Thursday, October 19, 2017

Irene Dunne, LADY IN A JAM

Entertainment news publications reported that this year's summer box office was the lowest it had been in years.  Because I'm such a movie lover, I felt like I was personally responsible for some of that poor box office showing.  I'd grown weary of seeing caped comic book characters fly through the air with superhuman powers in sequels with fabulous special effects.  I wanted to see real people.  I didn't go to the movies as much over the summer because I got better, more satisfying entertainment on Netflix.  However, of the few movies I saw at the theaters, DUNKIRK was a very moving drama about a historic British event during World War 2, BABY DRIVER was exciting and different, and my absolute favorite movie I saw over the summer was the romantic comedy, THE BIG SICK.  I laughed, I cried, I got my money's worth.  Based on a true story from the life of handsome, young Muslim American comedian Kumail Nanjiani, last weekend's host on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, we get wit, a warm love story and a heartbreaking hospital element.  Just like in LOVE AFFAIR, one of Irene Dunne's best movies.  That 1939 gem starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer was remade as the very popular AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER starring Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant.  Remember the ladies crying about that remake in SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE?  THE BIG SICK was a wonderful reminder that the good romantic comedy has not become a lost art form.  When actresses like Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert, Ginger Rogers and Barbara Stanwyck were tops in the 1930s and 40s, there was no shortage of romantic comedy scripts for them to choose from.  Nowadays, the pickings seem to be slim for actresses who long to do a good romantic comedy.  I watched an old Irene Dunne romantic comedy this week.  I laughed more in the first ten minutes of her movie than I did in all two hours of the 2012 romantic comedy, THE FIVE YEAR ENGAGEMENT.  And I was a background actor in that movie.  Irene Dunne's 1942 comedy, LADY IN A JAM, has some lessons today's Hollywood could learn.
Irene Dunne got five Oscar nominations for Best Actress in her career.  She should've received a special lifetime achievement Oscar for her remarkable career and performances.  Very effective dramatically, as in I REMEMBER MAMA, her last Oscar nomination, she was also a master at screwball comedy.  She started out as a dramatic actress in movies then came 1936's smart and sparkling comedy THEODORA GOES WILD.  That brought her an Oscar nomination and showed that she had a bright gift for comedy.  LADY IN A JAM is not one of her best and best known romantic comedies like THEODORA GOES WILD, THE AWFUL TRUTH and MY FAVORITE WIFE, but it's still good for some laughs and worth studying to see how Dunne makes the material pop.  Also -- and here's one thing I wish Hollywood would keep in mind -- Dunne and Jean Arthur were still doing knock-out romantic comedy lead lady roles in their early 40s.  And they looked fabulous.  Such is the case with 40-something Irene Dunne as the LADY IN A JAM.
Dunne plays Jane Palmer, an estate heiress who's been clueless about and keeping track of her finances. She's blown through all of her money and doesn't realize it.  When first we see her, she's smartly attired and wearing a chic hat.  Hats were Irene Dunne's movie signature look.  Jane is shopping for jewelry.  Expensive jewelry.  She can't quite make up her mind between two bracelets.  In Dunne's delivery and style, we see that Jane is a lovable ditz.

She'll return to her mansion to discover that, not only is she flat broke, but all her possessions are being tagged for auction because she's bankrupt.  In one touch that was delightfully typical of movies of that time, when the cook learns that the lady of the house is bankrupt and her items are up for auction, the cook makes a bee-line for Jane's mink coat.  The romantic element comes in thanks to Jane's guardian played by the gravelly-voiced and portly Eugene Pallette.  He gets a Manhattan psychoanalyst to talk to Jane and straighten out her screwball tendencies.  Patrick Knowles, best known for playing Lindsay opposite Rosalind Russell in AUNTIE MAME, is the by-the-book psychoanalyst who will fall in love with Jane.

