which he declares his support for the couple and expresses his undying love for his wife (and tells his annoying daughter to “shut up!”). Tracy was basically on his deathbed while this film was shot, but he worked through it because he believed in the film’s message. And this final scene will give you shivers, if you have a heart beating in your chest, that is. Until that damned song comes back on and ruins it, that is.


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