(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 (
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
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—
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 , No Way Out , The Lemon Drop Kid , 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.