When first he sees her, it's on the street after she's left the jewelry store.  She gets into the back seat of her limo, but the chauffeur quits on the spot because he hasn't been paid in a while.  She has to drive and, you guessed it, she'd bad at it.  The shrink takes over and drives her home.  He'll accompany her to Arizona where she's forced to live in a shack with her gun totin' grandma.
LADY IN A JAM was directed by Gregory La Cava (MY MAN GODFREY and STAGE DOOR).  Notice how he keeps the pace and dialogue delivery fluid.  Especially the dialogue.  It's back and forth and the metronome keeping time for an upbeat tune.  While I worked background on THE FIVE YEAR ENGAGEMENT starring Jason Segel and Emily Blunt, I watched one scene get improvised on the spot and shot a few times.  I had absolutely no reason really to be in the film and it didn't drive the story forward.  But it made guys on the crew laugh and it's in the final cut.  If you see that romantic comedy, notice that the first half hour could've easily been trimmed to fifteen minutes.  There was so much unnecessary dialogue delivered at a relaxed, rambling pace.  LADY IN A JAM is an enjoyable 90 minutes or less.  THE FIVE YEAR ENGAGEMENT was 2 hours and 5 minutes long.  It should've been 90 minutes or less too.

THE BIG SICK had a good, brisk pace and good characters.  Ray Romano and Holly Hunter almost stole the film as the girlfriend's parents.  Holly Hunter should get a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for THE BIG SICK.

LADY IN A JAM has supporting actors who know how to make screwball romantic comedy work.  Ralph Bellamy, who played the doofus cowboy beau in THE AWFUL TRUTH, has a similar role in LADY IN A JAM.  He calls the handsome big city psychoanalyst a "long-legged tenderfoot."            
Trivia note:  Some classic film fans tend to describe Ralph Bellamy as "the guy who never got the girl" in the 1930s and 40s movies.  Well...he did get the girl in one movie.  And the girl was Irene Dunne.  In 1934's THIS MAN IS MINE.

Of course, Miss Palmer, who was called a "spoiled brat" will learn to do things for herself and occasionally for other people.  Her feelings will get hurt in the process.  "Seems like the more you do for people, the less they appreciate it", she remarks in Arizona.

To me, even though LADY IN A JAM is a B-movie amongst her several A-quality films, it still has scenes that prove how watching her is a master class in comedy acting.  She can bring light and motion into a scene that has no activity.  In her opening scene, she's in the office of a gentleman breaking news to her about her account.  Notice how she moves in her seat, perfect for that screwball character, and notice the business she does with the ink pen in a holder on his desk. Marvelous.  That and her sitting on the shrink's lap in the final, she was a pro.
I repeat:  I'll take 1942's LADY IN A JAM over 2012's THE FIVE YEAR ENGAGEMENT.  And I was an extra in THE FIVE YEAR ENGAGEMENT.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Shots of ADAM'S RIB (1949)

With a bright, original screenplay by actress/writer Ruth Gordon and her husband, Garson Kanin, this is my favorite of the films that starred Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.  I'm sure you've seen this smart, sophisticated comedy about equality of the sexes and respect for the law.  They play a pair of married lawyers in New York City.  Their marriage is a great one.  They are opposites who obviously were attracted to each other.  You can tell that from their first scene.  It's early in the morning.  Time for breakfast.  She's a morning person, up and chipper.  He's not a morning person.  He's a big, sleepy bear trying to catch a little more sleep under the covers.
A local story made front page news.  A wife and mother followed her cheating husband to his girlfriend's apartment.  The emotionally distraught wife acts irrationally.  She has a gun that she doesn't know how to use.  She shoots open the door and wounds her husband.  Amanda (Hepburn) feels that there's a double standard for men and women -- especially in cases of adultery.  Adam (Tracy) feel that the wife, regardless of the husband being in the arms of the floozie girlfriend, broke the law.  Amanda gets the wife's case.  Adam is assigned the cheating husband's case.  Amanda and Adam have to oppose each other in court.  Tension builds for the married couple.  Laughs ensue for the viewers.
 In pleading for fairness for her client, Amanda asks the jury to "judge this case as you would if the sexes were reversed."  I love what director George Cukor does in this section.  He gets a close of Jean Hagen as the floozie girlfriend, a shot of Tom Ewell as the cheating husband and Judy Holliday as the wronged wife -- and then the image becomes each character as a member of the opposite sex.

Hagen ...



I love those shots.  Another shot I love also comes from the courtroom scenes.  It's the shot of the jury.  Cukor and the screenwriters gave us something we rarely -- if ever -- saw in a Hollywood film before 1949's ADAM'S RIB.  We saw a high profile court case with a racially mixed jury.
I noticed that about the jury when I was a kid and first saw ADAM'S RIB on TV.  It made me smile then.  It still makes me happy to see that diversity today.

