Reviewed by: Brett Willis
Starring: Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Katharine Houghton | Directed by: Stanley Kramer | Produced by: Stanley Kramer, George Glass | Written by: William Rose | Distributor: Columbia
An unabashed assault on attitudes toward interracial marriage, this film was an agent of social change.
“Joey” Drayton (Katharine Houghton), the only child of a rich white liberal newspaper publisher (Spencer Tracy), returns from Hawaii with a surprise for her father and her mother (Katharine Hepburn). She’s engaged after a whirlwind courtship. The problems inherent in the American dating custom, and in committing to marriage with someone whom your parents don’t know and whom you barely know yourself, aren’t dealt with here; this kind of fast-track engagement is regarded as normal. The possibility of religious differences seems to be treated as irrelevant also. And, Joey’s intended is a somewhat-older, mature widower and a world-famous physician working to eradicate Third World disease. So far, so good. The plot is of course deliberately contrived so that there’s no possible reason for the parents to regard Dr. Prentice as anything but a once-in-a-lifetime catch for their daughter. Except that he’s black, and the extent of their liberalism is now on trial.
Sidney Poitier, effective in top-cop roles and in anything with a racial-issue edge to it, is excellent here as Dr. Prentice. Tracy and Hepburn are great in their Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning roles. Houghton (Hepburn’s real-life niece) seems somewhat flat, but this could be by design; her character is a sweet young thing who has believed and internalized her parents’ teaching about treating everyone alike, and she’s blissfully unaware of the stress they’re now under. Except for a Catholic priest (Cecil Kellaway), most everyone in the story is uncomfortable with the planned marriage. One of Mrs. Drayton’s employees is such a busybody about it that she gets herself fired. Dr. Prentice’s parents (Roy Glenn and Beah Richards) have misgivings too. And the Draytons’ black servant (Isabel Sanford), taking a position that will be unfathomable to many people today, gets onto Dr. Prentice for making it hard on everyone else by not knowing his “place”. The very fact that her attitude seems senseless is an indicator of how times have changed.
Content Warnings: There are some uses of h* and d*, a few other colorful profanities, and some racial language. When asked by her mother about the extent of her relationship to Dr. Prentice, Joey replies that she wanted to sleep with him, but he refused. There are some strong hostile attitudes displayed by a number of characters.
Aside from Mr. Drayton’s legitimate concerns that his grandchildren might be among the worst victims of prejudice, there’s no reason for him to oppose this marriage. But he does oppose it. He’s not quite as liberal as he thought he was. For a younger audience, or for us older folks with short memories, this film is a quick review of how things were not so long ago even in a broadminded place like California. A major reason for the entire system of segregation (in churches as well as in society at large) was to head off the possibility of interracial marriage. But there’s no Biblical reason to oppose such marriages. The issue that does need to be addressed in a prospective marriage is whether the partners will be unequally yoked in terms of their relationship to Jesus Christ. That’s the kind of “mixed marriage” that should be avoided.