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Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Classic Film Review: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner stars Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn as Matt and Christina Drayton. Their daughter Joey (Katharine Houghton) returns home from holiday unexpectedly and has a surprise for her parents - she's engaged. The fly in the ointment is that her fiancée, Dr John Prentice (Sidney Poitier) is black. Joey's liberal parents have their views tested by this relationship and when Mr and Mrs Prentice (Roy Glenn and Beah Richards) arrive to join them for dinner the bonds of both families are tested. Rounding out the cast is Isabel Sandford as Tillie the maid and Cecil Kellaway as Monsignor Ryan.

As Spencer Tracy's last film, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner holds a special allure for classic film fans. Certainly, I was as much interested in the power surrounding it as I was the film itself. Given that Tracy was seriously ill during filming and died only seventeen days after it was over, you'd imagine that allowances would have to be made for his illness. He doesn't look well, certainly, but in terms of his acting, he remained on top form. The final lengthy scene where Matt makes a speech to his guests about love is intensely moving. For many, of course, this scene is tied up with the Tracy and Hepburn myth and there is no hiding Hepburn's emotion in the final scene. It feels as though we're witnessing a private occasion. As a final exercise in his own quiet and beautiful style of acting, this film does Tracy proud.

And what of the rest of it? Well, the chemistry between Katharine Hepburn and her real-life niece Katharine Houghton makes their scenes a pleasure, though Houghton is not as compelling away from Hepburn. Some of her scenes with Poitier feel like fillers but that's possibly because the crux of the plot is not their relationship so much as the reaction to their relationship. Poitier's best scenes are John's heartfelt declaration to Matt and Christina about his love for their daughter (watch Hepburn in this scene too!) and his argument with his father much later. An unsung brilliant scene, too, is that between Christina and Mrs Prentice in the garden. However, my favourite moment also comes courtesy of Hepburn as she sacks a colleague and tells her to be on her merry way for criticising her daughter's relationship. I don't often clap in the middle of the film but I did then.

Ultimately, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner reflects attitudes of the time. It can seem dated now but that can only be a good thing. It's a film with some brilliant moments and a decent heart and, as Tracy's final screen appearance, it can't help but be captivating. I felt as emotionally wrought as Katharine Hepburn when the credits had finally rolled.

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