Top 100 Movie Review: #99 – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

Entertaining, but Almost Hard to Take Seriously

All-Star Cast (Left to Right): Sidney Poitier, Katherine Houghton,  Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

American Film Institute Ranking: #99/100
Academy Awards: Best Actress (Katherine Hepburn), Best Original Screenplay
My Rating:smooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-star

Leave it to Hollywood to insert itself in a social issue, have it packed with trite stereotypes and interactions, and somehow still make it good enough to enjoy. This film is a constant roller-coaster ride, but not due to some concrete plot or character development. What’s going to have you squirming in your seat instead will be how a movie with such beautiful moments can be juxtapositioned with such ridiculousness.

Take for instance a scene where Matt and Christina Drayton (played by Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn respectively) have to leave the house due to the stress of the day (aka: their daughter wanting to marry a person of another race). They end up at a drive-in diner where Matt Drayton orders ice cream which was not the flavor he is expecting, and while at first he dislikes it he loves it after giving it a chance. This is a not so subtle suggestion of a parallel with what is happening in his personal life with his daughter’s soon to be husband. The movie uses fresh Oregon Boysenberry Sherbet to make a statement on race relations in America. 

Compare this to where Christina Drayton confronts her racist employee, Hilary, who is so appalled by the arrangement that she can’t help but get a closer look at what she perceives as a clear violation of social norms. Katherine Hepburn dismisses Hilary in scathing but debonair style akin to some sort of controlled TNT detonation. As Hilary pulls away, we can’t but help a cheer for the good guys that stand up to such bullies and a much needed victory for what is right.

Historically, the film struck at the right moment. The ruling by the Supreme Court on Loving vs. Virginia preventing any laws prohibiting interracial marriages happened just two weeks after this movie finished filming. Interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 States at this time, and the impact of the movie must have been much more so then than now.

While race is the center of the entire film, it is this aspect that has lost the most power while being involved in the most ridiculous scenes. The soliloquy delivered by Tracy Spencer at the end is so theatrically presented while having been artificially climaxed due to unbelievable circumstances: the father has to give his blessing in the marriage in a little less than 8 hours from finding out about the situation because they plan to leave tonight — no other option is viable.

Where I find the movie does a surprisingly good job is the idea of Ageism and what it means to be a Liberal in America. Matt and Christina are older now, and I would take a guess to be represented in their 60s. Everywhere in the movie, there are scenes showing the vibrancy of youth and how times are changing. In the same sequence of events involving the ice cream debacle, there are plenty of messages that show that the new generation is coming and they are going to be the ones to shape how the future looks like. This constant reminder throughout the movie I thought was very powerful, and a good reminder how futile it can be to try and keep things the way they are.

The other message was that Matt and Christina raised their daughter under liberal values, and that they should never judge someone for race, creed or identity. The problem is that when it came to affecting their own family, somehow the father got uncomfortable even though his whole life as a newspaper editor has to been push liberal issues. This hypocrisy is repeatedly pointed out, as people remind Matt that the reason his daughter is doing this is because he instilled these values in her.

The culmination of all of this is different finger points at different parties with a very specific message: left-leaning people cannot abandon their espoused values when it becomes personal; the new generation is about to replace the old, so it is impossible to fight the inexorable march of time; it is your duty to step up and stomp out prejudice when it’s within your power to do so. My favorite character might have been the Catholic priest who was completely accepting without hesitation; who doesn’t want to emulate his freedom and open love?

All in all, this movie was written to be light, comedic, and predictable while being a commentary of the time that it was written. There are light hearted moments, jokes for solid chuckles, and occasions for a swell of emotion. If you can endure the moments of shear saccharine indulgence, you will find an enjoyable movie with a good message.


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