It's hard to figure out how to start this post because I am writing about a movie that is bad in so many ways. Most of the characters are very stiff. The leading man is an Englishman playing the part of Japanese and the leading woman is an American playing the part of a Russian Jewish immigrant. Neither of these portrayals works 100% of the time. The Japanese houseboy, played by Marc Marno, who you will think is Bobby Darin, is an outrageous parody along the lines of Jose Jimenez, or more like Jerry Lewis in Still Laughing. (I'm not against all ethnic humour; I just think these are insulting and over-the-top). In so many ways the movie just does not work.
So, I've been asking myself why this is one of my favorite movies--one of the few that I own?
Well, one thing is that it is in places hysterically funny. There's one line from the movie (which I will not divulge) that regularly comes up in family conversations. And then, the stars of the movie are Alec Guinness and Rosalind Russell, and despite the fact that their accents are occasionally a bit jarring and that Alec Guinness just looks a bit strange, the chemistry between the two is wonderful. I'm not talking about romance, although there is that, it's more like the feeling you get when you meet someone with whom you can really communicate. They really hear what you are saying. They understand your jokes. They care about the things you care about.
As good as Alec Guiness is, the star of this movie is Rosalind Russell. Her character, Bertha Jacoby is wise; she is funny; and she knows who she is, and what her place is in this world. All my adult life I have wished that I knew some wise, older woman who I could go to for advice, and I have never found anyone to fill that role. I think this woman might. And as ably as Ms. Russell portrays the serious side of Bertha Jacoby, she truly excels in the humorous side. Her comedic timing is impeccable--from the few scenes that approach slapstick to the more numerous scenes where the humor is more subtle.
Bertha is a widow whose son was killed by the Japanese in World War II. She lives alone in an apartment in New York City, where she appears to be very content. As the movie begins, we find her awaiting the visit of her daughter, Alice, and son-in-law, Jerry, who is a member of the U. S. Foreign Service. She knows they have an announcement to make, and she is sure that the announcement is the one that every mother of a young married person awaits—but she is far off the mark. She finds that Jerry has been assigned to the U. S. Embassy in Japan to help with negotiations for a trade agreement with that country. Still bitter over the death of her son, she cannot at first accept the situation at all.
Gradually, however, she comes to see that this is an advantageous position for Jerry. She accepts the fact that they are going to what she sees as an enemy land, and then receives a further surprise. Alice wants her mother to come with them. Neither Jerry nor her mother thinks that Bertha could be happy in Japan, but gradually their objections are overcome and off to Japan they all go.
Once aboard the ocean liner, they meet Mr. Koichi Asano, a Japanese businessman who will be taking part in the negotiations that Jerry will be helping to conduct. Mr. Asano attempts to befriend Mrs. Jacoby, but she is very cold. Eventually, though, after finding out a bit more about Mr. Asano and his life, she comes to see him as an individual who could be a friend, rather than as an embodiment of the enemy who killed her son.
A Majority of One was released in 1962, and was based on a Broadway hit starring Gertrude Berg, and Cedric Hardwicke that opened in 1959. I would guess that at this time there were still many people in the United States who had the same feelings toward the Japanese as Mrs. Jacoby did. Perhaps, this was considered a daring movie. I don't know. It dealt with racial prejudice—although not the sort that we are most accustomed to—in a time when that was not a popular topic. It does not however, sink under the weight of the topic, or become so preachy as to be tedious. The story, not the lesson, always drives the movie.
One thing I really enjoy about the movie is the discussions where Mr. Asano and Mrs. Jacoby compare their different cultural/religious traditions. There is a certain amount of similarity which comes, I think, from the fact that we are all human and the tools that we have to express our traditions are the same for us all: beauty, nature, our inward desires and search for meaning—many similar things. Different cultures and religions inform these basic similarities, but it's natural that we would come to some common expressions of what is most important to us. The movie doesn't downplay the differences, however. In fact there is one scene where Mr. Asano talks about how difficult those differences can be.
It would seem that Mrs. Berg, who won the Tony Award for best actress in the role of Bertha Jacoby, would have been perfect for the movie version, but Jack Warner did not want her, and offered the role to Rosalind Russell, who was shocked. This exchange is found on the TMC website.
"You've been drinking," she told Warner according to her 1977 autobiography Life Is a Banquet. "What would I be doing playing this Jewish lady from Brooklyn? I'm a little Irish girl from Waterbury, Connecticut. Use Gertrude Berg, it's her part," she said.
"We'll never use Gertrude Berg," replied Warner. "She made a picture over at Paramount years ago, and it was a disaster."
"But that has nothing to do with this," said Russell. "You'd be crazy to put me in that part, and I'd be crazy to take it."
However, when Jack Warner suggested that she could possibly co-star with Sir Alec Guinness, Russell reconsidered. "Well, that's another cup of chicken soup," she told him. "I'll think about that little item."
Earlier, I mentioned the stiffness of some of the characters, and, indeed, there is a sort of stiffness in several of the scenes, and I wonder if that can be attributed to the fact that the movie is derived from a play. In fact, it frequently has the feel of a play. I can think of certain scenes in the movie that were probably staged in the exact same way as those in the theater.
Unfortunately, this movie is difficult to find. It is occasionally on TMC, and probably elsewhere on cable. If you want to watch it soon, though, you will probably have to buy it, or you can come to my house or go wrest my other copy from my granddaughter in San Juan.
—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.