Friday, August 2, 2013

A Majority of One ( 1961 )

“Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one”

Leonard Spigelgass’ poignant story of racial prejudice, “A Majority of One”, focuses on emphasizing the truth of the above quotation as well as teaching a gentle and humorous lesson on the folly of judging others by their ethnicity and not by their hearts. It is a story of a cross-cultural romance between two widows – Mrs. Jacoby, a Jewish Brooklynite ( superbly played by Rosiland Russell ) and Mr. Asano ( Alec Guinness ), a Japanese industrialist.  

Mrs. Jacoby spent most of her life in Flatbush and loves the neighborhood and her apartment dearly. Her daughter Alice ( Madlyn Rhue ) and diplomat son-in-law Jerry ( Ray Danton ) worry about “Mama” living on her own while they spend years at a time in foreign nations moving wherever Jerry’s position takes them. Mrs. Jacoby is not getting any younger and, as Mrs.Ruben, her neighbor blatantly points out, the neighborhood is changing and “that element is moving in”....a statement which brings up a conversation that sets the tone for the film:

“What element, Mrs.Ruben?” ( Jerry )
“You know..colored, Puerto Ricans...”
“Really? I seem to remember in this very neighborhood not so long ago they didn’t allow Jews.”
“What does one have to do with the other?”
“Everything. The only way to stop prejudice is to stop it in yourself”.

When Jerry receives his new assignment Alice pleads with Mama to come with them. “But you haven’t said where”...“Japan, Mama.” Japan! Mrs. Jacoby lost her only son in combat in Japan during WWII and the memory –and hatred – is still painfully fresh. However, for love of her children, she reluctantly agrees to follow, and so they’re off across the sea to the Land of the Rising Sun. En route on the voyage they meet Mr.Asano, a Japanese millionaire industrialist who will not only play a pivotal role in an upcoming international trade conference that Jerry will take part in, but will change Mrs. Jacoby’s feelings toward the Japanese in a remarkable way.

A Majority of One was penned by Leonard Spigelgass in 1958 and debuted on Broadway on February 16, 1959, starring Gertrude Berg and Sir Cedric Hardwicke. It played for 556 performances and was a critical and box-office success. It was nominated for four Tony awards ( Berg won for Best Actress ). 

Jack Warner at Warner Bros. purchased the film rights to the comedy in 1960 for the princely sum of $500,000 and approached Rosalind Russell for the starring role. Russell was aghast. “You’ve been drinking,” she told Warner according to her 1977 autobiography Life is a Banquet. “What would I be doing playing a Jewish lady from Brooklyn? I’m a little Irish girl from Waterbury, Connecticut. Use Gertrude Berg, it’s her part.” Warner insisted however, refusing to cast Berg since she made a disastrous film at Paramount years earlier. It was not until he suggested that Alec Guinness could be her co-star that Russell reconsidered. “Well, that’s another cup of chicken soup,” she told him. “I’ll think about that little item”.

When she approached Alec Guinness with the idea he said, “I want the dollars, so if you’ll do it, I’ll do it”. To which Russell replied,  “I want to work with you, so if you’ll do it, I’ll do it”.

So they did it. And they couldn’t have been a more delightful combination. Russell shines in her role as the Jewish widow, Bertha Jacoby. With just the right about of mamish chochmeh she dispenses bits of neighborly advice – and Smith Brothers cough drops - to all she comes in contact with. She handles herself and her children with respect but upon occasion, when they overstep their boundaries, she can be firm and immovable.

Guinness was touching and endearing and portrayed Mr.Asano with a graceful maturity befitting a Japanese gentleman of illustrious birth. However, in spite of the heavy makeup and authenticity he gave to his role ( he spent ten days in Japan prior to filming taking a crash course in Japanese culture ), many viewers felt a Japanese actor was called for. Perhaps because a Caucasian portrayed the role on Broadway ( interracial romance was a scandalous subject at the time and was dealt with by using English actors in the roles of Asians ), or because the studio wanted top drawing names, Japanese actors such as Sessue Hayakawa were overlooked.

Marc Marno and Mae Questel were plucked from the Broadway production for supporting roles to round out a cast which also included Frank Wilcox, Francis De Sales and Alan Mowbray.

