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A Majority of One (1961) is a touching and mature love story that crosses cultural boundaries when an unlikely middle aged pair meet and fall in love. Mrs. Jacoby (Rosalind Russell), a Jewish widow from Brooklyn, has lost her only son in battle during World War II. She reluctantly agrees to travel to Japan at the behest of her daughter, even though she holds the country responsible for her son's death. Along the way she meets the intriguing Mr. Asano (Alec Guinness), a Japanese businessman who is also a widower. The two feel an immediate attraction to each another, but fear, anger, and doubt cast a giant shadow over their blossoming love.
A Majority of One was based on the hit stage play of the same name by Leonard Spigelgass. The play, directed by Dore Schary, ran for 556 performances and starred Gertrude Berg and Cedric Hardwicke in the roles of the mismatched lovers. Berg, beloved for her work on the radio and television versions of The Goldbergs, scored a triumph on Broadway in her role as Mrs. Jacoby and went on to win the Tony award for Best Actress.
Gertrude Berg was so identified with the role that when Jack Warner at Warner Bros. asked Rosalind Russell to star in the film version, Russell was shocked. "You've been drinking," she told Warner according to her 1977 autobiography Life Is a Banquet. "What would I be doing playing this Jewish lady from Brooklyn? I'm a little Irish girl from Waterbury, Connecticut. Use Gertrude Berg, it's her part," she said.
"We'll never use Gertrude Berg," replied Warner. "She made a picture over at Paramount years ago, and it was a disaster."
"But that has nothing to do with this," said Russell. "You'd be crazy to put me in that part, and I'd be crazy to take it."
However, when Jack Warner suggested that she could possibly co-star with Sir Alec Guinness, Russell reconsidered. "Well, that's another cup of chicken soup," she told him. "I'll think about that little item."
Russell called Alec Guinness in London to gauge his interest in appearing with her in A Majority of One. "I want the dollars," he told her, "so if you'll do it, I'll do it."
To that Russell replied, "I want to work with you, so if you'll do it, I'll do it."
With that mutual agreement, A Majority of One went into production with Mervyn LeRoy (Mister Roberts ) in the director's chair.
In order to prepare for his role as a Japanese businessman, Alec Guinness convinced Warner Bros. to send him to Japan for ten days prior to filming. In Japan, Guinness had a crash course in Japanese culture. He studied and absorbed everything he could about the Japanese people and customs in order to make his transformation as authentic as possible.
When he returned to Hollywood to make the film, Guinness had to employ heavy makeup in his attempt to look Japanese. While nature prevented him from looking 100% authentic, Guinness still committed himself to the role and gave it his all. "It was enthralling to see him in action," said Rosalind Russell in her autobiography. "He worked like a precision watch. If he did a scene twenty times, he'd be the same twenty times. He admitted that he practiced in front of a mirror. His style, slightly peculiar, rather remote, totally cerebral, fascinated me." While Guinness enjoyed working with Russell, he was reportedly unhappy with Mervyn LeRoy as director. "It's the worst directed film I've ever been in," Guinness reportedly wrote to his wife Merula, "and Mervyn doesn't know it."
Despite Guinness's misgivings, A Majority of One received its fair share of positive notices. "Leonard Spigelgass' adaptation of his hit play is the beneficiary of a small miracle in the casting of Rosalind Russell in the central role of the Jewish widow from Brooklyn whose homely wisdom proves to be as effective in Tokyo as it is on Nostrand Avenue," said the New York Times. "As a result, this comedy blend of specialized, local middle class mores and humor and Nipponese formality becomes a wholly acceptable, truly heartwarming and entertaining affair despite its exotic ingredients." Variety said, "Leonard Spigelgass' brew of schmaltz and sukiyaki is an outstanding film...Beautifully mounted and especially notable for the exciting results obtained by some bold, strikingly unconventional casting...Furthermore, this is a choice and unusually substantial family attraction, with a penetrating scrutiny of deeply ingrained passive prejudice."
A Majority of One is a true hidden gem with warmth, humor and a message of tolerance and compassion that remains just as relevant today as it was in 1961. Harry Stradling received an Academy Award nomination for his cinematography.
Producer: Mervyn LeRoy
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Leonard Spigelgass (screenplay and play)
Cinematography: Harry Stradling, Sr.
Art Direction: John Beckman
Music: Max Steiner
Film Editing: Philip W. Anderson
Cast: Rosalind Russell (Mrs. Jacoby), Alec Guinness (Koichi Asano), Ray Danton (Jerome Black), Madlyn Rhue (Alice Black), Mae Questal (Mrs. Rubin), Marc Marno (Eddie), Gary Vinson (Mr. McMillon), Sharon Hugueny (Bride), Frank Wilcox (Noah Putnam).
by Andrea Passafiume