Tuesday, September 6, 2011

America Embraces the Axis: "A Majority of One" 1961 Rosalind Russell and Alec Guinness

Which of the above photos constitutes propaganda?

"A Majority of One" is a genuinely bad movie, but it's hard not to feel affection for it. It's one of those last gasps of Golden Age Hollywood. It stars classic film star Rosalind Russell as Mrs. Jacoby, a Jewish widow, and Alec Guinness as Mr. Asano, a Japanese businessman, who meet and fall in love after World War Two. Here are two Golden Age stars doing their Golden Age thing: playing ethnic minorities in a stereotyped manner just short of minstrelsy.

The film was made in 1961, and a new Hollywood was aborning, one in which the old-fashioned star system was dying, and it would become taboo for a British actor to play a Japanese man by altering his eyelids with make-up and prosthetics. Rosalind Russell was Irish Catholic and her Yiddishe Mama causes protest today.

On the International Movie Database discussion board for the film, posters protest that it is wrong, wrong, wrong, for a white man to play a Japanese. There is similar, but less, protest against a Catholic playing a Jew. Because this is so wrong, posters insist, they will boycott the film and they will refuse the film their willing suspension of disbelief.

Aesthetically, this politically correct change is a tragedy. We don't go to see "Swan Lake" hoping to see real swans onstage. We go to see "Swan Lake" exactly so that we can see ballet dancers evoking swans with their powerful, practiced ballet moves.

I love "Majority of One," in spite of its heavy-handed preaching and overt propaganda, because I love seeing classic film star Alec Guinness evoking a Japanese man with his speech, hand gestures, and body language. I also warmly appreciate Rosalind Russell's salute to Jewish mothers.

"A Majority of One" is a preachy movie. It hammers into audiences: "We must forget the hard feelings generated by World War Two. We must not be bigoted, not against Black people moving into formerly Jewish New York neighborhoods, and we must not be bigoted against the Japs we fought during World War Two."

All cultures are different, the movie tells us, but those differences are just superficial. As they become acquainted, Mr. Asano, the Japanese millionaire, and Mrs. Jacoby, the Jewish widow, mention aspects of their respective cultures that, at first, seem different, but, after a few sentences of comparison, come out exactly the same.

For example, Japanese people worship in shrines; Jewish people worship by blessing Sabbath candles – ultimately, "God's house is God's house," as Mrs. Jacoby says after being invited to a Japanese shrine. Japanese people eat raw fish; Jewish people eat gefilte fish. Japanese people toast with "Kanpai" and Jews say "L'Chaim."

Japanese have a fall festival – Shubun no hi – "We decorate our houses with grains and fruits of the earth." So do Jews! "We do the same! We have a sukkah. A little hut we build. We put on grapes and apples." "It sounds enchanting. I hope you invite me to one of your festivals."

Jews put up with a lot: "Whatever comes into your life you take." So do Japanese: "You transcend. It's the philosophy of the Zen Buddhists." "You mean, if you have tsouris – trouble – you come out of it a better person if you live through it." "Obviously you have studied Zen Buddhism … Kvelling would make an excellent addition to the Japanese vocabulary."

Japanese people wear kimonos and listen to "Sakura." Jewish people wear dowdy dresses – but can look very fetching in borrowed kimonos when their dresses conveniently get wet in the rain.

Yes, SOME Japanese people did bad things during World War Two. Mrs. Jacoby's son was an American soldier killed by the Japanese. But Mrs. Jacoby learns her lesson. She learns to forgive and embrace – literally – a Japanese man.

"A Majority of One" opens with a revolving globe made up of vertical stripes of dull colors. "It's a Small World After All!" the Warner Brothers logo appears over the globe. Two bronze busts appear: one of Mrs. Jacoby (Rosalind Russell), one of Koichi Asano (Alec Guinness). Bronze busts! This movie takes itself very seriously. Then two hands appear – one is reaching down, from above. One is reaching up, from below. They never actually touch.

The film opens with Mrs. Jacoby's fat, slutty, and obnoxious neighbor, who, on a visit, is eating too many of Mrs. Jacoby's chocolates. The bad neighbor complains about Blacks moving into their previously Jewish, New York City neighborhood.