A Majority of One is a humorous blending of schmaltz and saki and went on to win three Golden Globes for Best Picture, Best Actress ( Russell ) and Best Film Promoting International Understanding. How did it win that last award? Because all cultures are different, the movie tells us, but those differences are just superficial. As they become acquainted, Mr. Asano and Mrs. Jacoby mention aspects of their respective cultures that, at first, seem different but after comparison are revealed to be relatively the same.  

For example, Japanese people worship in shrines; Jewish people worship by blessing Sabbath candles – ultimately, "God's house is God's house," as Mrs. Jacoby says after being invited to a Japanese shrine. Japanese people eat raw fish; Jewish people eat gefilte fish. Japanese people toast with "Kanpai" and Jews say "L'Chaim." 

Jews put up with a lot: "Whatever comes into your life, you take." So do Japanese: "You transcend. It's the philosophy of the Zen Buddhists." ..."You mean, if you have tsouris – trouble – you come out of it a better person for having lived through it." ...."Obviously you have studied Zen Buddhism, Mrs. Jacoby!”

In addition to emphasizing the importance of embracing other nationalities “whether they are white, black, pink or purple!” the more subtle lessons of forgiveness and tolerance are taught, lessons which Mrs. Jacoby - and her children - needed to be taught. When he first makes her acquaintance, Mr. Asano approaches Mrs. Jacoby to inquire why she is so cold towards him. After telling him that her son was killed in action by the Japanese, he explains that he, personally, did not want war nor did anyone he knew, and that he lost both his son and daughter in Hiroshima. Mrs. Jacoby then realizes that he’s had a cupful in life too and hatred quickly dispels into kinsmanship. As the voyage progresses they find each other to be the most pleasant of companions, with Mr. Asano particularly drawn to Mrs. Jacoby’s warmth and friendship.

Later, as Mama considers the proposition of “crossing over the bridge” with Mr. Asano, she must first deal with the prejudice in her own family. In the first half of the drama we perceive Mrs. Jacoby to be old-fashioned and set in her customs while her children are shown to be adaptable and open to new viewpoints and new changes. However, the tables turn midway through and we find that it is Mrs. Jacoby’s daughter and husband who are narrow-minded. The words Jerry spoke in Brooklyn echo back to him when he faces the prospect of Mama and Mr. Asano’s impending courtship... “If you want to stop prejudice you must first stop it in yourself”. He must come to learn that being friendly and welcoming should not be a diplomatic “front of face” but stem from a sincere consideration for others.

A Majority of One is as relevant today as it was when it was first released in 1961. The film is a hidden gem, a truly entertaining foreign affair, completely unique and as lovely as cherry blossoms in spring; it is sure to bring shtick naches to those who take the time to watch the film.  

This post is our contribution to the fantasmagorical 2013 TCM Summer Under the Stars blogathon hosted by Sittin' on a Backyard Fence and Scribe Hard on Film. For a complete schedule to the month-long event click here. 


  1. Hi there! New to your blog (I'll be spending much time here) and really enjoyed your writeup of Majority of One. I totally get why people object to Guinness playing the Japanese role, but as you said, one has to take the decision in context of the social mores of the time. (I'm a biracial child myself, so I fully understand things like that...) And regardless, Guinness is *charming* and Russell really is at the top of her game. Of her later roles, I much prefer this performance even to (gasp) Auntie Mame...! Anyway, great work, and thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for stopping by! Glad you enjoyed this post, and yes...Guinness' role as Mr. Asano is very objectionable today. Oddly enough, it wasn't so when the film was released but now that many have become so conscious of racism the film is poo-pooed quite a bit. I love the movie regardless of who played whom...afterall, they are all just acting and the story is completely entertaining!

  2. An extra note: A Majority of One was revived in a stage adaption at the West Coast Jewish Theatre in California in 2008 with Sab Shimono in the role of Mr. Asano and Paula Prentiss(!) as Bertha Jacoby. Hmmm...interesting combination.

  3. You make this film sound like a winning combination of performances and heart. I'm sorry to say that the movie and I keep missing each other, but I shall certainly make a point of checking it out soon.

  4. First of all, I want to thank you both for contributing to the blogathon. I'm so sorry it has taken me a bit to get over here.

    One thing I love about hosting this event is discovering new-to-me blogs and new-to-me movies. Like Carley said, I'll be spending some serious time here. As for this movie, it sounds very interesting. I have added it to my WAC wishlist for the next big order I make.

    Thanks again!