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One Potato, Two Potato
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,One Potato, Two Potato

One Potato, Two Potato

In 1964, Larry Peerce directed a low-budget independent production about the social impact of an interracial marriage in America's Heartland. Titled One Potato, Two Potato, after the children's counting game, the film was released the same year that Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, a network of Civil Rights groups launched a program to register voters in Mississippi, and Martin Luther King won the Nobel Prize. It was also the year that three Civil Rights volunteers, James E. Cheney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, were kidnapped and brutally murdered by the Klan in Mississippi. The film's storyline is powerful not only for progressively depicting an interracial marriage but also for showing the effect of the relationship on a society who is really only as progressive as its most backward-thinking members.

Barbara Barrie and Bernie Hamilton star as Julie Cullen and Frank Richards, two coworkers who fall in love over the course of time in a small northeastern Ohio town, identified as Howard in the film. Despite the objections of Frank's parents and the prejudices of Julie's friends, the couple marries. Julie and her daughter from a previous marriage, Ellen Mary, move to the Richards homestead, where Frank's parents farm the land. After Julie and Frank have a child of their own, his parents warm up to their new extended family. The isolation of the farm from the main center of town gives the Richards family a measure of peace, while Ellen Mary thrives in the open air of the country and experiences no problems at the local school, which is integrated. In the scene in which a judge visits Ellen Mary at school, the girl is having fun with her play group, which includes an African American girl. The fun and games echo the film's opening scene showing the local children playing "One Potato, Two Potato," subtly reminding viewers that kids don't have the level of prejudice that adults do. Racism is not inherent in children; it's a learned behavior.

The tragedy of such behavior becomes evident when Julie's self-centered husband returns to the area. Joe Cullen had deserted his wife and daughter to fend for themselves in order to pursue an exciting career opportunity in South America because he wanted a life with more adventure. Upon his return, he discovers his ex-wife has married a "Negro," and he files for custody of his daughter. Though he seems to care about Ellen Mary, the immature and irresponsible Cullen acts abhorrently toward Julie and clearly reveals his lack of fitness as a parent. However, when the judge makes his decision in the case, he considers the state of society regarding race, and he believes that Ellen Mary will suffer too much from social prejudices. The judge's decision and the conclusion of the film shocked audiences and critics at the time, who were torn over the effectiveness of such an ending.

One Potato, Two Potato was independently made outside of the Hollywood studio system, which means it was outside the confines of Hollywood production conventions and practices. The film's location shooting in northeastern Ohio and performances by actors who lacked the glamour and superficial attractiveness of movie stars result in a realism that is the film's greatest strength. The production's low-budget characteristics – location shooting, unknown actors, natural lighting, and documentary-like black-and-white cinematography – actually service the material, rather than detract from it.

Much of the film was shot in real locations in Painesville, Ohio, a working-class town in the northeastern part of the state roughly 30 miles from Cleveland. While Julie and Frank are getting to know each other, they stroll around the town's main streets, passing by actual local businesses, including small appliance stores, a Hallmark Cards shop, and tiny dress shops. The couple bumps into each other at a movie at the town's only movie palace located near town's center. Later, when they realize they are in love, they giddily "play" in the local park, which looks inviting even at night. The street that Julie lives on features wooden-frame houses with small front porches on the side closest to the driveways– a typical housing style for the area. Children are depicted taking recess on the playground of an actual grade school made of brick. When Frank and Julie attend the wedding of two coworkers, polka music is played at the wedding reception by a local Ohio band. The greater Cleveland area was home to a large population of Hungarian and Polish immigrants, and Northeastern Ohio was famous for its polka music during the 1960s.

Screenwriters Orville H. Hampton and Raphael Hayes and director Larry Peerce take great care in the first part of One Potato, Two Potato to set up the appeal of the simple life in the Heartland. Yet, the film's unglamorous black-and-white cinematography and the down-to-earth characterizations prevent the depiction from being sentimental or nostalgic; it's the very ordinariness of the lifestyle that is truly idyllic, particularly during the prosperity of the 1960s. It's the authenticity of time and place that bring out the inherent tragedy of the story.

