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 Less Courageous Than None

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Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is a landmark film. Released in 1967, it confronted prejudices head on and challenged movie-goers' assumptions in ways few films have tried since.
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Set in suburban San Francisco, the film's action only rarely leaves the home where the main characters have met to discuss the imminent marriage between Joey, played by Katherine Houghton, and John, played by Sidney Poitier. Though John is a successful doctor preparing to leave for Switzerland to work for the World Health Organization, Joey's parents, played by Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, hold some reservations as to the wisdom of the marriage, especially because Joey and John have only known each other for some ten days and appear to be rushing into matters.

As the evening progresses, more and more people arrive to join them for dinner, including eventually John's parents, who have flown up from Los Angeles for the occasion. Though the title and plot seemingly focus on dinner, that event never actually arrives -- the credits roll jus as everyone finally sits down to eat. Instead, the true focus is on "coming to dinner", and especially on who it is who is coming.

Monsignor Ryan is neither the first nor last guest to arrive, but any proper film analysis must conclude he is the most important character, whose attendance answers the film's eponymous question. Though Joey's family is not Catholic (they profess to no religion in particular), the Monsignor, an Irish Catholic priest played by Cecil Kallaway, is a long-time family friend and golf partner of her father. He is also, and herein lies the central controversy of the film, a congenial but inveterate drunkard.

As with all great films, the inspiration for this film's coup de grace is neither intuitively obvious nor textually inevitable; but it remains clear that without the Director Stanley Kramer's choice to combine these three traits (drunk, Irish, Catholic) it would be a very different story indeed.

The full majesty of the Roman Catholic Church is well documented in the film Priest, and the popularity of Irish Catholicism during the 1970s came to a full head in the epic films Godfather and Godfather 2. But just as the sum is greater than the individual parts, a drunk Irish Catholic priest is entirely different from an Irish Catholic priest with a bottle of Scotch in hand.

It is not at first clear what sort of social commentary Director Stanley Kramer is trying to make on the current state of Irish Catholicism. To be sure, Irish Catholic priests in America are well known for their sobriety, and it is nigh impossible to find a single drop of liquor in all the island of Ireland. Though some Irish may deviate from their tee-totaling brethren, and though some of these unfortunate souls may inevitably be found within the priesthood, to direct an film whose entire plot revolves around one such individual borders on irresponsibility.

Contrary to ordinary literary practice, the context of Monsignor Ryan's character is hardly fleshed out at all -- there is little basis for moral consideration, because there is very little to go on. We know nothing of his youth, of what first drew him to the bottle, of the social consequences of his alcoholism, or anything other facts pertinent to appropriate character development. As far as the viewer is concerned, Monsignor Ryan never faces any such consequences -- he is always invited to dinner parties, graciously attends, and with a sloshed smile slips off into oblivion as his hosts finally chuckle and announce, "No, I think you've had quite enough already."

What makes South African Cecil Kellaway's role all the more surprising is how much it departs from his previous roles. From the temperate magician in The Mummy's Hand (1940), to the indefatigable father warlock in I Married a Witch (1942), from the husband in Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) whose revulsion for alcohol is relied upon for an important plot development, to his cameo role as Darrell Metcalf in the long-running television series Perry Mason, his characters have always been dry as a whistle. What's more, it beggars belief to comprehend why Kellaway would agree to play the Monsignor Ryan role when the few other Irish characters he portrayed in his long career, such as Horace from The Luck of the Irish (1948) were model individuals with not a whiff of stereotype about them.

If Guess Who's Coming to Dinner has one underlying and overarching moral, it is that only by denying them the bottle, can we ever make the Irish stop being the wretched inebriated race they are. But just as the Monsignor will live to drink another day, we'll sooner make the Irish bathe than we'll see them sober.

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