Although less well known today than Stanley Kramer’s Oscar-nominated 1967 drama, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, and still unavailable on DVD/Blu-Ray, One Potato, Two Potato (1964) was the first serious, non-exploitive attempt to deal with an interracial marriage as its main subject and was independently produced outside Hollywood. Set in the fictional small town of Howard (a stand-in for Painesville, Ohio, where it was actually filmed), the movie is bookended by a courtroom ruling on a child custody case and in between is the sad but all too true story of an interracial couple who become social outcasts in both the white and black communities.
Julie (Barbara Barrie), a white divorcee with a daughter, and Frank (Bernie Hamilton), the son of a Black farmer, meet at work and a romantic relationship blossoms. For its time, released just a few weeks after the passing of the Civil Rights Act by the Supreme Court, it was a brave and unconventional film…and it still holds up remarkably well today as a portrait of two lonely, working class people living in ordinary circumstances in small town America. Yet, at the time, the filmmakers – director Larry Peerce, producers Stephen Shalom and Anthony Spinelli (who has a small part in the movie) – had difficulties finding an American distributor and the movie ended up being picked up by Cinema V, a small New York City outfit that specialized in art house fare. Despite the fact that One Potato, Two Potato has an emotionally engaging storyline, the topic of interracial romance was enough to keep it out of mainstream cinemas in 1964, especially in the South. So, it’s not surprising that it was handled as an art film with modest distribution in urban areas across the country. At least some critics recognized its considerable merits and at the Cannes Film Festival Larry Peerce was nominated for the Golden Palm and Barbara Barrie walked off with the Best Actress award.
In the U.S. One Potato, Two Potato did garner one Oscar nomination for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay (by Orville H. Hampton and Raphael Hayes) but neither Barrie nor Bernie Hamilton, who are both superb in the film, were recognized by the Academy for their performances. In fact, the entire film is an actor’s showcase right down to the minor players. Even screen newcomer Marti Mericka (this would be her only film) is natural and unaffected as Ellen, the child who becomes the pawn in an ugly custody battle.
If there is a weak link in the movie, it’s Richard Mulligan as Joe, Barrie’s former husband who abandoned her and their child to travel to South America for a life of adventure with no adult responsibilities. Mulligan (brother of director Robert Mulligan) got his start as a stage actor and established a considerable reputation on Broadway before moving into television and film. Perhaps because of that, his performance seems too broadly theatrical for this film’s naturalistic approach. It also doesn’t help that his character as written is completely unsympathetic; his self-loathing and sense of failure as a man and a father is what drives him to destroy the happiness of his former wife.
The other common criticism – and this is totally a matter of perception for some viewers – is a sequence in the film that occurs just after Frank and Julie are shown embracing for the first time after a friend’s wedding celebration; they become giddy with happiness and hopscotch down a sidewalk in a deserted park as if reverting to childhood. While the sequence may be cringe-inducing to some, it also captures that moment in the first blush of romance when the masks are removed and two lovers feel completely free to express themselves openly, without any concerns of how others might perceive them.
Watching One Potato, Two Potato today one is struck by the film’s simplicity and directness. Hardly a line of dialogue rings false and there are many moments that strike a deep emotional chord without resorting to sentimentality or melodrama. Take, for example, this exchange between Frank and his parents (played by Robert Earl Jones and Vinnette Carroll) over his relationship with Julie that reflects attitudes about segregation of the races that are ingrained at an early age and still prevalent today.
Father: You’re running around with a white woman.
Frank. [no reply]
Father: I asked you something. Are you gonna answer me?
Frank: It’s true but I don’t see the difference it makes. Pop, we’re in love. Just like you and mom. We’re in love and we want to get married. What difference does it make whether she’s black, white, purple or green?
Father: You ain’t marrying no damn white woman. You’re sticking to your own kind.
Frank: Pop, you’re talking like an Uncle Tom.
Father: [slaps him] I tell ya what I’m gonna talk like. A Farmer. A Black farmer. I got land and I’ve worked hard so my family could grow up like they’re alive. Don’t you go calling me names for sweating my life away, taking care of you. For the love of God, you went to school with white people. You go to work with them. Look what it’s done to you. Did it put your brains to sleep? Make you forget the facts of life? They’re nice to you. They’re polite to you. But you still have only one place to go and that’s with your own kind.
Mother: Both of you are going to be outcasts.
