Well, of course, this film must be met with a delicious scoop of Oregon Boysenberry Sherbet (or as close as you can get to that) in a waffle cone. In a memorable scene in “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” (1967), Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn visit a drive-in ice cream parlor called Mel’s Drive-In in San Francisco, California.
The young, bubble gum chomping actress Alexandra Hay, comically rattles off the list of flavors: “Daiquiri Ice? Honeycomb Candy? Cocoa Coconut? Jamoca AImond Fudge? Mocha Jamoca? Peanut Butter and Jelly? Cinnamon Banana Mint?…Must have been some other pIace…Fresh Oregon Boysenberry Sherbet? That’s it.”
Because the film focuses on the complications of interracial marriage in the 1960’s when it was still illegal in many states, it is not unlikely that the director, Stanley Kramer, chose Mel’s on purpose. In 1963 (four years prior to the films release), the food chain was picketed during the Civil Rights movement because the African-American staff were not allowed up front to be seen by the white customers.
Now, in the age of Black Lives Matter, where we are still fighting for equality for all and especially Black and Brown lives, it is worth noting that an ice cream business that is doing a lot of heavy lifting to support the BLM Movement is Ben & Jerry’s – so perhaps, if you are going to grab yourself an Oregon Boysenberry Sherbet, you should get it from them.
“Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” (1967), directed by Stanley Kramer, is very much a film of it’s time, reflecting on things that seem impossible sixty years later – and yet, it still remains incredibly fresh in many aspects. One of the bolder choices that this film makes is to confront the white liberal population on the dissonance between their spoken principals and the actual practice of those principals. Many of the films which attempt to tackle race for a white audience veer away from this take, resulting in the constant “White-Savior” problem where the only racist characters are shown with such egregiousness that 99% of audiences would never relate, and, therefore, are never forced to wrestle with their own racism.
The film begins with a young, enthusiastic couple, John Prentice (Sidney Poitier) and Joey Drayton (Katharine Houghton), stopping through town to meet Joey’s parents (played by Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn). It was the beloved Tracy and Hepburn’s last film together, after sharing the screen and an “open secret” affair for 26 years. He was sick, and passed away just two and a half weeks after the film finished shooting, and the cast knew that it would be his last performance, making the entire experience especially sentimental. There is a heartwarming scene where he speaks about love and through watering eyes looks at Hepburn as she looks back at him fondly.
The films great accomplishment was taking an extremely serious subject (interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 states during filming), and addressed the white people in America who were causing the problems, enforcing this type of segregation, and used humor to help the medicine go down.
Columbia Pictures wanted to pull the film because they were fearful that no one would want to see it, but proving them wrong, fortunately, when it came out it was the most successful film at the box office that the production company had up to that point. The film illustrates how slowly race relations have had to be massaged and improved in society because of the horrors of slavery, which caused irreparable damage to the infrastructure of the country.
One problematic element of the film is that it relies heavily on “color blindness,” which despite coming from good intent, ended up enabling white people to avoid talking about race and the difference in equality by claiming they “don’t see color.” This ended up making it more difficult for people of color to get white people to acknowledge the problems that still exist and, therefore, keeping many of the inequalities stagnant. Further, it emphasizes the idea that a person of color, in order to be accepted by the white community, must be exceptionally smart, exceptionally good-looking, or exceptionally talented. In the films defense, at the time it seemed that the problem being addressed needed to be hyper-focused, so that he was seen as absolutely perfect, except for having the “wrong skin” in the eyes of the family, and this eliminated every other variable that the family could have used as a scapegoat for their disapproval.
There are some interesting dynamics at play within the film that shed some light on the various points of view that would exist in a situation like this in the 1960s. Their housekeeper and Joey’s nanny growing up, Tillie, played by Isabel Sanford, expresses deep anger at the situation, accosting John Prentice at one point, saying, “I don’t care to see a member of my own race getting above himself” and then hilariously follows up a series of threats with a snappy, “And furthermore to that, you ain’t even all that good-lookin’!” They also have a long-term friend and priest, Monsignor Ryan (Cecil Calloway), who is especially excited by the news of the young lovers plans to marry, and serves as a sounding board for Mr. Drayton’s prejudice.
One more qualm would be that Joey Drayton was written as beautiful and lively, sure, but her naivety and Pollyanna innocence feels like she would not be grounded enough to make a worthy match for John Prentice. Houghton (who plays Joey) gave interviews at times, and reiterates this sentiment, saying that “she should not get to have prince charming just because she’s white.” When critiquing the picture, renowned author, James Baldwin made similar observations. She brings nothing to the table, and it is hard to buy into the belief that a man as accomplished of John Prentice would be content to turn his life upside down for a woman who was not as proficient as him. He would seek a true partnership, not a trophy wife. None the less, Houghton noted that she had complained to the director at the time, and was met with, “You just don’t understand America.” He felt that if a character was too strong, it would damage the race relations story that was meant to be the crux, because it would become confused with the feminist fight that was also sweeping the nation at the time. The lack of intersectionality persists throughout time in race and gender issues, which is problematic, but tends to happen because it is, inevitably, easier to get one point across than several at once. However, the overarching fight that these films attempt to make and many others before and after is that all were created equal and should be treated as such. America is slow to change.
Sidney Poitier dealt with his own backlash throughout his career. The Black community considered him a “traitor to his race” by being an “Uncle Tom” character in many white stories, but he saw himself as a bridge. However, he would star in films that painted a better picture of America than many saw, which left him deeply conflicted, and he went on to include his thoughts about this in his book, “Life Beyond Measure” in 2008. (He also wrote “This Life” in 1980 and “The Measure of a Man” in 2000).
In the end, Sidney and Houghton were both playing archetypes to teach a lesson through this film. And the reality is that it was a success. “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” was a success across the United States, including the Southern states, where previously studios had assumed movie goers would avoid films with black stars. It challenged movie marketing, and advanced the ability for black-led films to be taken seriously by production companies. It addressed many of the prejudices people were harboring at the time by blankly putting them out-front and discussing them openly. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and won two – Katherine Hepburn for Best Actress and William Rose for Best Screenplay. It is a historical time capsule and Hepburn and Tracy give, as usual, remarkable performances in their last hoo-rah.