In a very hot Best Actress Oscar race, one that include Bette Davis for ALL ABOUT EVE and Gloria Swanson for SUNSET BLVD., Judy Holliday won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in BORN YESTERDAY.  She was again directed by George Cukor.  She repeated the character she originated in the hit Broadway play.  BORN YESTERDAY was based on the play of the same name written by Garson Kanin.

In 1944, Fox released a musical comedy for wartime audiences called SOMETHING FOR THE BOYS.  Carmen Miranda was a star of the film.
In one scene, the popular star has a scene with a bit player who's seen as a secretary.

That bit player was Cara Williams. She show her solid wisecracking comedy chops in 1950s movies and have supporting roles opposite Paul Newman (THE HELEN MORGAN STORY) and James Cagney (NEVER STEAL ANYTHING SMALL).  Cara Williams got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her dramatic work opposite Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in Stanley Kramer's THE DEFIANT ONES (1958).
Carmen Miranda has scenes in a defense plant in SOMETHING FOR THE BOYS.  In one scene, there's a female extra in the background.  She has not a line of dialogue and you don't see her name in the credits.  But the lady in the brown overalls is...Judy Holliday, future Broadway star and Best Actress Oscar winner.

I hope you enjoyed my Holliday information.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Inspired by Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth

Two Hollywood actresses who gave some of their best screen performances for the same studio, Columbia Pictures.  Both were a couple of Hollywood's top movie stars.  They were Jean Arthur, star of MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, THE MORE THE MERRIER and THE TALK OF THE TOWN...
...and dancer/actress Rita Hayworth, star of COVER GIRL with Gene Kelly, YOU WERE NEVER LOVELIER and YOU'LL NEVER GET RICH with Fred Astaire, TONIGHT AND EVERY NIGHT, THE LOVES OF CARMEN and GILDA.
When I was a little boy growing up in South Central L.A., both women were still working.  My passion for film began when I was in grade school.  During that time, I heard an afternoon movie host on our local NBC affiliate talk about Jean Arthur.  She was the star of the local afternoon movie.  Tom Frandsen, the KNBC host, mentioned that he always loved her voice.  My mother was in the living room and smiled.  I asked her about Jean Arthur's voice.  Mom continued smiling and said, "It was just different."  Arthur was in movies made during the silent film era.  One is Buster Keaton's SEVEN CHANCES (1925).  Ten years later, when movies were talking, her warm and slightly husky voice became one of the most recognizable in Hollywood films.  She retired from movie-making after SHANE (1953) even though, for years, she kept getting offers.  Ida Lupino did the role Jean Arthur reportedly turned down in 1972's JUNIOR BONNER.  But, she did star on a CBS sitcom that only lasted one season.  I begged my parents to let me stay up and see it because I wanted to experience her voice.  A long time later, when I was a grown-up, would I realize why my parents were so dumbstruck that their little boy wanted to stay up and see a woman who was a movie star when they were teenagers.  I fell in love with her voice and personality as half of the mother and son lawyer team on THE JEAN ARTHUR SHOW.  Brought to you by Jell-O in 1966.
In the early 1970s, my love of classic films was still growing.  Merv Griffin had coaxed the shy star to be a guest on his show. I was lucky enough to see it.  He showed a clip of Jean Arthur and James Stewart in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. It was a serious scene.  At the close of it, Arthur commented to Griffin that the political message of Capra's movie was still relevant.
That was a light bulb over-the-head moment for me.  Jean Arthur was specifically referring to President Nixon's Watergate scandal, a hot news story of the day.  Nixon was still in office.  Arthur's remark made me realize that classic films, like classic literature we studied in school, could be studied and could still have social significance that could appeal to a younger generation as I was at the time.  They were more than fodder for movie trivia contests.  I was determined to interview people who made films from that Golden Age and make their old work appeal to a new audience through the work I did as an interviewer and writer.  Jean Arthur made me unashamed to go further into my young love for classic films.  She inspired me to give it a purpose.
As for Rita Hayworth, she'd been interviewed in the Calendar section for a Sunday edition of THE LOS ANGELES TIMES.  Calendar was the arts and entertainment section.  In that interview, I got more of an awareness of Hayworth's Latino roots.  In her early films, she was credited as Rita Cansino with her real Spanish surname.  By 1939, her last name was changed to a more Anglo one.  In the newspaper interview, she mentioned that she'd love to follow Lauren Bacall playing Margo in APPLAUSE, the Broadway musical version of ALL ABOUT EVE, and she'd love to do a movie based on work by Lorca.  She'd been reading Lorca.  I was unaware of poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca.  So...I went to our nearest library in the neighborhood and asked the librarian to help me learn something about him.