Father: And children. What are you going to do about children? What are they going to be – black or white?
Mother: Frank, if you love that girl, you’ll be doing her a kindness if you leave her alone. Frank, life’s got more misery than joy in it. Colored boy, he’s got the most misery of all.
Even in the more lyrical moments of One Potato, Two Potato as Julie and Frank begin falling in love, the harsh realities of the current social order intrude. While walking home together at night after a date, the couple are subjected to a blinding search light by a bigoted cop who gives them the third degree, addressing only Julie.
Cop: What are you doing here? This isn’t a hotel, sister
Frank: [in disbelief] What?
Cop: Beat it. Take your customer out of here.
Frank: [belligerent] You can’t talk to her like that.
Cop: You heard me. MOVE.
Immediately following this harsh treatment Frank struggles with his rage but, unexpectedly, Julie turns the situation around, making light of a humiliating situation.
Frank: The only reason he said what he did is because you’re with me.
Barrie: What a thing to say.
Frank: You have to be a prostitute to be with me.
Barrie: [She laughs]
Frank: What’s the joke?
Barrie: Me? A Prostitute? I am afraid of my own shadow. Don’t you think it’s funny? Now look at me. Don’t you think it’s funny?
Frank: Yeah, it’s pretty funny.
The delicate switch between potentially explosive emotions and self-irony is prevalent throughout the film; even the loathsome Joe is allowed his moment of truth in an unguarded explanation to Julie about his behavior during a boarding house visit.
Probably the biggest surprise of One Potato, Two Potato is the realization that the two screenwriters Orville H. Hampton and Raphael Hayes were not normally associated with this sort of grass roots, independent filmmaking. Hayes was primarily a television writer who worked on everything from Ben Casey to Rawhide to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and had only a few film credits to his name such as The Three Stooges’ romp Have Rocket, Will Travel (1959) and Hey Boy! Hey Girl! (1959), a Louis Prima-Keely Smith B-musical.
Hampton, on the other hand, had toiled for years in the B-movie industry on such films as Hong Kong Confidential (1958), The Alligator People (1959), and Jack the Giant Killer (1962). Despite being nominated for Oscars for their work on One Potato, Two Potato, however, both writers never again achieved anything as impressive as this, unless you count Hampton’s scripts for Riot on Sunset Strip (1967) or the Pam Greer actioner Friday Foster (1975) – which are impressive on an entirely different level.
Overall, there is an unadorned, honest, almost improvisational quality about One Potato, Two Potato that is often lacking in the more commercial Hollywood releases of its era. It would take three more years before Hollywood would tackle interracial marriage in the big budget, all-star Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? in which John, Sidney Poitier’s character, is practically superhuman. Unlike Hamilton’s humble, working class protagonist in One Potato, John is a highly successful, wealthy and a much admired expert in the medical field. In order to make Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? viable as an acceptable entertainment for Middle America, director/producer Stanley Kramer had to make Poitier’s character so flawless and attractive that a match between him and a Caucasian (Katharine Houghton, the niece of Katharine Hepburn) wouldn’t seem so inconceivable or objectionable.
While Kramer certainly deserves credit for making films about controversial subjects that reached large audiences – racial prejudice in Home of the Brave (1949) and The Defiant Ones (1958), nuclear war in On the Beach (1959), Creationism vs. Darwinism in Inherit the Wind (1960), war crimes in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) – his approach often had the effect of an earnest polemic served up in a slick, entertainment package with top Hollywood stars. In contrast, One Potato, Two Potato may seem drab and low key in terms of production values but it’s also much more likely to move you with its intimate depiction of a couple on trial by society.
It’s also interesting to note that 1963-64 was the same time period for these independent film releases: Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World, Michael Roemer’s Nothing But a Man and Black Like Me, based on the non-fiction account of John Howard Griffin, a white man who medically altered his skin color and passed as Black. The Cool World, based on Warren Miller’s novel about a Harlem youth who rises to power as a gang leader, was the most experimental and edgy of the three films and also the one that saw few theatrical playdates outside of a few major U.S. cities.
Nothing But a Man, a slice of life drama set in the South with Ivan Dixon as a man facing economic hardships and commitment issues, is another eloquent but often overlooked film from the period, that received as many accolades as One Potato, Two Potato and some critics rate it even higher. Only Black Like Me, which starred James Whitmore as John Howard Griffin, failed to resonate with its intended audience for fairly obvious reasons.
