Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

January 28, 2012 9 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton

Plot: What’s it about?

“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” represented many things, but above all of them was the final on screen pairing of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Hepburn and Tracy were never married in real life (he was a devout Catholic and would not divorce his wife), but their romance both on and off screen was, literally, the stuff that dreams were made of. Films like “Adam’s Rib”, “Desk Set” and “Woman of the Year” stand out as some of their better roles, but perhaps none so much as their last effort in 1967. The movie addressed an issue that seems somewhat dated now (interracial marriage), yet for all the strides we’ve made forward, this is still a big issue in the United States and probably around the world. The casting is simply superb and I almost feel sorry for Katherine Houghton (Katherine Hepburn’s real-life niece) as she’s on screen with Hepburn, Sidney Poitier and Spencer Tracy – what actor in Hollywood, then and now, could even think to hold their own against these three? Speaking of performances, Hepburn won her third Oscar for her role here, she had previously won the year before for “The Lion in Winter” with Peter O’Toole. She’d win one more for her role in 1982’s “On Golden Pond”. So we have talent, a history between two of the leads and, above all else…controversy. No wonder the film is considered to be one of America’s best.

We meet Joanna Drayton (Katherine Houghton) and Dr. John Prentice as they’ve arrived in San Francisco. Joanna “Joey” and he had met while in Hawaii and fell instantly in love “…I knew that I was in love with him twenty minutes after I met him” says Joey. John is off to New York and then to Geneva the next day and Joey’s plans are to meet him in Switzerland where they can marry. The two want to the blessing of her parents, Matt (Spencer Tracy) and Christina (Katherine Hepburn), in order to proceed. Now here’s where the controversy comes in. John is black and Joey is a rich white girl from San Francisco. Though this might not be a huge issue now, it was some thirty five years ago when the movie came out. Even for such an open-minded place like California, there was still much tension and this was a big issue. The trouble is that John is nearly perfect in every way. He’s a renown doctor, he wants to travel around Africa and teach people medical skills and has more accolades than can be counted. We have to wonder if this would have had the same effect had they made the character a construction worker? Joey is so in love that she sees no difference between John and herself, sure she knows that he’s black; but she doesn’t let that stand in the way. Time to tell the parents…Christina, shocked at first, comes to realize that the two really do care for each other. But when Matt finds out, he’s not so accepting. Things get more complicated when John’s parents decide to surprise their son and fly up to San Francisco to meet him and his future bride. The movie’s title takes on an entirely new meaning…

For what it’s worth, the movie did cover some pretty harsh material at the time. For all the time that’s passed since this was released, we’ve come a long way and we haven’t. Just ten years ago, we had “Jungle Fever” that essentially dealt with the same issue, though it wasn’t as glossed over as this film was. And it seems odd that as “forward thinking” as the movie made itself out to be, there are a number of characters that are straight stereotypes. The maid, “Tillie” (Isabel Sanford”, seems resentful and treats John with utter disrespect as does Hilary (Virginia Christine), who is fired by Christina after she witnesses her behavior (in the movie’s better speeches by Hepburn). While it’s easy to classify the movie as “dated”, the film was daring at the time. At a time when movies were really starting to change, as evidenced by “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “The Graduate” and “Easy Rider”, this was right in the middle of the pack. Evidently it still packs a punch as it was chosen as one of the American Film Institute’s Best Movies of All-Time (eeking in at #99). Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor and Actress; it walked away with Best Actress for Hepburn and Best Original Screenplay. Add to this the fact that it really is a great love story, you’ve got something. If anything, Spencer Tracy’s speech near the end might be one of the more moving in American movies – he died just seven days after the filming ended.

Video: How does it look?

A very early release from Columbia/Tristar, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” has both the full-frame and widescreen versions of the film on the same disc (remember when that was one of the biggest selling-points of DVD)? The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is actually fairly good, though I’m sure with all the advances in technology, it could still look better. For the most part, this all takes place in the Dreyton house and it has a very “staged” look to it. The blue sky of San Francisco, though fake, seems bright and vivid and flesh tones are accurate, though there are some scenes which seem a bit soft – perhaps to make Hepburn and Tracy look a bit better than they actually did. There is some grain evident in many of the background scenes, though for a movie of this age; it’s expected. I happened to see some of the movie on Turner Classic Movies and was flipping back and forth from DVD to cable and the result was astounding. Though many DVD’s look better, this one still looks pretty good and much better than any version available. For nostalgia, the full-frame is available on the other side.

Audio: How does it sound?

In somewhat of a rarity, this soundtrack is available in Dolby Digital 3.0, which is essentially a mono track for the dialogue and the front left and right speakers are used for the score. This actually sounds fairly decent, once you get used to it. This allows for minimal distortion on the center channel and the front speakers to add some atmosphere. The surrounds aren’t used here, but they’re not needed. Most of this movie is dialogue and it all sounds rich and vibrant coming out of the one channel. There’s not a whole lot else to say about the way this disc sounds, it’s the best the movie has ever sounded and that’s all we can ask for.

Supplements: What are the extras?

Only a theatrical trailer is included. Columbia/Tristar has gone back and re-mastered many of their earlier discs into Special Editions and let’s hope this gets the treatment sometime soon.

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