THE GREAT KATHARINE HEPBURN BLOGATHON
GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER ( 1967 )
Today marks the 108th anniversary of Katharine Hepburn’s birth back in 1907. To commemorate her legacy and her extensive body of work, Margaret Perry is hosting a blogathon to pay tribute to the great Katharine Hepburn. For my contribution, I am exhibiting two entries, one is an article on “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner”, the final vehicle of the nine Tracy and Hepburn collaborations.
“Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” has been endowed as a distinguished masterpiece for the fact that it’s the concluding chapter of the memorable partnership of Tracy and Hepburn. The couple had previously starred in eight films together, the last being “Desk Set”, which was made ten years earlier in 1957. During the next ten years, Spencer’s health began to deteriorate, and his work load diminished as each year progressed. After “Desk Set”, Katharine only appeared in two films during the duration of the next ten years, and at the conclusion of 1962’s, “Long Days Journey Into Night”, she took the rest of the time off to care for the ailing Spencer Tracy, until 1967 when they were cast in “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner”. Sadly Spencer Tracy passed away on June 10th, 1967, seventeen days after completion of the filming.
Superbly directed and produced by Stanley Kramer, who served as one of Spencer Tracy’s most frequent directors in the last years of his life, and written for the screen by William Rose. The film opened to critical acclaim, and was crowned a box office hit in 1968, which garnered Katharine Hepburn her second Academy Award for Best Actress.
At the time, “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” was considered a positive representation of the controversial subject of interracial marriage, which historically had been illegal in most states of the United States, and still was illegal in 17 states—mostly Southern states—until 12 June 1967, six months before the film was released.
The film revolves around the story of Christina and Matt Drayton ( Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy ), and their daughter Joanna Drayton, played by Katharine’s real life niece, Katharine Houghton. Joey has just returned home from a vacation in Hawaii, and during her holiday, she met and instantly became infatuated in John Prentice ( Sidney Poitier ), a black physician, who she is bringing back home with her to meet her parents in San Francisco.
Problems arise when Joey announces that she’s going to get married. From the start, Joey has been incognizant about the controversy that interracial marriage can cause, and believes that her parents being the fighting liberals they are will have no rejections about their daughter marrying a Negro. However, as much to Joey’s surprise, Matt and Christina are aghast at the idea with Matt displaying a negative attitude towards the situation. The already troublesome predicament increases when John admits to Christina and Matt that he would withdrawal from the engagement if it meant that it would bring strain into the relationship she has with her parents. To complicate matters further, John is scheduled to fly to Geneva that night, which leaves them with less than twenty four hours to make one of the most important decisions of their lifetime.
They are faced with an even larger obstacle when John’s parents suddenly decide to fly up to San Francisco that evening to take him and Joey out for dinner. Joey overhearing the conversation invites them to their place for dinner. At first John’s parents approve, until they discover that their son is involved with a white girl. As the two families unite, they are challenged to a difficult opposition in determining the future for their son and daughter, and whether they will approbate to the marriage.
Almost forty eight years since it’s release, “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” stands as a perennial classic that has stood the test of time. The film was masterfully crafted with two of the greatest stars to ever grace the silver screen showcasing their indelible talents. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy both delivered commendable performances for the laudable portrayals of Matt and Christina Drayton. Spencer Tracy garnered an Academy Award nomination for his efforts in the film, while Katharine Hepburn attained the Oscar that year, though she always said that her award was really meant for Spencer.
Even though I’m an ardent supporter of Katharine Hepburn, the person I give the most credit to for this movie is Spencer Tracy. Spencer was in the concluding stages of his life at the time of filming this, and with his illness exacerbating, the rest of the cast and crew were tense and solicitous, fearing that he would pass away during production. With this concern, insurance companies wouldn’t cover Tracy because he was dying, so Hepburn and Kramer put their salaries in escrow, so that if he died, the project could still be completed with another actor taking his place. The filming schedule had to be altered to accommodate Spencer, which meant that all of his scenes and shots were filmed between 9:00 a.m. and noon of each day in order to allow him time to rest.
“Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” is an example of Spencer Tracy’s inimitable acting prowess. Though he was dying, he never failed to impress audiences, and he left this world with his last performance being meritorious. That is evident in the final scene where Spencer is giving that powerful speech, and relaying how they feel about one another. In truth, Kate and Spencer were not really acting in this scene. Spencer was really elucidating his love for Kate, and Kate’s tears were real. She was crying for Spencer. She knew that Spencer was dying and that this was to be his final film. It’s true to say that that speech was really about them.
Katharine Hepburn significantly helped cast her niece, Katharine Houghton, for the role of Joey Drayton. Concerning this, Hepburn stated: “There was a lovely part for Kathy [Houghton], my niece […] She would play Spencer’s and my daughter. I loved that. She’s beautiful and she definitely had a family resemblance. It was my idea.”