Something like that makes a librarian's day worthwhile.  Especially in South Central L.A.

Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth worked together in one film -- Howard Hawks' 1939 classic, ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS.  Their leading man was Cary Grant.  Not only did they share a movie and a leading man, they both celebrated birthdays on October 17th.
Yes, Rita Hayworth was gorgeous and she was called Hollywood's "Love Goddess."                      
But don't ever forget that, when it came to dance, she could really pick 'em up and lay 'em down.  Here she is as a Broadway chorus dancer in rehearsals with her choreographer boss played by Fred Astaire in 1941's YOU'LL NEVER GET RICH.  Music by Cole Porter.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Angela Lansbury, Happy Birthday!

She got three Oscar nominations for outstanding dramatic performances.  She became a top star of Broadway musicals.  She was the star of one of TV's longest-running hit series.  Let's wish an enthusiastic "Happy Birthday!" to Angela Lansbury.  Dame Angela is 92 today.
I am so glad that the Academy had the wisdom and class to award her an honorary Oscar in 2014 for decades of memorable screen performances.  Her excellence stood out in her film debut, so much so that it brought her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.  The film was MGM's psychological thriller, GASLIGHT, the 1944 drama directed by George Cukor.  Star Ingrid Bergman won her first Best Actress Oscar for it.  Lansbury, who had a style and bearing that her seem older than she was, played the saucy maid who was quite ready to please the master of house in any room she could when his Mrs. was away.
She got another Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for playing a dear but doomed young lady in MGM's 1945 drama, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY.
Her third Oscar nomination was again in the Best Supporting Actress category.  She played the malevolent mother in the 1962 political thriller, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.  She burns up in the screen with her brilliance in that role.  To show you what I meant about her having a style and bearing that made her seem older than she was, she played the mother to Laurence Harvey's character in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.  In real life, there was only a three year gap in their ages.
Angela Lansbury and her mother each appeared in a Judy Garland MGM movie.  Lansbury's mother, Moyna MacGill, says not a word and gets laughs in a funny scene set in a diner.  The film is Vincente Minnelli's 1945 love story, THE CLOCK.  This wartime story starred Judy Garland in her first dramatic film and Robert Walker.  The two stars, Keenan Wynn and Moyna MacGill are in the diner scene.  Wynn is a harmless drunk on his verbal soapbox about society and MacGill is a lady eating at the counter who gets a quick flirt from the drunk.

Lansbury was a supporting actress in Judy Garland's Oscar winning 1946 musical western, THE HARVEY GIRLS.  Angela played the "bad girl" saloon singer and manager rival to Judy's "good girl".  Lansbury looks glamorous and has a number, but MGM dubbed her voice.
MGM dubbed her voice in another movie.  In the 1946 all-star musical, TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY, featuring just about all the A-list MGM musical talent, Lansbury had an English musical hall number.  Reportedly, she pushed producer Arthur Freed to let her sing the number and be heard with her own voice.  Freed let British-born Angela Lansbury do her own singing for that one assignment.

For a Hollywood studio that was famous for being the Tiffany of movie musicals, MGM really dropped the ball on utilizing Angela Lansbury's musical skills.

Broadway would let those skills of hers shine in its hit musical, MAME, the musical version of the hit Broadway and movie comedy, AUNTIE MAME.  This 1966 musical revived, revitalized and renewed Angela Lansbury's career.  She became the brightest star on Broadway, the songs from the shows were being recorded by a top pop singers of the day like Eydie Gorme and Johnny Mathis.  Also, thousands of Angela Lansbury's movie fans were probably surprised to discover that she could sing and dance.  My late mother was one.  She was a big Lansbury fan who loved her work in movies like THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, ALL FALL DOWN, DEAR HEART and DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS.  Mom bought the MAME original Broadway cast album.

