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Widowed Bertha Jacoby has led a relatively sheltered, monocultural existence in the same predominantly Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood for most of her adult life, and as such has fairly traditional Jewish values. She is taken aback not only when her son-in-law Jerry Black announces that he and Bertha's daughter Alice Black are moving to Tokyo on Jerry's next diplomatic corps assignment, but that they want her to move there with them so that she won't be all alone. Despite her anti-Japanese sentiments - David, her only son, having been killed in WWII in the Pacific Theater - Bertha reluctantly agrees. They will fly from New York to San Francisco, and sail from there. Against the odds, Bertha befriends on board the ship Koichi Asano, a wealthy widowed Japanese businessman with who Jerry and the American contingent will be entering into sensitive negotiations. Jerry and Alice are wary of Bertha and Mr. Asano's friendship, not only because of the cultural differences but because they believe... Written by
Unlike a few of her female contemporary film stars from the Thirties, Rosalind Russell managed to avoid the perils of being cast in horror films because it was the only roles she was offered. I think only Katharine Hepburn exercised better discretion in her parts even if for Russell they weren't always completely successful with audiences and critics.
Case in point is A Majority Of One. The play by Leonard Spiegelgass ran for 559 performances in the 1959-1960 season, it was a popular hit as well with Jewish audiences. Mainly because the play was done by THE Jewish American mother from radio and television, Gertrude Berg. As a small kid I do recall the lives and loves of Molly Goldberg and her family were almost a rite on the nights it was broadcast for my Jewish relatives. Berg was a natural for the part of the Jewish widow from 776 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.
Anyway this tall prominent lay Catholic from Connecticut does give it a good try and she succeeds in many ways. Today's audiences in seeing this film don't have the memory of Gertrude Berg as Molly Goldberg to fall back on, so Russell's performance is more likely to be judged on its own merits. It's not a bad one.
The other casting however was and remains more controversial. Alec Guinness is one of those actors who can play just about any racial or ethnic type and has. He succeeded his fellow countryman Cedric Hardwicke who played the role of the Japanese industrialist on Broadway. Doesn't mean he should have though. If A Majority of One were made even 20 years later and if players were frozen in time, Jack Warner might have given serious consideration to casting a real Japanese in Sessue Hayakawa as the Japanese widower industrialist. That would have really been something, but at that time the film would have bombed at the box office.
Interesting too because the subject of the film is overcoming our prejudices. Rosalind Russell's son was killed in the Pacific Theater in World War II. She's a widow and when her son-in-law Ray Danton who is a career foreign service officer her daughter, Madelyn Rhue and Danton think she ought to go to Japan where he's been assigned his next post.
They fly to the Pacific and take a sea voyage to Japan where Russell meets Alec Guinness, a widower who's daughter was killed at Hiroshima. Despite his strict Buddhist faith and her Orthodox Jewish background, love can bloom in the strangest places and is good the second time around.
Russell admired Guinness's cerebral technique and total concentration on character when she worked with him. In a recent biography of Alec Guinness, nothing was mentioned about him and Russell, but he felt he was not given any kind of direction from Mervyn LeRoy. Both Russell and Guinness were heavy into Catholicism so I'm betting they got along.
Two members of the original Broadway cast made it to Hollywood, Mae Questal as Russell's neighbor and Marc Marno as their Japanese servant when they set up home in Japan. Questal has an interesting scene with Ray Danton when she announces she just doesn't like her new Puerto Rican neighbors. Danton rather self-righteously upbraids her for her prejudice, but then comes face to face with his own after making a fool of himself with Guinness during business and then facing the prospect he might have an oriental stepfather-in-law.
A Majority of One is a good film, in many ways better enjoyed now than when it first came out. But it misses greatness due to the timidity of the times in Hollywood.
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