Jerome is Mrs. Jacoby's son-in-law. He is young, he is modern, and he will have nothing of bigotry! Jerome lectures the bad, fat, older neighbor against bigotry.

Jerome has been assigned to work in Japan. Mrs. Jacoby will travel there with her daughter and son-in-law.

One of the most poignant scenes in the movie shows an American Airlines plane taking off, and Mrs. Jacoby listening to the very beautiful uniformed stewardesses talking about oxygen masks. These were the days when flying was special, a little scary, and very elegant. There is even space between airplane seats! Sigh. Those were the days.

While traveling to Japan from California on a cruise ship, Mrs. Jacoby meets Mr. Asano. (They never refer to each other by first names.) Mr. Asano is painstakingly polite to Mrs. Jacoby, but she is brusque and rude to him. Finally, in a very un-Japanese manner, Mr. Asano confronts Mrs. Jacoby.

"You take this attitude because I am Japanese?"

"Yes, because of my son."

"He was in some way affected by the war?"

She is disgusted by this polite circumlocution. "He was in some way affected." She quotes the telegram she received from the government. Her son was killed.

Mr. Asano will not be outdone in the poignancy department. He tells Mrs. Jacoby that his son was killed by the American military and that his daughter – pause for tears – he really does pause – was a nurse in Hiroshima.

Ah, so it is all relative. Americans suffered in the war. Japanese suffered in the war. It's no different, right? But, wait, didn't the Japanese actually start the war? Mrs. Jacoby says,

"All because you and Mr. Hitler wanted to run the world."

"My wife and I did not so wish Mrs. Jacoby. Nor our son nor our daughter nor anybody we knew. What most of us wished for was a happy and peaceful existence with the flowers, the moon and the sunshine. Is that so very different from what you wished, Mrs. Jacoby?"

Through tears, she responds, "No."

"Then, shall we start again?" Asano asks. "How do you do?" he asks, as if they were meeting for the first time.

She responds, "How do you do?" and, overcome by tears, she walks away.

Later, her son-in-law says to Mr. Asano, "I think she does understand a little now."

Asano won't be outdone in the graciousness department. "You mother-in-law has every justification to hate us. I wonder which is worse – war or its aftermath?"

Mr. Asano could not be a nicer guy. He's a saint, really.

Later, on deck, Mr. Asano sneezes. Mrs. Jacoby springs into action. She has cough drops. She has medical advice. She takes Mr. Asano under her wing. She is a Jewish mother, after all! Their romance begins.

Mr. Asano and Mrs. Jacoby dance on the ship's deck. Alice, Mrs. Jacoby's daughter, witnesses this. She and Jerome are horrified. They object and refuse Mrs. Jacoby permission to continue this affair. Again, the movie is hammering home a lesson: Jerome had been very adamant and self-righteous, earlier, when lecturing the bad neighbor about her anti-black bigotry. Now the self-righteous, modern young man is revealed to be a bigot – against Japanese. He can't stand the sight of his Jewish mother-in-law in the arms of a Japanese man.

It becomes Mrs. Jacoby's turn to lecture, and she does. You talked to me about bigotry! She remonstrates.

Here's the weird thing – the movie lectures its audience about what a bad thing bigotry is, but the movie itself is bigoted.

Hollywood would not allow a real, live Japanese actor play a real, live Japanese character. And even Jack Warner, Jewish himself, would not allow a real, live Jewish actress to play a Jewish character. Don't get me wrong – Alec Guinness is great in his part, and Rosalind Russell, in her own way, is marvelous. But the racism that mandated that they had to take these roles is despicable.

Gertrude Berg, who really was Jewish, won the Tony award as Mrs. Jacoby on Broadway.

Mr. Asano and Mrs. Jacoby never refer to each other by their first names. They never touch in a way that could be interpreted as exhibiting any warmth or intimacy. Even when they dance, they dance with the stiff caution of ten-year-olds in their first formal dance class. This could be a romance about two people in their own isolation booths. The movie says, "Shame on you!" to Alice and Jerome for begrudging Asano and Mrs. Jacoby their affair, but the movie itself won't let them develop their affair.