Mom had no argument from me when she put a record full of show tunes on the hi-fi.  Here's a sample of the Lansbury musical talent that MGM and other Hollywood studios overlooked.

The rest is Broadway history.

And can you believe that, starring in the mid 1980s, she would get about a dozen Emmy nominations for Best Actress on MURDER, SHE WROTE...but she never won?  Angela Lansbury should get a special lifetime achievement Emmy.  In my humble opinion.

I saw Dame Angela on stage in Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD.  She was extraordinary.  Come this Christmas Day, Angela Lansbury will be seen in the big, new Disney movie musical, MARY POPPINS RETURNS.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

A Capra Double Feature

Over the summer, I blogged about how fascinated and moved I was by a documentary on Netflix.  It's called FIVE CAME BACK and I urge every true classic film fan to see it. We're taken back to the 1930s when five directors were tops in their Hollywood field.  We're drawn into World War 2.  All five are known for giving us some of Hollywood's most beloved and acclaimed classics -- even if one was not beloved and acclaimed when first it was released.  The directors are John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra.  In the early 1930s, Hitler started his evil, bigoted plan to devour Europe.  The discrimination against Jews in the workplace and in schools was a gathering storm that would be assisted by Nazi stormtroopers.  Eventually, millions of Jews would be exterminated in concentration camps.  There was no TV with 24-hour news coverage in the 1930s.  Americans got their news via newspapers, radio and in newsreel presentations that preceded the main features when Americans went to the movies.  Americans, on the whole, were unaware of the extent of Hitler's horrors.  Nor were they aware of how huge his Third Reich army was.  Hard to believe today but there was an Isolationist Movement in the U.S. at that time.  Some politicians, and aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, felt that America shouldn't get involved.  Just let Europe handle that Hitler situation.  Meanwhile, Nazis were holding rallies in New York City.  William Wyler had Jewish relatives in Europe.  Frank Capra saw a 1935 documentary/promo for Hitler and his army called TRIUMPH OF THE WILL and it terrified him to the bone.  He realized America had to get involved.  This was Capra, the Italian immigrant who gave us wonderful films, uplifting movies such as MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, LOST HORIZON, YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU and IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, the Oscar winning granddaddy of screwball comedies.  It starred Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.
The five directors enlisted and served during World War 2.  They were tapped by the government to make documentaries and short features that would help the war effort, motivate young men to enlist.  The five also witnessed the carnage of war, sights that Americans had not been seeing.  They changed that.  They filmed it.  They were in active duty.  Wyler hated the racism that African American soldiers endured in America before they were shipped overseas to fight for democracy.  Stevens and Capra, two men who gave us delightful comedies, saw first-hand the massive, demonic work of Hitler's regime.  All five came back from the war changed men and changed filmmakers.  Stevens never again made light films like the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers classic musical, SWING TIME, or WOMAN OF THE YEAR and THE MORE THE MERRIER.  Capra, returned a decorated veteran who had to reintroduce himself to Hollywood.  He made IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE.  It flopped with critics and the movie-going public.  Today, it's a beloved classic that gets an annual NBC network airing during the Christmas holiday season.

The documentary is 3-hours long and I've watched it 4 times.  It's that good.  You will learn so much about the directors, filmmaking and American history.  Here's Frank Capra (right) in uniform working on one of his WW2 assignments.
This week, Donald Trump pretty much threatened NBC from the White House.  He seems to approve only news reports about him that are flattering.  NBC News reported something that wasn't so flattering.  He tweeted:  "With all the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!"

That tweet's attitude violates the First Amendment in our nation's Bill of Rights.

Frank Capra movies were sentimental and enjoyable.  He loved the working class.  I call him "The Charles Dickens of Old Hollywood" because of the way he cared about the common man.  He also had a keen eye for the political abuse of power and corrupt men slicing away freedom of speech.