In the beginning, Frank and Julie fit into Howard, Ohio, just like the other residents with whom they interact, and are part of the pleasures and routines of small-town life. However, after they become a couple and marry, they are no longer "ordinary" by the social standards of that time and place; the simple pleasures are denied to them, and their life is anything but routine as they become victims of racial prejudice. Scenes in the second half of the film echo those in the first half but with a different end result and tone. In contrast to the pleasant evening stroll through Julie's neighborhood in the first half of the film, a second, similar scene results in a humiliating encounter with a policeman. As Julie and Frank walk together, the policeman shines his search light on them, a visual metaphor for the harsh light of reality. He assumes Julie is a prostitute because she is acting so cozy with a black man. In addition, the coworkers with whom Julie and Frank carpool and befriend become cool and distant after the marriage. The dialogue among the four is so natural and honest in the beginning of the film that their everyday banter seems almost banal until their awkward conversation in a post-marriage scene reveals that the ease with which they interacted previously has disappeared. Early in the film, when Frank and Julie are merely friends, they see the same movie and then discuss it intelligently afterward; in the second half of the film, an angry, emotional Frank ends up at the drive-in by himself. As he watches a western in which the Indians and the cavalry fight it out, he yells uncontrollably at the Indians to "kill the white bastards."

The outburst is shocking, particularly coming from mild-mannered Frank, but also understandable. And, it serves as a warning about the inevitable outcome of pent-up rage caused by one injustice after another. One Potato, Two Potato does not shy away from depicting difficult situations that occur because of interracial marriage, and it does so directly and without sentiment. When Frank's father learns that his son is in love with a white woman, he bluntly declares, "You ain't marrying no damn white woman. You're sticking to your own kind," with Frank yelling back, "Pop, you're talking like an Uncle Tom."

None of the actors were glamorous film or television stars, adding to the authenticity of the characters, yet all of them gave stellar performances. Bernie Hamilton displayed a range of emotions as Frank, from a well-mannered would-be suitor to an angry, bitter husband who must hold back his frustrations after his wife is assaulted by her former husband lest he ruin their chances in the custody case. Hamilton, best known as gruff Lieutenant Dobey on Starsky and Hutch, spent the rest of his career splitting his time acting for television and producing albums of soul music and rhythm and blues. Barbara Barrie, whose everyday attractiveness relegated her to character roles in Hollywood, won an acting award at the 1964 Cannes International Film Festival for her performance as Julie Cullen Richards. Most notably, Robert Earl Jones, the father of James Earl Jones, lent the character of William Richards a dignity and sympathy needed to make his character likable during the tough scenes with son Frank. Jones's acting career represented an alternative to the stereotyped roles handed down to African Americans during the Golden Age. During his lengthy career, Jones worked on the stage, starred in Lying Lips in 1939 for independent African American director Oscar Micheaux, and then landed small roles in major films in the contemporary era. He was in Wild River for Elia Kazan in 1960, The Sting for George Roy Hill in 1973, The Cotton Club for Francis Coppola in 1984, and Witness for Peter Weir in 1985, among others.

One Potato, Two Potato still packs a punch, thanks in part to the low-budget realism, and stands in stark contrast to the style of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), which was Hollywood's attempt to deal with racial issues released three years later. Starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, with Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton, the film exhibits the big-budget slickness of a studio production. Though directed by Stanley Kramer, who was well known for his social dramas, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner never strays into uncomfortable territory in its scenes and dialogue, opting for an optimistic tone and a happy ending. As such, it lacks the effectiveness and emotional resonance of One Potato, Two Potato.

Producer: Sam Weston
Director: Larry Peerce
Screenplay: Orville H. Hampton and Raphael Hayes
Cinematography: Andrew Laszlo
Music: Gerald Fried
Editor: Robert Fritch
Cast: Julie Cullen Richards (Barbara Barrie), Frank Richards (Bernie Hamilton), Joe Cullen (Richard Mulligan), William Richards (Robert Earl Jones), Martha Richards (Vinnette Carroll), Ellen Mary (Marti Mericka), Johnny Hruska (Sam Weston), Ann Hruska (Faith Burwell), Minister (Jack Stamberger), Jordan Hollis (Michael Shane).
BW-92m.

by Susan Doll

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