Thus, even though it lectures against bigotry, "A Majority of One" is part of a longstanding Hollywood tradition that demands that love between Caucasians and Asians be handled gingerly at best.

1915's "The Cheat" starred Sessue Hayakawa as an Asian man who attempted to possess a white woman, Fannie Ward (the name is really too perfect.) It ends badly for all. 1919's "Broken Blossoms," or "The Yellow Man and the Girl" ends with death. 1933's "Bitter Tea of General Yen" ends with death. 1958's "South Pacific"'s white-Asian romance ends with death, in 1960's "The World of Suzie Wong" Suzie's child dies, in "The King and I" the King dies, 1955's "Love is a Many Splendored Thing" ends with the death of one of the leads… you get the idea. Asian-white romances are trouble, and the only way films could resolve them was by killing someone off. At least "A Majority of One" never kills anyone off. But it never lets Jacoby and Asano kiss.

The movie does its work, though. It tells audiences that Japanese people are just like us, and we must embrace them.

Problem: Just twenty short years before the film was made. Japanese people were committing atrocities every bit as horrific as those committed by the Nazis at their worst. Japanese doctors, for example, committed unspeakable crimes against Chinese prisoners of war – and those torturers lived out their natural life-spans in Japan after the war. They never faced justice in anything like a Nuremberg Trial. Japanese soldiers made life on earth hell for Korean comfort women. Japan has refused to apologize. Japanese leaders still worship at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.

Hey, but, that's all okay. Because average Japanese people are just like average Jewish people.

In short, "A Majority of One," a film I can't help but like, does the same propaganda work as "
Decision Before Dawn."

One can argue about whether the agenda of these films – insisting that America must forgive and forget its erstwhile Axis enemies – is moral or immoral.

The point is, though, that World War Two's atrocities generated epic amounts of grief, rage, and disgust. That grief, rage, and disgust needed a target. America worked hard to exculpate Germany and Japan. For too many audiences, the target is now
Bieganski, the Brute Polak.


  1. Thank you for the interesting post. :-)

  2. In the book "conduct under fire", near the end, the author summarizes the variety of ways that various Nazi and Japanese war criminals got off. Incredible. the author's father was a survivor of Bataan/Corregidor/Death March. Its an interesting book, and again, almost all the depictions of various ethnicities by American media shits can readily be explained by the associated geopolitics.

    I happen to know a guy who grew up with an American nurse who was on the Bataan Death March. Raped several times daily. I don't think I've seen a movie that horrific yet.


  3. Someone who really haunts me is Iris Chang. She wrote about the Rape of Nanking -- and then killed herself.

    Of course suicide is a complicated phenomenon, but I can relate. That feeling that you are writing about stuff that people should care about, but don't, the horror of reading about horror upon horror.

  4. Nemo, if you want to experience two of the greatest anti-war films (and both by Japanese directors) see if you can get a hold of the DVDs of Kon Ichikawa's "Fires on the Plain" and Masaki Kobayashi's trilogy "The Human Condition" (which some consider the greatest film ever made).

    The Ichikawa film, which doesn't shirk the issue of cannibalism as the starving Japanese soldiers retreat from the advancing US forces in the Phillippines, is brilliantly shot and acted. Ichikawa saw the destruction of Hiroshima and his film is a powerful indictment of the Japanese military code of honour by which all soldiers were meant to live (and die).

    Kobayashi's trilogy can be watched as three separate films and you might find it profitable to do it that way as each film is three hours long and harrowing. The trilogy is a powerful indictment of the politics that led Japan into war and of the military code which essentially dehumanises people. At the same time it reaffirms true human values as the main character tries, at all times and no matter what the circumstances, to live by them.

    These films show up something like "Saving Private Ryan" for the sentimental load of tosh that it is.

  5. Hello Peter,
    Japanese cannibalism. A close relative's uncle was in an American fighter group in the pacific. One of their guys got shot down and landed in the middle of a Jap held atoll. turns out they ate the guy, got a few years for it after the war, supposedly, maybe one was hanged. This is the tale as told in a book on that unit. Didn't seem to be an inflammatory book either. I don't recall starvation being the issue in this case, but maybe I will ahve another look. I have read that many bypassed Japanese units had horrendous casualties related to disease and starvation -- whole camps of dead men found in the jungle by patrols. Thank you for the references by the way, but I am not sure I want to watch more of "the horror, the horror". I didn't find pvt Ryan objectionable. what's tosh? can't recall the sentimental part.


