Come Dining with Tracy, Hepburn, Houghton and Poitier
Watching "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" is a moving experience especially when you consider that Spencer Tracy was not only very ill during the making of the movie but also that he died just 17 days after filming ended. Not that you would know that Tracy was ill because his performance, his comic timing was still impeccable and the chemistry with co-star Katharine Hepburn is still brilliant. But whilst "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" is moving because it was Spencer Tracy's last movie it is also a very good movie as it explores what at the time was the explosive issue of interracial marriage. It manages to explore and highlights various issues but does so in an often witty manner so that whilst the movie has a point to make it does so in a charming and amusing way. And whilst "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" is over 40 years old it is as entertaining today as it has ever been.
Joey Drayton (Katharine Houghton) decides to pay her parents a surprise visit having returned from holiday in Hawaii and she is sure to surprise them as whilst Mr. & Mrs. Drayton (Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn) are liberal and have brought Joey up to be liberal the fact she is bringing her fiancé, Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier - The Jackal) to meet them maybe one step to far as he is black. It is a surprise which causes Mr. Drayton a lot of issues despite being very liberal and with John's parents also showing up with their own objections to the marriage it seems that maybe a mixed race marriage is just one step too far.
There is a very traditional feel to "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner", it runs like a dining room drama with it covering a short time period where people enter and depart at pivotal moments. It does expand on the set up, there are important scenes which happen elsewhere but the focus is largely on the home of Mr. and Mrs. Drayton as the issue over their daughter wanting to marry a Negro take place. Now it has to be said that when "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" was made and released it was a brave movie with mixed marriages actually being illegal in many American states. Yet for a movie which tackles such a powerful subject and does have a point to make over mixed marriages it never once becomes heavy or preachy thanks to the witty way the subject is approached.
The amusement comes from Mr. and Mrs. Drayton being challenged to back their liberal beliefs when their daughter Joanna, or Joey as she is often referred to, brings home Negro Dr. John Prentice who she plans to marry. From the initial meetings, especially when the penny drops for Mr. Drayton exactly why his daughter is introducing him to this handsome doctor through to the way he struggles with the idea that his daughter wants to marry a Negro it is all done with wit. And it's not just Mr. and Mrs. Drayton who provide the amusement because John's parents show up as does Monsignor Ryan and there is also Tillie who constantly thinks that John is over reaching his mark. With these diverse characters and a very enthusiastic Joey almost ever single scene brings a smile to your face and it's all down to the interactions between the characters.
But whilst amusing it doesn't hide away from the emotive issue of mixed marriages and does a good job of getting a message across without being heavy handed. The final monologue by Matt is spectacular at highlighting the issues, the emotions and feelings surrounding the issue.
What is for sure is that despite being seriously ill "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" is Spencer Tracy's movie. Yes Sidney Poitier is fun as the handsome and polite John Prentice whilst Katharine Houghton is perfect as the lively daughter of the Drayton's, a clever piece of casting seeing that Houghton was Katharine Hepburn's niece and gives Joey a touch of young Hepburn. And talking of Katharine Hepburn her performance is packed with emotion, honest tears in the moving scenes she shares with Tracy especially in those final scenes. But it is Spencer Tracy who commands the movie, his comic timing is impeccable, the humorous battle with his conscience is wonderful and his command of a monologue is on the money. As such you get a performance from Tracy which is quite simply captivating and because of the sad fact this would be his last movie is also extremely poignant.
The thing is that there are faults which can be found in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" you could say that Sidney Poitier plays John Prentice as just too perfect when in the company of Matt Drayton yet berates his own father when he talks about his concerns. Joey seems far too oblivious to all the turmoil going around when it comes to the deeper feelings of her father and Tillie the housemaid is a huge stereotype. But these faults actually pass you by, you only notice them when you stop watching "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" as entertainment and over analyse it.
What this all boils down to is that "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" is still a marvellous movie which whilst the issue of mixed marriage is not so much of an issue is still fascinating to watch. It manages to cover the subject of mixed marriage in a very witty way without ever cheapening the message. But it is the performance of Spencer Tracy which makes the movie so great and so poignant.