Over the weekend, I stumbled across a quiet little movie from 1961 called A MAJORITY OF ONE. Starring Rosalind Russell and Alec Guinness, it deals with cultural and generational differences as a Jewish woman and a Japanese man develop a friendship.
Russell built much of her film career on roles where women broke the mold in some way, either by pursuing a profession (such as the reporter Tildy in HIS GIRL FRIDAY) or by being a free thinker in an era of rigid conformity (as Auntie Mame). In A MAJORITY OF ONE, she plays an older widow, a Russian-Jew that immigrated to America as a child and has spent her life in Brooklyn. Her only son died in WWII’s Pacific theater, and her daughter is now married to an up-and-coming young diplomat. When her son-in-law is posted to Japan, Bertha is persuaded to go there with the young couple. During the ship’s crossing, she meets a Japanese man–a widower whose son also died in WWII and his daughter, a nurse, died in a Hiroshima hospital. Despite a rocky start, Bertha and Mr. Asano overcome misunderstandings, bigotry, and wrong advice from her daughter to establish a friendship.
This is a gentle story, with a message against bigotry that’s in favor of keeping an open mind and relating to people as people and not common stereotypes. I think it’s remarkable to find a film dealing with an older couple just as the Hollywood studio system was crumbling and the industry’s focus shifted toward youth.
I was struck most by the courtesy reflected in the film. Even Bertha and her best friend Essie are unfailingly polite to each other. While that was common at the time, it reflects a layer of civility that we seldom encounter now. We are too casual for such formalities. We are too busy, too rushed, to take the time to compliment the ice bucket a friend is loaning us for the little dinner party we’re giving.
Of course, the film’s stance against bigotry is undercut by the fact that Alec Guinness was cast as a Japanese man. Modern critics, quick to decry the practice of yellowface casting, point out that the choice of Guinness (never mind how good he is) is itself an act of Hollywood bigotry.
So I thought about that issue. The character Charlie Chan, created in the novels by Earl Derr Biggers and appearing on film for the first time in 1931, was designed to present the American moviegoers with a positive Chinese character to balance the portrayal of all Chinese men as an evil Fu Manchu. The role of Chan was played by three successive Caucasian actors–first by the Swedish actor Warner Oland (considered the best)–then by Sidney Toler, and finally by Roland Winters. Interestingly enough, Chan’s sons were played by Asian actors.
As for novelist Pearl S. Buck, she insisted that the film version of her book, THE GOOD EARTH, be played by Asian or Asian-American actors, but Hollywood could not deliver. Instead, big star Paul Muni was cast in the leading role. Who would play his wife, O-lan? Anna May Wong, the first Chinese star on the big screen and a strikingly beautiful actress who had started her film career in 1922, lobbied hard for the role. However, the Hays Code of censorship’s rules forbade her casting. Muni (being white) had to be cast with a white wife. Therefore, German-born actress Luise Rainer was given the role, and she played it exquisitely. Anna May Wong was offered instead the role of an evil dragon lady in the movie, but she turned it down because she didn’t want the only authentic Asian actress in the movie to play a villain.
In the 1932 film SHANGHAI EXPRESS, staring Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong plays a very strong supporting role in a film about prostitutes–both Asian and Caucasian–and manages to steal at least part of the movie away from Dietrich. But her role is secondary, not a lead part.
THE DRAGON SEED of 1944 improbably features Katharine Hepburn and Turhan Bey as an Asian couple. And in 1946, Rex Harrison was cast as the king in ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM opposite Irene Dunne. An even bigger stretch of the imagination is Lee J. Cobb playing the Siamese prime minister in THE KING AND I with Yul Brynner. No amount of squinting and heavy eye makeup could make Cobb look Asian.
But I think the worst offense among all yellowface casting has to be the choice of John Wayne as Genghis Khan in the 1956 flop, THE CONQUEROR. Suffice it to say that this film is listed among the fifty worst movies ever made.
Hollywood did not set out to be bigoted. It did not intend to offend. It has always been driven by economics, and although in the 1920s Asian actors were sometimes utilized in major roles, the films that succeeded featured white actors as the leads. And so to guarantee box-office success, filmmakers moved Asian actors to supportive and minor parts with white stars playing the starring roles.
As for Alec Guinness, who spent six months in Japan observing the culture in order to prepare for his role in A MAJORITY OF ONE, is he to be blamed for taking the part of Mr. Asano?
Is Rosalind Russell to be criticized for playing a Jewess when that was not her actual religion?
If we can’t accept that–because it isn’t authentic–where is the justification for the producers of the BBC television program MERLIN to use a rainbow cast including blacks and Asian actors to play pre-medieval British roles? That’s hardly authentic either.
All I know is that–issues aside–A MAJORITY OF ONE remains a charming film that requires you to use your imagination and accept the casting. Just as you have to use your imagination and accept that Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon could not even remotely pass themselves off as women in SOME LIKE IT HOT.
It’s called “make-believe.” And while that doesn’t excuse the bigotry shown in a film thematically opposed to bigotry, at least the play ran and the movie was made and audiences were exposed to its message.
Give A MAJORITY OF ONE a chance. It has sweet things to say about how far kindness, honesty, good manners, and an open mind can take you.