  6. "Saving Private Ryan" is a great film.

  7. Saving Private Ryan is a 'great' film if one doesn't have a point of comparison such as the Kobayashi and Ichikawa films and if one can stomach its gross sentimentality and Spielberg's message that it's ok to shoot prisoners. Visually, of course it's stunning and the battle scenes are very well staged but no better than in Peckinpah's "Cross of Iron" which did more with far, far less.

    In view of your strong remarks about "Das Boot" it would be interesting to read your views about "Cross of Iron".

  8. Hello PEter, thanks for the post on Peckinpah. I find the military shows help me tolerate my aerobic exercise, maybe because their situation looks worse than mine feels like when I exercise !

    Shooting prisoners was not uncommon, but I didn't know Spielberg encouraged it vs. depicted it.


  9. Nemo, Spielberg hasn't personally encouraged the shooting of prisoners but in "Saving Private Ryan" he justified it by showing a German soldier, who was taken prisoner by the US squad tasked with finding Private Ryan - after pleading for his life and being let go - return as part of a German Army group, to fight the same Americans. The message couldn't be clearer.

    I don't think "Cross of Iron" will help you tolerate your exercises much.

  10. Peter, do you want me to delete your post (I guess it's yours) above with your email address attached? It's up to you.

  11. Danusha, it was my mistake but I don't think I have any security concerns about it being there. If you are able to edit from the back-end and substitute my name for the email address that would be good but if you can't just leave it. Thanks

  12. From Peter:

    It is such a long time since I watched this film (with my parents in the mid-1960s) that I don't remember the plot and will have to rely on your summary, Danusha.

    The question that arises is why, in 1961, it was necessary to show a white American woman and a Japanese businessman have a friendship? One film that might provide a clue about the trajectory of American/Japanese (personal) relationships is "Sayonara" with Marlon Brando, made in 1957. In this film a love affair develops between the American officer Gruver and a Japanese woman to whom he is introduced by his off-sider Kelly, himself engaged to a Japanese. Kelly meets the worst prejudice from the Army hierarchy who tell him they won't sanction the marriage and further persecution from a senior officer on his base and from Gruver who taunts him with racial slurs with respect to his Japanese fiancee (later Gruver apalogises)

    When Kelly is ordered home and told he cannot take his now pregnant wife with him, the couple commit suicide. This makes Gruver determined to stay loyal to his lover, which he does. In the novel on which the film is based Gruver, in fact, ditches her.

    In "Sayonara" the audience confronts the interracial marriage/lave affair head on and the message is that love is more important than anything and "amo omnia vincit". The film can take this position because, deep down, the public accepted that hormones can't be readily controlled. Even in 1957, an issue of true love could be resolved that way. However, notice that one of the protagonists is in the military; that way there could not be no reproach because that character actually may have 'fought' the Japanese.

    The issue for civilians was resolved in "A Majority of One" by the development of a formal relationship. We can be civil, even good acquaintances, perhaps friends of a sort, with an old enemy, we don't need to be lovers.

    But why then? I would suggest because like Germany in the early 1950s, Japan was now needed as an ally and even more importantly, as a trading partner. Japanese produced consumer electronics and photgraphic equipment was flooding into the US and no issues to do with the Pacific War should disturb the business prospects of importers, wholesalers and retailers. Moreover, with the Cold War reaching its peak, Japan was an important ally.

    And this is where the Poles (and other Slavs) had no luck. Even though they were subject to the mortal enemy, Russian Communism, they weren't important to the fight against it. The "Bieganski" stereotype, as you've shown, already embedded in American popular culture, could be left in peace, to be deployed when necessary.

  13. Are we going to pretend that Hiroshima was not one of the worst war crimes against a civilian population in history? honstly? no we are not so different from the japanese. we also couch such atrocities as a forgivable consequence of war. get off you high horse.


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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