With that in mind, I recommend two Frank Capra classics.  They are old movies but they may feel achingly relevant today.  The first one is... 1939's MR. SMITH GOES TO WATCHING starring James Stewart and Jean Arthur.  I wish I could air this in prime time right now on network television.
James Stewart plays the new young Senator who takes on a political machine with the help of a once cynical, smart-as-a-whip Washington aide played by Jean Arthur.  His honesty melts her cynicism and warms her heart as he wages his David v Goliath political battle for fairness.

The other Frank Capra film I recommend is 1941's MEET JOHN DOE starring Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper.  The movies opens with the words "free press" being drilled off a building front and replaced with the name of the new owners.  She's the smart-as-a-whip newspaper reporter for the paper experiencing some brutal layoffs.  She concocts a story that will keep her from being unemployed and be hot for newspaper sales.  She's an ambitious single woman who takes care of relatives with her income.  Her newspaper story involves finding a John Doe to keep it going.  In comes Gary Cooper as a hobo.  His story and John Doe gain wide popularity.  She and the hobo have had some financial luck.  But he winds up getting speeches to read on national radio from the paper's publisher.  The reporter and the hobo come to realize that the wealthy publisher,  her new boss, has fascist leanings and wants to control the press.

John Doe is willing to risk his life for the truth, for the chance to expose greed and corporate corruption.  The reporter is on his side.

And there you have it.  One Frank Capra classic from 1939.  The other is from 1941.  Both have elements that will feel timely and relevant today in 2017, in my opinion.  Be sure to check out FIVE CAME BACK on Netflix and narrated by Meryl Streep.  It shows the awesome light and dark power of film and how it can change lives.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017


This movie was quite popular with moviegoers and critics when it came out.  At the time, Sidney Poitier, one of its stars, was the first Black actor in Hollywood history who'd gotten opportunities that made him a top box office draw.  The 1960s was his decade.  He cracked the Hollywood color barrier as the first Black man to win the Oscar for Best Actor.  He won for 1963's LILIES OF THE FIELD.  It was his second nomination.  He became the first Black man ever to receive an Oscar nomination.  That was in the Best Actor category thanks to his performance as the bad-ass escaped convict in 1958's THE DEFIANT ONES.  Two of Poitier's biggest box office hits were both released in 1967 and both were in the field of five Oscar nominees for Best Picture.  They were IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, which won the Oscar, and GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER.  In that film, Poitier joined two Hollywood legends who, starting at MGM with 1942's WOMAN OF THE YEAR, became a celebrated screen team in several movies and a close, intimate team off-screen from the making of that 1942 comedy until one's death in 1967.  It was the team of Hollywood greats Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.  Their characters got married in WOMAN OF THE YEAR.  They played a married couple in GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER.  Tracy was a New York City newspaper columnist in WOMAN OF THE YEAR.  In GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, he's the owner of a San Francisco newspaper known for taking on social issues.
Hepburn, as the wife, runs an art gallery.  Like her husband, she's intellectual and liberal-minded.  They're liberal beliefs are put to the test when their loving daughter comes home and announces that she's engaged to be married.  The man she's engaged to is...African American.  In real life, Hepburn was famous in Hollywood for being the liberal-minded, intellectual, independent feminist.  Her roles in WOMAN OF THE YEAR, ADAM'S RIB and GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER (all with Spencer Tracy) seemed to be extensions of her off-camera self.  Couple that with the decades-long Hollywood buzz of her secret love affair with Tracy.

They were beloved in the Hollywood community.  Young, new actors were in awe of Tracy's skill.  Young, new actresses were adopting Hepburn as a role model.  Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn would be in the Best Actor and Best Actress Oscar race for GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER.  His nomination would come posthumously.  Cast, crew and Hollywood insiders knew that Tracy struggled with health issues during the making of the film.  They knew it would probably be his last movie.  And it was.  When the husband reaffirms and professes his love for his wife in the final moments, that is a touching and heartbreaking scene on two different levels.  We felt it was the husband talking to his wife and an ailing Spence talking to his Kate.
People may see this film as somewhat sentimental today, but I watched the whole thing again recently.  I had not seen it in quite a while.  There's a heart and muscle to it that folks may have come to overlook through the years.

