In each generation, it appears that Hollywood produces one centerpiece sermon-movie to instruct the goyim on their most serious besetting sin of the time, including an “application” section on how to make progress in sanctification. This movie was the chosen vehicle for the 60s generation, presumably to make sure the free speech/sexual revolution did not stop short of full consistency. The denounced sin appears to be resistance to miscegenation. To ensure an impact, heavyweight Hollywood legends Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were marshaled for service as the parents of the gushing bride-to-be.
The couple arrives at the girl’s house in San Francisco to announce their engagement and to seek the parents’ blessing. Though no one even so much as knew she was dating — after all, the pair only met ten days earlier –, the blessing needs to be given within a matter of hours, after which Sidney Poitier must catch a plane to New York. Meanwhile, a call is placed to his parents in LA, and when they hear about the engagement, they jump on a plane and join the group. In addition to the three couples, a priest functions as roving chorus.
The mothers, after an initial moment of surprise, quickly adapt to full approval. Both fathers, however, are against it. The deadline of the departing flight that evening drives the action by creating a tension that will force the hand to be played one way or the other.
After a while, the temporal pressure is increased even more, as the girl (Katherine Houghton) decides on a whim to pack up and fly out with Poitier that very night rather than waiting until the following week (1:02). The reinforcement of the temporal urgency seems to point to a broader theme: as if to say, time is running out for society to solve its little race problem.
A related theme is that to bring about the desired changes, it will be necessary to reject the authority of the older generation:
1. Houghton tells her father (23), “it never occurred to me that I might fall in love with a Negro; but I did; and nothing in the world is going to change that. Even if you had any objections I wouldn’t let him go now if you were the governor of Alabama — I mean if Mom were.”
2. Hepburn and Tracy go out for a while to talk it over, whereupon, in his distraction, he crashes into a car driven by a young Negro — what a coincidence! The latter dresses him down vituperatively, to which a crowd of young bystanders applauds wildly. Spenser Tracy, representing “the bigot,” is put down by “the people” — whose instincts must be pretty good, since they don’t even know him.
3. Poitier barks at his protesting father to “shut up,” at which the father pleads that he is owed more respect; this triggers Poitier to declaim (1:31) “Let me tell you something. I owe you nothing. If you carried that [mailman’s] bag a million miles you did what you were supposed to do, because you brought me into this world; and from that day, YOU owed ME everything you could ever do for me…Not until your whole generation has lain down and died will the deadweight of you be off our backs.”
Meanwhile, after being beaten down and ridiculed by young people near and far, Spenser is then given the real Hollywood diagnosis of his problem by Bea Richards: he is old and must have lost his sexual desire (1:30). This after even his “friend” the chorus had already attacked him: “… in that fighting liberal facade, there must be some sort of reactionary bigot trying to get out” (51).
The fathers are not the only resistant ones. The colored maid Tilley (Isabel Sanford), one of the few enjoyable (and honest) characters in the whole movie, tells Poitier during their tête-à-tête, “You think I don’t see what you are? You one of those smooth-talkin’ smart-ass niggers just out for all you can get, with your black power and all that other trouble makin’ nonsense” (58). Nothing happens to her. But Katherine Hepburn’s blonde employee is fired with seething indignation for a look, though she scarcely had said a word (and her kitschy taste in art was an unfair touch – itself kitschy as a literary technique). The message to the audience is clear: if you don’t shape up by conviction, then conform outwardly by keeping your mouth shut — or lose your job.
On the other hand, certain elements of the movie render its apparent racial message ambiguous. Consider, for example, various stereotype reversals:
- The Negro is a doctor and international philanthropist.
- The young couple has not yet slept together (yes we are treated to this information as well) though it has already been ten days since they met; she was willing, she tells her mother, “but he wouldn’t….He’s been concerned the whole time about my getting hurt somehow” (36). (The “somehow” is an especially nice touch.)
- Houghton tells the chorus, “when I’m married to him, I’ll be important” (46).
Do the stereotype reversals imply that it is okay for a white girl to marry a Negro, but only provided he is super-successful and philanthropic? Or is the point merely to heighten the bigotry of the father, to show that it is based on race, and nothing else? But this will hardly do: the haste and dizzy-headedness of the circumstances — not to mention the fact that he is 14 years older and has already been married and had a child –, would be ample justification for parental concern apart from the race issue. And all the father wanted was a little bit of time.
For these reasons, I think the main point of the movie is not in the first place about inter-racial marriage, but is the more general one finally delivered by a substitute for the chorus in a climactic speech: if it feels good, do it; and “screw all those people” if they don’t like it.
Those two ideas were the keynotes of the 1960s.
What’s scary, is that that generation is now running the asylum.