Sunday, May 3, 2009

“I can…and I do…”

(Warning: This review gives away the ending of the film.)

I’ve been giddy as a schoolgirl with some of the film choices that have been a-croppin’ up on Turner Classic Movies of late, and I can’t think of a better movie to offer up as an example than One Potato, Two Potato (1964)—a positively first-rate independent film that stars character actress Barbara Barrie (best-known for regular appearances in TV series like Barney Miller, Double Trouble and Suddenly Susan) as a divorcée whose custody of her six-year-old child (Marti Merecka) is jeopardized by her second marriage to a black man, played by the late Bernie Hamilton. Produced at a time when many states still had miscegenation laws on the books, Potato offers a poignant and often searing examination of a family destined to be unfairly ripped apart by racial prejudice.

The film begins in a courthouse; Julie Cullen Richards (Barrie) is being sued by her ex-husband Joe (Richard Mulligan, in an amazing non-comedic performance) for sole custody of their daughter Ellen. Cullen pretty much abandoned his wife and daughter traipsing off to South America in search of a better job, and though he did send letters and money back home to his family they eventually tapered off, giving Julie no other choice but to divorce him. She relocates to a small town in Ohio and gets a job as a payroll clerk, and her friendship with an engaged couple (Anthony Spinelli, Faith Burwell) results in her meeting Frank Richards (Hamilton)—a black man whose relationship with Julie gets very serious. The two decide to marry—despite protests from his father (Robert Earl Jones, father of James) and mother (Vinnette Carroll)—and their union produces a baby boy that soon melts even the stone-cold heart of his grandfather.

Meanwhile, Joe has returned to the states and in asking around, locates where Julie and Ellen now live—his reunion with Ellen gets off to a shaky start, particularly since she has no recollection of her father. But when Joe learns of Julie’s second marriage—and to a black man, yet—his racist rage begins to bubble up inside and eat at him like acid, prompting him to institute the custody proceedings. Julie visits her ex in an effort to get him to change his mind, but ends up having to fend off his amorous advances for her trouble. Returning home, Frank learns what Joe did and is helplessly paralyzed by the fact that he can do nothing to protect or defend his wife; remarking that if he were a white man he could shoot Joe down like a dog and no jury would ever convict him (“Hell, they might even give me a medal,” he remarks.). The beauty of Hamilton’s performance is that he can find no outlet to express his frustration and rage; he’s reduced to sitting in his car at a drive-in and cheering on an Indian to kill a white Cavalry officer while watching a B-Western.

One Potato, Two Potato was written by Orville H. Hampton and Raphael Hayes, whose original screenplay would (sadly) be the only Oscar nomination the film would receive (Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen). It is criminal that none of the film’s actors received nods—Barrie in particular, whose role as the mother is one of the strongest female characters I’ve ever seen onscreen. She’s got plenty of gumption and is determined to keep her child; she’s not afraid to challenge her bullying ex-husband when he argues that it’s his right to have sole custody, as he’s Ellen’s biological father. Without taking time to draw a breath she points out to him that his decision to leave them both was a tacit admission he was nothing but a dreamer and he couldn’t cut it (which enrages Joe, particularly when he knows that Frank—a man he feels is his inferior—is a far better father than he can hope to be). Only when the case is decided at the film’s conclusion do we see Julie “give up”; exhausted by the toll taken on her by the messy legal fight, she is helpless to do anything but collapse on the steps of the courthouse and strike out at Frank with ineffectual punches to his body. Fortunately, the organizers of the Cannes Festival in 1964 were bright enough to see an incredible performance far more than the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences and bestowed upon Barrie their Best Actress award. (Potato’s director, Larry Peerce, was nominated for the Golden Palm—even his subsequent cinematic output [with the exception of 1967’s The Incident] never quite measured up to his debut.)

While Barrie, Hamilton and Mulligan are the players to watch here I was also impressed with character favorite Harry Bellaver, an actor I’ve seen in far too many movies to count (The House on 92nd Street [1945], No Way Out [1950], The Lemon Drop Kid [1951], etc.) but for some reason always takes up space in the recesses of my brain for his role as Detective Frank Arcaro on the classic TV crime-drama Naked City (1958-63). Bellaver plays the presiding judge in the case, and there’s a marvelous scene between him and young Ellen in which he questions the young girl about her home life in an effort to shine some light on the delicate situation. When he asks her if she realizes that her brother William (named after his grandfather) is different, she guilelessly replies: “Of course he’s different—he’s a boy.” His session with the girl doesn’t help with his decision—and in his final statements, he states that even though his investigation has shown him that Julie and Frank have gone above and beyond the call of providing a proper home and parenting, he rules in favor of Joe and awards him sole custody. I love the ambiguity Bellaver’s character presents here—he angrily slams down his gavel after issuing his edict, and even though one wonders if he made the decision due to his own personal prejudices (his thick Southern accent is a bit of a giveaway) one can’t help but sense his frustration in having to decide the way he did because of the outside pressures of a still unaccepting society.

One Potato, Two Potato is not a movie that wraps everything up nice and neat with a pretty pink bow, so if you don’t care for films with unhappy endings you’re going to want to avoid this one like Swine flu. At the conclusion, Julie is packing Ellen’s clothes and other essentials in a suitcase when she sees Joe pull up in a cab. Frank goes outside and rebuffs Joe’s clearly insincere apologies for the ugliness generated by the lawsuit, and Julie escorts Ellen out the front door so that she may depart with her father. She explains to Joe that she will make arrangements to send Ellen’s bigger things (toys, etc.) on when he’s gotten settled and is interrupted when Ellen asks: “Aren’t I coming back?” Julie attempts to explain the delicacy of the situation to her child, but Ellen is unable to interpret her living arrangements in any other fashion than as some sort of punishment—and she pleads with her mother to let her stay (“I’ll be a good girl from now on,” she plaintively wails). She then lashes out at her mother in anger, constantly hitting her because she simply cannot understand.

The pain depicted in this scene is simply indescribable; the phrase “heart-wrenching” can’t do it justice because it’s more like “grabbing my intestines and ripping them out in order to play jump-rope.” The fact that the young actress playing Ellen isn’t one of those sickeningly-sweet Hollywood-processed child prodigies helps immeasurably (Potato, according to the IMDb, was Merecka’s only film role). The cab pulls away, with a tearful child tearfully beseeching her mother to let her stay and promising to “be good”…and the only course of action available to Julie is to run after the taxi in utter futility until it disappears in a cloud of dust.


Campaspe said...

HOLY COW Ivan, I have linked to this because I had seen this movie, cried BUCKETS over it (I was probably about 12 years old) and thereafter could not recall the title. Although I frankly didn't try to find out because it traumatized me so. Still, I would recall it from time to time and wonder what I had seen. God, that little girl's wail at the end is still in my head. Just reading your post made me have to go off for a good toddler cuddle.

While I don't want to relive the trauma, I thank you for clearing up the mystery for me. I also hope some people find their way to seeing this because the movie is too good to languish in obscurity.

Vanwall said...

Fantastic rundown on a heartbreaker film - Not easy viewing at all. There's a kind of amazement I get knowing when this film was made - guts and smarts like this are sadly lacking today.

Jeff said...

The only thing I'd add…to my mind, Barbara Barrie is best known as the wife and mother, of Paul Dooley and Dennis Christopher, all great, inJeff Breaking Away.