According to Hepburn, the role of Joey Drayton would be one of Houghton’s first major roles as a young actress. “The part of my daughter,” Kate said, “was a difficult one. A young unknown actress needs more opportunity to win the sympathy of the audience. Otherwise, too much has to depend on her youth, innocence, and beauty. She had one good speech to win the audience, but it was cut. Instead she only talks with her father about the differences between the principles he taught her and the way he’s behaving.”
In some shots you can clearly see Katharine Hepburn’s head and hands trembling because of her hereditary shake, e.g., when she is pouring a drink for the Reverend right after his second arrival.
The three-inch bronze sculpture of Spencer Tracy featured in the film was created by Katharine Hepburn herself and was one of the items that were included in her estate auction in 2004. The bust was the most sought-after item and fetched the most money – it sold for $316,000, whereas pre-auction estimates were in the neighborhood of $3,000-$5,000.
Katharine Hepburn never saw the completed movie. She said the memories of Tracy were too painful.
Christina Drayton: [to her assistant, Hilary, in the driveway] “Now I have some instructions for you. I want you to go straight back to the gallery – Start your motor – When you get to the gallery tell Jennifer that she will be looking after things temporarily, she’s to give me a ring if there’s anything she can’t deal with herself. Then go into the office, and make out a check, for “cash,” for the sum of $5,000. Then carefully, but carefully Hilary, remove absolutely everything that might subsequently remind me that you had ever been there, including that yellow thing with the blue bulbs which you have such an affection for. Then take the check, for $5,000, which I feel you deserve, and get – permanently – lost. It’s not that I don’t want to know you, Hilary – although I don’t – it’s just that I’m afraid we’re not really the sort of people that you can afford to be associated with.”
[Hilary opens her mouth to say something]
Christina Drayton: “Don’t speak, Hilary, just… go.”
Matt Drayton: “What the hell is it today? Less than 12% of the people in this city are colored people. I can’t even have a dish of Oregon Boosenberry without runnin’ into one of them.”
Joanna Drayton: “It never occurred to me that I would fall in love with a Negro, but I have, and nothing’s going to change that.”
Matt Drayton: Now Mr. Prentice, clearly a most reasonable man, says he has no wish to offend me but wants to know if I’m some kind of a *nut*. And Mrs. Prentice says that like her husband I’m a burned-out old shell of a man who cannot even remember what it’s like to love a woman the way her son loves my daughter. And strange as it seems, that’s the first statement made to me all day with which I am prepared to take issue… cause I think you’re wrong, you’re as wrong as you can be. I admit that I hadn’t considered it, hadn’t even thought about it, but I know exactly how he feels about her and there is nothing, absolutely nothing that you son feels for my daughter that I didn’t feel for Christina. Old- yes. Burned-out- certainly, but I can tell you the memories are still there- clear, intact, indestructible, and they’ll be there if I live to be 110. Where John made his mistake I think was in attaching so much importance to what her mother and I might think… because in the final analysis it doesn’t matter a damn what we think. The only thing that matters is what they feel, and how much they feel, for each other. And if it’s half of what we felt- that’s everything. As for you two and the problems you’re going to have, they seem almost unimaginable, but you’ll have no problem with me, and I think when Christina and I and your mother have some time to work on him you’ll have no problem with your father, John. But you do know, I’m sure you know, what you’re up against. 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 could try to ignore those people, or you could feel sorry for them and for their prejudice and their bigotry and their blind hatred and stupid fears, but where necessary you’ll just have to cling tight to each other and say “screw all those people”! Anybody could make a case, a hell of a good case, against your getting married. The arguments are so obvious that nobody has to make them. But you’re two wonderful people who happened to fall in love and happened to have a pigmentation problem, and I think that now, no matter what kind of a case some bastard could make against your getting married, there would be only one thing worse, and that would be if – knowing what you two are and knowing what you two have and knowing what you two feel- you didn’t get married. Well, Tillie, when the hell are we gonna get some dinner?
Katharine Hepburn: Born Katharine Houghton Hepburn on May 12th, 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut. Died: June 29th, 2003 in Fenwick, Connecticut.
Spencer Tracy: Born Spencer Bonaventure Tracy on April 5th, 1900 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Died: June 10th, 1967 in Beverly Hills, California. Note: On the night of Spencer’s death he got out of bed and proceeded into the kitchen to make himself a cup of tea. Katharine followed him but before she reached the kitchen she heard a loud thump on the floor and the shattering of glass. She ran in and found Spencer dead. She squatted down and nursed his head on her lap.
Sidney Poitier: Born February 20th, 1927 in Miami, Florida.
Katharine Houghton: Born Katharine Houghton Grant on March 10th, 1945. in Hartford, Connecticut. Katharine is the daughter of Kate’s sister Marion.