After One Potato, Two Potato, his debut film, Larry Peerce went on to two other impressive projects – one being The Big T.N.T. Show (1966), an amazing time capsule concert record of such performers as Ray Charles, The Byrds, Donovan, Bo Diddley, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Joan Baez and Petulia Clark. The other was The Incident (1967), a harrowing, still powerful drama about a group of subway passengers terrorized by two hoodlums with effectively creepy performances by Tony Musante and Martin Sheen as the tormentors.
Peerce’s big commercial breakthrough was Goodbye Columbia (1969), a romantic comedy starring Richard Benjamin and Ali McGraw (in her first major role), based on the Philip Roth novel. After that, however, Peerce never again worked on anything as intimate or as affecting as One Potato, Two Potato, even though many of his later films had great potential but yielded uneven results such as The Bell Jar (1979), a dramatization of Sylvia Plath’s novel starring Peerce’s wife, Marilyn Hassett, or Love Child (1982), a well-intentioned drama about a female prisoner (Amy Madigan) made pregnant by her jailer and her subsequent fight to keep her child.
As for the actors, One Potato, Two Potato might be Bernie Hamilton’s finest hour though he is probably best known for his role as Capt. Harold Dobey on the TV series Starsky and Hutch. The brother of jazz musician Chico Hamilton, Bernie’s first film was The Jackie Robinson Story and he provided memorable support in such films as Luis Bunuel’s The Young One (1960), Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1960), Synanon (1965) and The Swimmer (1968). He was rarely given leading roles or even prominent supporting ones but at least he managed to avoid stereotyping most of his career and One Potato, Two Potato proved that he was a superb actor (he died in December of 2008). Donald Bogle in his definitive history of blacks in the cinema, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, wrote, “Here in One Potato, Two Potato, he [Hamilton] presented a portrait of a decent and intelligent black man without glamorizing or idealizing the character.”
Barbara Barrie, in the female lead, deserved the Best Actress award she won at Cannes and went on to enjoy further critical acclaim for numerous roles in TV dramas, series and feature films such as Breaking Away (1979), in which she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar and later played the same role in the TV show. Barrie is still a working actress today as well as the author of two critically acclaimed books for young adults – “Lone Star” (1989) and “Adam Zigzag” (1995).
One last comment and a spoiler alert: Some contemporary critics have criticized the film for the ending which they felt was unrealistic and manipulative. It’s true the climax is still powerful, even shocking, as Julie’s child turns on her in a blind rage, striking her repeatedly when she realizes she’s being sent away forever to live with her real father, a man she hardly knows. But the facts bare this out as an on-screen acknowledgement after “The End” states that the movie was based on a composite of similar custody cases. The real issue for the judge was this: who would make a better provider for the child – a white man or a black man? And in 1964, career opportunities for black men (especially one with a white wife) were limited to say the least. It wasn’t really about who could provide a more loving, supportive environment at home. No wonder this film really got under the skin of some reviewers at the time who couldn’t accept the downbeat ending.
Judith Crist, in her review of One Potato, Two Potato in the New York Herald Tribune, is a prime example of this, writing that after creating “an interracial romance and marriage that is believable and touching – the movie’s makers begin a slow but savage assault upon our emotions, leaving us finally with heartstrings wrenched and tears flowing for the wrong reason – not because of social injustice to the Negro but because of the heartbreak of a little girl being taken away from her mommy.”
Variety was more generous in its acclaim and proclaimed the movie, “a tender, tactful look at miscegenation that speaks in human rather than polemic terms,” while adding that “Director Larry Peerce, for his first pic, has wisely told his story without many heavy symbolical and overdramatic embellishments.” On the other hand, A.H. Weiler of The New York Times, pointed out the film’s virtues and faults, “…in filming their sad tale in the small, well-kept confines of Painesville, Ohio, the producers have enhanced the documentary quality of their drama….One Potato, Two Potato” is woefully loose in conviction and reasoning. It does not soar on wings of artistry in keeping with its strong subject. But it speaks out resolutely on a generally shunned social theme that is a credit to the courage of its producers and the team that made it.”
While One Potato, Two Potato might not qualify as a masterpiece, it still remains relevant and well worth seeing almost fifty years later. Until it gets an official release on DVD/Blu-Ray, you might check to see if it is scheduled for broadcast on Turner Classic Movies where it has previously aired.
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