Sidney Poitier passed away this week at the age of 94. The legendary actor was one of my favorites for his vast library of work, including one of my favorite movies of all time, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. The prominence of United Airlines in that historic 1967 movie foreshadowed the future of the airlines’ corporate activism.
Sidney Poitier: The United Airlines Connection
The movie begins with a United Air Lines Douglas DC-8-52 (tail number N8035U) arriving from Honolulu in San Francisco (United changed its stylization from Air Lines to Airlines about a decade later). 23-year-old Joanna Drayton, played by Katharine Houghton, and 37-year-old Dr. John Prentice, played by Poitier, became engaged during their Hawaiian holiday.
Now, Prentice intends to ask Drayton’s parents for permission to marry their daughter. Matt Drayton was a newspaper editor and Christina Drayton owned an art gallery. Both were liberal, but the news that their white daughter wanted to marry a black man was jarring.
Prentice lets Mrs. and Mrs. Drayton know that he will not marry their daughter without their permission, but imposes a same-day deadline for the decision, as he must fly to Geneva via New York for a three-month assignment with the World Health Organization.
Interracal marriage was still banned in 17 U.S. states during the filming of the movie (the Supreme Court’s historic Loving v. Virginia decision, which held laws banning interracial marriage were unconstitutional, was handed down weeks before the movie was released).
To complicate matters, Prentice’s parents fly up from Southern California, this time on a United Airlines 727-200 (tail number N7007U), and like Drayton’s father, Prentice’s father is also skeptical and initially opposed to the marriage.
If you’ve never seen the movie, watch it today. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s a happy one.
The prominence of United Airlines in the movie marks an early example of “product placement” in movies and an example of an airline expressing its opinion on (what was then) a very controversial social issue.
Whether that is good for business is not easily quantifiable: it was feared the movie would perform poorly in the U.S. South, but it performed very well. It is equally not clear how much people cared now or then that United played a (small) role in this film, but I tip my hat to United for its small part in breaking down an artificial barrier between human beings and showing the power of love.
And to Sidney Poitier, I am thankful for his trailblazing work and his wonderful gift to the world as an actor.
images: Columbia Pictures (fair use exception)