A Majority of One (1961), directed by Mervyn LeRoy is a luminous tribute to the “better angels of our nature,” to the belief that peace on earth begins with an old-fashioned concept called the brotherhood of man, and to the talent of two aging stars who only got better with time. They are Rosalind Russell, and Sir Alec Guinness.
This is our contribution to the Diamonds and Gold blogathon saluting the actors and actresses in their “over 50” years, hosted by Caftan Woman, who covers the actresses, and Rich at Wide Screen World, who showcases the actors. Please have a look at these two blogs for a list of great bloggers participating in this event.
Her daughter, played by Madelyn Rhue, is married to a young man in the diplomatic service, played by Ray Danton. They come for a visit and to break the news that he is being transferred to Japan. They want to take her with them, but know that convincing her will be difficult, because she is old and set in her ways, because all she knows is Brooklyn, and because of a still not healed resentment against the Japanese, for her son was killed in the Pacific Theater.The war was over only just 15 years when this story takes place, and it reflects sentiments common at the time, and also reflects that remarkable change that occurred both in a Japan struggling to throw off years of shame of defeat and poverty to embrace a modern world—modern democracy, modern capitalism—and in America's relationship with its former enemy. It was still a long time before Japan became an economic powerhouse, but the seeds were being sown, while America changed in its role as victor, to partner, and it left many World War II generation Americans reeling. Does moving forward disgrace the past? Is moving forward the only way to really honor the sacrifices made?
Large issues are reduced to small examples of fear and mistrust when Rosalind Russell meets her first Japanese man – and we are set up for open discussion of prejudice by her neighbor, comically played by Mae Questel, who wants to move out of Brooklyn because blacks and Puerto Ricans are moving in. (If she sounds like—and sings like—Betty Boop, it’s because she is Betty Boop.)The Japanese gentleman she meets on the ship going over to Japan will figure prominently in their lives. He is the Japanese delegate to the economic summit that her son-in-law is attending on behalf of the American side. He is played by Alec Guinness.
There is much humor (including a really charming scene where Russell and Guinness crack each other up and laugh themselves silly), and drama of the gentle, but most honest kind. Most interesting, what begins as an East-meets-West story quickly becomes a tale of aging, and ageism. Guinness, a widower whose son was also killed in the war, and whose daughter, too, while serving as a nurse in Hiroshima when it was obliterated, has learned to move on and face the future with dogged determination. We sense that it is not until he has met Rosalind Russell, that he sees any beauty in life again. They discuss their lives, their families, their faiths with open curiosity. They share things about themselves their children do not know.When he asks to court her, she is reticent for her children’s sake, and Guinness gives us what should be the motto of the Diamonds and Gold blogathon:
“It is not the children who should instruct the parents, but the parents who should instruct the children.”“Not in America,” she jokes.
He adds, “You are wise and venerable, and only the venerable have the experience and maturity to understand matters of personal relationships.”When her daughter and son-in-law object, he calmly tells them, “We have the maturity to weigh such matters, you do not.”
One rarely hears huzzahs for maturity these days, when what is shallow, ignorant, and tasteless is "awesome."
Indeed, one of the chief wonders and pleasures of this gentle movie is that the two aging stars are the stars, not the supporting players, and that the story revolves entirely around them. Though they have some comic moments, they are not buffoons, and it is never their age that is a butt of jokes. Miss Russell even gets a few moments of physical comedy, when she thrusts her long legs under the low Japanese table at Guinness’ home, and is helped to walk, a little tipsy from too much sake. She sways a bit and uses her body almost as she were about to break into the Conga number from Wonderful Town.When her son-in-law makes a social gaffe at the economic meetings and unknowingly insults his Japanese hosts, she tells him what he did wrong in bowing too low, that it looked like he was making fun of the Japanese. “It’s very important how you talk to foreigners about the little things. I know. I was a foreigner for a long time. Foreigners are very sensitive people.” We learn of her trip in steerage from Russia when she was a little girl, and a life lived in a new country where it took a very long time to be accepted.
Rosalind Russell is a quiet miracle in this role, a departure from her larger-than-life Hildy Johnson or Auntie Mame, and yet still holding court center-stage as few others can. Her affectionate touching her daughter when she arrives, running her hands along her daughter’s shoulders, face, and hands, always clutching her. Her deft witticisms and tragic pain that plays out as mere flickers on her lovely, gracefully aging face.
