Monday, July 14, 2008

cinema obscura: Mervyn LeRoy's "A Majority of One" (1961) sighted!

Toward the end of his directing career, Mervyn LeRoy created something of a comfortable cottage industry, directing the movie versions of Broadway hits for Jack Warner, starting with Joshua Logan and Thomas Heggen's "Mr. Roberts" (1955), in which he took over for John Ford when Ford became ill.

Then came Maxwell Anderson's "The Bad Seed" (1956), Ira Levin's "No Time for Sergeants" (1958), Leonard Spigelgass' "A Majority of One" (1961), Arthur Laurents' "Gypsy" (1962) and Jean Kerr's ”Mary, Mary” (1963).

"A Majority of One" airs Tuesday, July 15th at 10 p.m. (est) as part of Turner's on-going trubute to Rosalind Russell, following an 8 p.m. (est) screening of Joshua Logan's "Picnic" (1955).

Spigelgass' play about middle-aged love, was directed by the legendary Dore Schary and ran for 556 performances. Russell stars in the film with Alec Guinness and it's safe to say that both are pretty much cast against type in the roles created on stage by Gertrude Berg and Cedric Hardwicke.

Russell plays Mrs. Jacoby, a Jewish widow urged by her daughter (played by Madlyn Rhue ) to venture beyond her native Brooklyn and travel ... to Japan. Japan! Mrs. Jacoby's only son died during World War II fighting the Japanese. Begrudgingly, she goes and falls in with Mr. Asano (Guiness), a widower who is ... Japanese. Their shared attraction and cultural differences both exhilarate and frighten them. Exacerbating this are the societal pressures, which will be frequent and likely to be harsh.

"A Majority of One" is one of three consecutive films responsible for making Russell a pariah among New York's Broadway community. She was the theater's darling when she was on the boards in "Wonderful Town" and "Auntie Mame," but all that goodwill was lost when it was perceived she was "stealing" roles that belonged to other actresses.

In 1962, following "A Majority of One," Russell took on Jessica Tandy's role in Daniel Mann’s film of the Peter Shaffer play, “Five Finger Exercise,” followed the same year by LeRoy's filmization of "Gypsy," in which she dared to take on Ethel Merman's role as Madam Rose.

Much of the bad press surrounding "Gypsy" at the time of its release, reporedly orchestrated by the vitriolic New York gossip columnist Dorothy Killgalen, had nothing to do with the completed film and everything to do with Russell's participation in it.

"Gypsy" is also included in Turner's current tribute, airing Tuesday, July 29th at 10:30 p.m. (est), but alas, "Five Finger Exercise" isn't. Also missing is one of Roz's great oddities, the movie version of Arthur Kopit's “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad,” directed by a former young actor who appeared with her in the film of "My Sister Eileen" - Richard Quine.

Maybe next time.

Note in Passing: Two very good late-career LeRoy films that have become just about impossible to see but are worth tracking down are ”Home Before Dark” (1958) and ”Wake Me When It’s Over” (1961).

(Artwork: Poster art for LeRoy's "A Majority of One"; Rox in various poses as Mrs. Jacoby, and the poster for Leonard Spigelgass' original play)


Beef said...

I saw "A Majority of One" many years ago on pre-cable TV. As I recall, it's excrutiatingly long and badly, badly miscast. Love Rosalind Russell and Alec Guiness normally, but they're both terrible in this flick. "Majority of One" may have been charming onstage, but I thought that the movie was a dud--and, like all of LeRoy's Broadway adaptations of this period, it's a bit "stagy." Haven't seen "Five Finger Exercise" in over 30 years, but I remember thinking that Roz was excellent in it. As you know, there are STILL people--to this day--who are bitter over Roz being cast in "Gypsy" over Merman. It would have been great to had had Merman's performance on film, but Russell did a fine job and was clearly a better "Rose" than Bette Midler in the "Gypsy" remake.

joe baltake said...

I frankly am not that crazy about "A Majority of One" either. It is too long (156 minutes!) and, yes, miscast, but I resent it when films like this one disappear for years on end. So, from that point of view, it was great to have access to it again.

Re Merman over Russell in "Gypsy," I prefer Roz. "Gypsy" was the first stage show that my family took me to see at a Philly tryout performance when I was a kid. (We went lasrgely because a friend of mine was playing one of the newsboys.) Loved it. I was just a kid then, but I have a strong recollection of Merman stepping outside the show for each song and singing directly to the audience.

Let's face it. Ethel was known as a belter, not an actress. For the movie, they got a world-class actress who played the part to perfection and who had a singing voice double (Lisa Kirk) who matched up perfectly with Roz's speaking voice.

Great performance.

Anonymous said...

I am currently looking for "A Majority Of One" to rent or buy. I can't seem to locate a copy. Do you know where I could find one to rent, buy?