Did you see the recent film LOVING?  That's the 2016 biopic story about Mildred and Richard Loving.  He was the white man who fell in love with a black woman.   They were arrested in the 1950s for getting married.  Interracial marriage was illegal in several American states.  They took their case to the Supreme Court.  Loving v Virginia was the landmark civil rights decision in 1967 that made interracial marriage legal in all the United States.  1967 was the same year GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER was released.
The more I see GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, the more I appreciate it.  Let's face it.  Kate Hepburn and Spencer Tracy never could've made a film like this at MGM in the 1940s.  The Hollywood color barriers were higher and thicker then.  Most African American actors were seen as maids, mammies, butler or porters.  Very few were seen in upscale professions and in roles in which they shared scenes with white stars as equals in society.

In GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, the newspaper owner husband has deep reservations at first about the daughter's wanting to wed an African American, accomplished though the man may be.  Poitier's doctor is a widely respected and published one.  When the daughter and her fiancĂ© have dinner and drinks with another couple, the couple expresses its appreciation for the tough social causes her father's newspaper took on.  I'd forgotten about that short but key scene.  When Matt (Tracy) has a knee-jerk reaction to his daughter's marriage plans, it causes friction.  When Christina (Hepburn) reminds him that they taught their daughter that black, brown and other people of color were just as good as white people, they didn't add -- "but just don't marry one."  She supports their daughter, Joanna.

Dr. John Prentice (Poitier) has parents in Los Angeles who fly up to San Francisco to meet the fiancĂ©e, her parents, and to have dinner.  They have no idea she's white until they land at the airport and meet her.  John's dad, like Joanna's dad, has reservations.  The two mothers are in sympathy with each other.

You might tend to think that Matt's crustiness may come from a little prejudice.  I don't think so.  I think it comes from fatherly fear.  He's the owner of a newspaper that apparently gave voice to the disenfranchised.  Like people today who realize that America did not immediately become "post-racial" when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, Matt's paper has surely had to report international headlines of the decade such as the killing of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King's March on Washington, the racist murder of four little girls in an Alabama church bombing and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  And The Lovings had gone to the Supreme Court to challenge America's laws against interracial marriage.  Matt says to Joanna and John that a multitude of people will be "shocked, offended and appalled" at their union.

He hates the dark elements still at play in our Land of the Free.  He's afraid for Joanna and for John.  But, as the family friend and Catholic priest tells Matt, "They'll change this stinking world."
In 1968, when this 1967 release won Oscars, the Oscars ceremony was postponed for the first and only time in its history because of the recent racist killing of Dr. Martin Luther King.  America was in mourning.  Dr. King's funeral was a live network news telecast.  Sidney Poitier was a friend of Dr. King's and a civil rights activist.

As for Dr. John Prentice, we tend to forget that the marriage will be his second one.  He was married for about five years.  His wife and son were killed in an accident.  For nearly ten years, he was a widower who racked up an impressive list of credentials -- probably becoming an over-achiever in his profession to deal with his grief and numb the pain of being a childless widower.  We can tell from the way the parents react that the first wife was Black.
Katharine Houghton, Kate Hepburn's real life niece, plays the daughter in GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER.  It's a good, charming performance and it really works because Joanna seems so much like her mother in attitude, tone and style.  Joanna kisses John when they get to her parents' house and prepare for dinner.  Again, this was a 1967 film.  British pop star/actress Petula Clark made entertainment headlines in 1968 when she defied NBC executive orders and touched Harry Belafonte on her NBC special while they performed an ant-war ballad.  NBC brass was against interracial touching.  Petula Clark took his arm during the number.  She was the show's executive producer and did what she bloody well wanted as a response to network ignorance.  The number and the touch remained in the special.  Harry Belafonte, like Poitier, was also a friend of Dr. King's.  Early that same year, 1968, Harry Belafonte was guest host for a week on the TONIGHT Show while Johnny Carson was on vacation.  Against the wishes of NBC network executives, he booked Dr. Martin Luther King as a guest for one show that week.  It was a wonderful appearance.  But NBC brass initially felt that the Nobel Peace Prize recipient was a political "radical" whose appearance would cost NBC some sponsors.  Not a single sponsor was lost due to the appearance of Dr. King.

Yes, there is sentimentality and Hollywood legend at play in GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER.  But, considering the backdrop of American history the year it came out and the night it won Oscars, it was pretty bold for its time.

Irene Dunne, LADY IN A JAM

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