Her rigid anger as she recounts on her first meeting with Guinness the circumstances of her son’s wartime death and her burning resentment against the Japanese. Her flustered moments, her grieving moments, her moments of incandescent wonder. Most especially, her transformation into a Jewish woman.This for many might be seen as poor casting, unrealistic in the face of her being a longtime star well known for being cast as what she was – Yankee types (or English types). That she was in real life an Irish Catholic is too much perhaps for some people to accept her in this role. I feel she is perfect in the role for two reasons: First, her dialect imitating a Jewish woman from Brooklyn is perfect. She nails it. Her soft inflections, her mannerisms, there is nothing to indicate in her performance that she is not this character. The only reason she would not be accepted in the role is the fact that everyone knows she is not an elderly Jewish woman from Brooklyn.
And this, second, is why she brings to the role something Gertrude Berg, who played the part on Broadway, could never do. Miss Russell creates transcendence in the role, the kind of transcendence that is the message of the story, as Guinness’ character puts it, to cross a bridge and achieve “the enlightened spirit,” and passing that enlightenment to her audience. She is our our stand-in and proxy.
Gertrude Berg, whom most remember for her The Goldbergs radio and TV show, a pioneer writer and actress, played Jewish. It was her character, to the point of becoming parody. She could play Mrs. Jacoby in her sleep, but her familiarity with the role—and more importantly, the audience’s familiarity with her—would not allow for that marvelous transcendence that Rosalind Russell creates. There is a scene at the end of the movie where Alec Guinness visits her back in her Brooklyn apartment. She has prepared Sabbath dinner for him, and she lights the Shabbat candles. She drapes a white lacy scarf over her head, and encircles the flames of the two candles with her hands, then places her hands over her eyes and quietly whispers a prayer. The action is delicate and womanly.
I find this terribly moving especially knowing that she was a devout Roman Catholic, that in these pre-Vatican II days she wore a mantilla to Mass, probably very similar to what she wears on her head in this scene, and that when she says “Amen,” so does the Buddhist character played by Alec Guinness. It is a moment of reverence, and nobility, when we really think the brotherhood of man is possible. Gertrude Berg would be playing herself. Rosalind Russell morphs into a symbol.
At this point, one must obviously note the casting of a white Englishman to play the Japanese character. Here, ironically, we don’t have as much as stretch from the stage version—we may smile that Sir Cedric Hardwicke played the Japanese gentleman on stage.
Sir Alec Guinness plays his role with subtle grace, an economy of movement, and if you do not believe he is really Japanese, that is not the point. He is, like Rosalind Russell, a symbol, an allegory like the tale he tells of the ancient emperor and his commoner bride.
Here is a clip from a Japanese production of the stage musical Fiddler on the Roof. A Japanese actor playing Tevye sings "If I Were a Rich Man" in Japanese.
Brotherhood of man, folks. Just go with it.
Rosalind Russell is a triumph in this role, but her acting career was growing short largely because of an event that occurred around the time just before this film was made. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, and underwent a double mastectomy. She did not make this public at the time, as it would have probably ended her career right there. The early 1960s was truly a different world, where celebrities did not share this kind of news. She was in her early fifties when she starred in A Majority of One. In a remarkable feat of body and soul, she continued to perform sporadically through the 1960s, albeit with discomfort, and she was given another 15 years of life before the cancer returned, metastasized, and killed her.We eventually lose our most sparkling diamonds, but they cast a light that lives forever.
A blessed Palm Sunday, Easter, and Passover to those who keep these traditions. Kanpai! (As Sir Alec and Rosalind say when they toast each other in Japanese.)
**********************Come back this coming Thursday when our Year of Ann Blyth resumes with a special post for Easter.
**********************In response to the number of kind people who've requested print copies of my eBook Classic Films and the American Conscience, which is a collection of essays from this blog -- I still can't print that book because you wouldn't be able to lift it, and I couldn't afford to print it. BUT, I'm putting out a new, smaller, collection of essays, some old, some new, from this blog titled Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mimics and Mirrors the 20th Century. It will be issued in eBook as well as print, and I'll let you know more about it down the road. I hope to have it published sometime in May.