Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5
USA, 1961. Mervyn LeRoy Productions Inc.. Screenplay by Leonard Spigelgass, based on his play. Cinematography by Harry Stradling Sr.. Produced by Mervyn LeRoy. Music by Max Steiner. Production Design by John Beckman. Costume Design by Orry-Kelly. Film Editing by Philip W. Anderson.
An examination of bigotry and prejudice takes centre stage in this often enjoyable romance based on the Tony-winning play of the same name by Leonard Spigelgass. Rosalind Russell isn’t exactly a natural fit to play a Brooklyn Jewish widow named Bertha, but she pumps enough warmth into her slightly ripe accent and mannerisms to win you over, a woman who is excited to welcome her daughter Alice (Madlyn Rhue) and son-in-law Jerry (Ray Danton) home from their diplomatic service in Costa Rica. They announce that Jerry has been promoted by the government and is being sent to serve at the American embassy in Tokyo, and they want Bertha to join them. She at first refuses, she has hated the Japanese since her son was killed during the Second World War, but she eventually relents at the prospect of being close to her daughter when it comes time for her to become a grandmother.
A flight takes them to the west coast where they board a steamer for Yokohama, and on the voyage Bertha meets Mr. Asano (Alec Guinness), a Japanese industrialist to whom she at first gives the cold shoulder, still holding an entire nation responsible for her own private sorrow, but then seeing a more common humanity with him when she learns of his own losses during the war and that neither of them, as common everyday people, are responsible for the world events that cost them so dear (it’s the most moving scene in the film, and it takes place in a corridor).
By the time they reach Japanese shores, the two have become good friends, there’s even a subtle hint of romance soon to bloom, but Jerry warns Bertha that his professional dealings with Asano are volatile and that she must cut off her friendship with him or else risk the future of US-Japanese relations. She agrees, but after a few days of boredom in her new Tokyo home, Bertha pays a visit to Asano to reconnect and maybe even help further his dealings with her son-in-law. Jerry and Alice, who entered the film announcing themselves anti-segregation, get antsy when Bertha tells them that she’s thinking of accepting Mr. Asano as a romantic prospect, and she reminds them of far she’s come (physically and philosophically) at their request and that they, as many of us hypocrites who speak more than we listen do, have not examined their own prejudices in the meantime.
Underwhelming as both melodrama and comedy, this film could get away with being mildly pleasant if it wasn’t a walloping two and a half hours long, though it gets a lot of steam from its always charismatic star and her fetching manner with dialogue delivery; Bertha’s always having the right pills and cough drops in her purse might be a silly stereotype of the character she is portraying, but it’s also delightful when performed by Russell, who gives it plenty of unmannered goodness.
The script has a few things to say about big men playing at politics who can’t accomplish anything near what the little women and their homespun wisdom can achieve, and there might even be some criticism of the American occupation of Japan after the war here too, but the big theme is racism, and that’s ironic considering that the major problem with the film, a problem then and an unavoidable one now, is its casting. The Catholic girl from Connecticut playing an orthodox hausfrau is one thing, but Guinness, an actor who loved exploring his Man Of A Thousand Faces arsenal of character types of all sorts of backgrounds and ethnicities, is veritably unwatchable. The, at best, precious and, at worst, tacky manner in which the Japanese characters are drawn is much harder to deal with considering that Guinness, who when viewed dispassionately in roles like Lawrence of Arabia and Tunes Of Glory usually embodied his disguises masterfully, isn’t in the least bit convincing as Japanese, his accent is bad and his alarming eye makeup is, no pun intended, an eyesore to behold (and even someone with no experience of the language can tell that he’s uttering gibberish in the scenes where he is reportedly speaking Japanese).
This egregious failure in casting (the same year that Mickey Rooney appeared in Breakfast At Tiffany’s) makes it very hard to watch a film that, when it isn’t focusing on Russell wiping the floor with her castmates, isn’t really all that great anyway. In the end, things work out in a manner that will please anyone who loves mildly thoughtful but not particularly challenging theatre, if there was a Chicken Soup For The Soul at this point in publishing history, it would have inspired a story like this one.
Academy Award Nomination: Best Cinematography-Colour
Golden Globe Awards: Best Picture-Comedy; Best Actress-Musical/Comedy (Rosalind Russell); Best Film Promoting International Understanding