Movie: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy) is a publisher of a liberal newspaper in San Francisco. He loves his wife Christie (Katharine Hepburn) and daughter Joey (Katharine Houghton, a niece of Katharine Hepburn), and raised his daughter teaching against racial discrimination. While traveling Hawaii, Joey meets and falls in love with John Prentice (Sidney Poitier). Joey and John decide to marry and visit Joey’s parents to tell them of their decision. Even to the parents who oppose racial discrimination, it is not easy to embrace Joey’s decision immediately. The mother wants to accept John—who is accomplished, handsome, and a perfect gentleman—but the father isn’t ready, and his beliefs are being tested. John will leave to New York after having dinner together. He, in contrast to Joey who never doubted the support of her parents, knows the harsh reality of racism, and tells Matt that he will give up on this marriage unless both of Joey’s parents embrace it. Matt must tell them whether or not he supports their marriage by dinner in a few hours. In addition, John’s parents—without knowing John is engaged to a white girl—are coming from Los Angeles to join the dinner to celebrate their engagement.

Although the Japanese title “An Uninvited Guest” sounds good in Japanese, I think it is not a good translation that properly reflects the theme of the movie. The title comes from what excited Joey says to their cook—“Guess who’s coming to dinner! Monsignor Ryan! Please add one more”—when Monsignor Ryan, who is a close friend and advisor of the parents, hears and congratulates Joey and John on their decision, and wants to join them for dinner. Thus, the Japanese title meaning someone showed up for the dinner without an invitation is wrong. In other words, the parents’ belief against racial discrimination resulted in the dinner to which all of the guests were formally invited. If they had taught their daughter that blacks were inferior and not to be treated equally, Joey would not have talked to John, and would not have fallen in love with him because she would not have opened her heart to him. The Draytons’ life attitude invited John and his parents who wish for John’s happiness, as well as Monsignor Ryan. Although it was surely an unexpected development for the Draytons, the dinner after all was stemmed from their philosophy. The title “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” captures the not probable, but possible surprises of life. Due to their rejection of racial discrimination, Matt and Christie allowed for this rare, but possible event for the 1960s to happen.

The movie was produced and directed by Stanley Kramer, who also directed Judgment at Nuremberg and was a strong advocate of social justice. Thus, it was no surprise that he made a movie addressing the racial discrimination, one of the biggest issues in the 1960s. It may be unbelievable now, but in the year of 1967 when this movie was made, as many as 17 states prohibited interracial marriage, and those who violated this were sent to prison as criminals. I have deep respect for the courage of Stanley Kramer for making this movie during those days. Importantly, this movie, instead of being political propaganda, achieved being a high quality human drama since Kramer focused on depicting universal wisdom in life, instead of anti-racism belief.

First, the love between husband and wife is depicted. Both Joey’s and John’s parents who married more than 30 years ago still love each other and maintain mutual understanding and trust. Without the parents’ lasting marriages, the audience would feel that the excitement of Joey and John may not last once reality comes into play. The sustaining mutual love of parents gives the audience a secure feeling regarding the future of the young couple. The love between Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, who were partners in their real life, overflows from the screen.

Next is the depiction of the love between parent and child. It is very profound and interesting. First, the child simply reflects the way of life of her parents, as seen by Joey. However, even more interesting are John’s words. John’s father says to John, “Every day, I carried a heavy load for many miles, and I raised you through great hardship. You owe me,” but John clearly states, “Father, I owe you nothing. From the day you brought me into this world, you owed me everything you could ever do for me, as I will owe my son if I ever have another.” In most societies, it may be accepted that, “Because a parent raises a child through hardships, the child should obey what the parent says and should look after the parents,” but I agree with John’s words. A person cannot select their parents, but a parent can select their child because they usually can choose whether or not to have a child. The ultimate love of a parent would be, once a parent decides to have a child, the parent does everything they can for the child without expecting any reward from the child. People should be devoted to bringing up the next generation without the expectation of compensation. However, the interesting thing is that the child who is brought up like this often gives back unconditional love to their parents without being asked.

Lastly, you don’t need someone’s approval to live. If the people around you give you approval, life is certainly easier, but the message is that, even without approval, as long as you clearly understand the height and difficulty of the hurdle, you can get through life on your own, and you should not make getting approval life’s first priority. Matt states this at the end:“There’ll be 100 million people right here in this country who will be shocked and offended and appalled, and the two of you will just have to ride that out, maybe every day for the rest of your lives… You’ll just have to cling tight to each other and say, ‘screw all those people’!”

This movie tells a five hour story in approximately two hours. The story is dense and fast-paced in a good way—much like High Noon—and the performances by the actors are wonderful. Katharine Hepburn expresses all emotions—“surprise,” “disappointment,” “giving up,” “determination,” “understanding,” “supportive,” “happiness” –with just her eyes; her “acting with eyes” is amazing, but even more amazing is Spencer Tracy. Because of his thick glasses, he is not able to use his “eye power” throughout the movie, and he never acts dramatically; yet, every change in emotion is transmitted, and it is slightly scary how much so. This movie was Spencer Tracy’s final work, and Katharine Hepburn received her second Oscar with this movie.

As mentioned before, interracial marriage was illegal in 17 states across America in 1967, but around the time this movie was being screened, the Virginia v. Richard Loving case—which was appealing for the overturning of Loving’s imprisonment for the marriage to a black woman—was being judged in the U.S. Supreme Court; the case ended with the judgment that the law prohibiting interracial marriages was unconstitutional, and interracial marriage finally became legal across the whole country. It was 102 years after the liberation of slaves was officially established with the approval of the 13th Amendment in the U.S. Constitution in 1865.


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