B&W, 1964, 80 mins. 24 sec.
Directed by Larry Peerce
Barbara Barrie, Bernie Hamilton, Richard Mulligan, Robert Earl Jones, Vinnette Carroll, Marti Mericka
Scorpion Releasing (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
If you threw a dart at a lineup of 1960s Hollywood dramas and comedies, chances are it would land on a drama about pressing social issues of the day. However, independent cinema had a leg up at the time without as much concern for placating the status quo, and that's certainly true of One Potato, Two Potato, an extremely powerful and unsentimental look at the state of interracial marriage at the height of the Civil Rights struggle in America when laws varied dramatically from state to state. Shot in a typical Midwestern community in Ohio, the film is even more than a treatment of interracial romance, managing to realistically deal with divorce and remarriage, child custody, and the inherent biases in the U.S. legal system. It's a tricky juggling act that works very well under the steady hand of director Larry Peerce, who made a strong debut here after some TV work and followed it with the noteworthy The Incident before embarking on a truly bizarre roster of projects in the '70s and '80s including Two-Minute Warning, The Bell Jar, Hard to Hold, Ash Wednesday, A Separate Peace, The Sporting Club, and the most successful of the batch, Goodbye, Columbus and the two The Other Side of the Mountain films.
When her husband Joe (Mulligan) abandons her for a job in South America and leaves her unsupported with her daughter, Ellen (Mericka), Julie (Barrie) has to readjust to life as a single white mother in a tightly-knit community. However, she finds herself not only hitting it off with a black coworker, Frank (Hamilton), but soon falling in love with him. They end up getting married despite the apprehensions of his parents, but the challenges they face escalate when Joe comes back and isn't thrilled with his ex-wife's life choices-- including having a child with her new husband. Of course, it isn't long before all the parties end up in the courtroom where society's nastier tendencies are laid bare.
With its short running time and trio of strong central performances, One Potato, Two Potato wastes absolutely not time dissecting its subject with scalpel-like precision all the way to its unsurprising but devastating conclusion. Given that this film "introduces" Mulligan after a spate of TV work, it's fascinating how much it unintentionally and very effectively weaponizes his association with comedy fare like Soap, Empty Nest, and S.O.B.; upon his return his trademark charm seems familiar at first until the mask starts to slip and we see the uglier side underneath. Barrie and Hamilton have an easy chemistry that nicely sells the foundation of the story, supported by a solid script by Orville H. Hampton and Raphael Hayes that ended up with an Oscar nomination (and Barrie being honored at Cannes). It also features an interesting Elmer Bernstein-ish score by Gerald Fried, who was known at the time for scoring all of Stanley Kubrick's early films and a string of drive-in horror movies before moving on later to titles like The Baby, The Killing of Sister George, and the U.S. version of Survive!
Unfortunately the film's very indie status thanks to its release from Cinema V (who handled the still unheralded Nothing But a Man the same year and scored bigger hits later with The Endless Summer, Z, and Elvira Madigan) ended up keeping this out of circulation for a long time, though that was rectified in 2021 with Blu-ray and DVD release from Scorpion Releasing (distributed via Kino Lorber) featuring an immaculate 4K restoration from the original camera negative. The element has been kept in great shape, and it looks impressive here apart from some baked-in factors like a few dupey dissolves. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 English mono audio is also pristine and features English SDH subtitles. A new audio commentary by film historian and critic Sergio Mims is an excellent listen and up to his usual standards; anyone who's heard his prior work knows how deft he is at juggling incisive observations with entertaining asides, and that's the case here as he tackles the complex and often bafflingly racist history of interracial marriage laws in the U.S., the film's place among handling a topic later addressed in the more studio-friendly Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and the backgrounds of the participants. He also points out his own thoughts on the film including a couple of minor quibbles, and some of his segues (like the one to a bit of opera history) are very funny. A new video interview with Peerce (25m35s) covers the history of the film very well including the challenge of shopping it to major studios (who liked the film but wouldn't touch it), the inability to release it in the South until a fateful appearance on The Tonight Show, the experience of being at Cannes, the challenge of shooting at a Cleveland courthouse, and the tactic Hamilton requested from his director for one scene that had the crew unsettled for a bit. Bonus trailers are also included for For Those Who Think Young, Slow Dancing in the Big City, Johnny Cool, The Tamarind Seed, and The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea.
Reviewed on July 5, 2021.