Film Review: One Potato, Two Potato (dir by Larry Peerce)


The 1964 film, One Potato, Two Potato, is the story of two people who fall in love.

Julie Cullen (Barbara Barrie) was previously married to Joe (Richard Mulligan).  She’s divorced now and raising her daughter, Ellen (Marti Mericka), on her own.  Ellen was barely a year old when Joe abandoned his family and she’s never known her father.  Perhaps that’s for the best because, as we later see firsthand, Joe was an immature and abusive man.

Frank Hamilton (Bernie Hamilton) is quiet, responsible, and mild-mannered.  For the majority of the movie, the only time that we see Frank show any emotion is when he’s playing football with coworkers.  However, he’s obviously a sensitive and intelligent man.  He and Julie begin a relationship, tentatively at first.  But soon, they’re very much in love and planning to get married.

And really, there’s nothing unusual about either one of them.  They’re two genuinely nice people who met and fell in love.  The only thing that sets their romance apart from so many other romances is that Julie’s white and Frank’s black.  For that reason, Frank and Julie get harassed by the police when they try to enjoy a romantic stroll at night.  For that reason, Frank’s parents (played by Robert Earl Jones and Vinette Carroll) object to their relationship, saying that all the love in the world can’t overcome prejudice.  For that reason, when Frank and Julie do get married, hardly anyone comes to the wedding and the one bridesmaid glares at them throughout the ceremony.  Frank and Julie end up living on a farm with Frank’s parents, in love but practically isolated from the world.  (Tellingly, the “friend” who first introduced them doesn’t want to visit them after they marry.)  When Joe suddenly shows up and discovers that Julie has not only remarried but that her new husband is black, he goes to court and demands custody of his daughter.

It’s interesting think that, in 2019, it’s very easy to take interracial relationships (not to mention interracial marriages) for granted.  And yet, it wasn’t until 1967 (three years after the release of One Potato, Two Potato), that the U.S. Supreme Court officially ruled that laws against interracial marriage were unconstitutional.  One Potato, Two Potato was an early independent film, precisely because none of the major studios were willing to deal with an issue as controversial as interracial marriage.  (When the studios finally did deal with it, the end result was Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, a film that was as safe and mild as One Potato, Two Potato was brave and angry.)  Barbara Barrie did win the best actress award at Cannes and the film itself received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay but otherwise, it’s a sadly neglected piece of film history.  If I hadn’t recorded it off of TCM, I probably never would have seen or even heard of this film.

And that would have been a shame because, along with being a valuable historical document, One Potato, Two Potato is a compelling and heartbreaking drama.  The film approaches its subject matter with a maturity and an honesty that probably stunned audiences back in 1964.  This film refuses to give into any of the well-intentioned clichés that often dominated films about racism in the 60s and 70s.  There are no sympathetic whites (à la Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird) willing to argue for Frank and Julie’s right to raise Ellen.  (In fact, the lawyer that they hire gets angry when Frank first approaches him and advises them to leave the state.)  It does Frank no good to be dignified and patient.  The racism in One Potato, Two Potato does not come from a handful of ignorant souls.  Instead, it’s built into the very system to which Frank and Julie are now having to appeal.

One Potato, Two Potato is also a rarity in that it’s a film that allows a black man to get angry about the way he’s being treated, even if it means making whites in the audience uncomfortable.  One need only compare the hopeful ending of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner with the heart-breaking conclusion of One Potato, Two Potato.  Whereas Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner highlighted Sidney Poitier saying, in his dignified manner, that he has no interest in fighting the battles of the past, One Potato, Two Potato finds a distraught Bernie Hamilton watching a western and finally breaking down as he yells, “Kill that white bastard!”

One Potato, Two Potato ends with a title card that informs us that the story that we’ve seen is fictional but that the laws and the issues discussed in the film are real.  55 years after it was released, One Potato, Two Potato remains a compelling drama and an important historical document.

 

The TSL’s Grindhouse: Bucktown (dir by Arthur Marks)


Welcome to the town of Buchanan!

It’s a small Southern town, popularly known as Bucktown.  It’s a town where you can literally get anything, as long as you know who to pay off.  Upon arriving, don’t be surprised if a little kid approaches you and asks you what you’re looking for.  He can get it for you.  That kid had connections!

The population of Buchanan is almost entirely African-American but all of the cops are white.  Under the leadership of the redneck police chief (Art Lund), the cops have turned Buchanan into their own private kingdom.  If you want to do anything in Buchanan, you have to be ready to pay the cops for protection.  Refuse and you’ll get arrested.  Continue to refuse and you’ll probably end up getting shot.

Obviously, someone needs to clean up Buchanan?  But who!?

How about Duke Johnson (Fred Williamson)?  Duke’s brother owned the hottest nightclub in Bucktown, Club Alabama.  Or, at least he did until he announced he wasn’t going to pay anymore protection and he ended up getting gunned down by the cops.  When Duke arrives in town, he thinks that he’s just going to stay long enough to attend the funeral and sell his brother’s bar.  However, when Duke find out that he has to wait 60 days until he can sell the bar, he decides to stick around.  Not only does he move in with his brother’s former lover, Aretha (Pam Grier), but also reopens the Club Alabama.

Soon, the cops are coming around and demanding their share.  However, they quickly discover that no one tells Duke Johnson what to do.  Like all good action heroes, Duke has friends all over the country.  He places a call to Roy (Thalmus Rasulala) and soon, Roy, TJ (Tony King), and Hambone (Carl Weathers) show up in Bucktown.  They quickly wipe out the corrupt police force.  The local citizens are so happy that they make Roy the new police chief and his men the new police force.

Unfortunately, that turns out to be a mistake.  Apparently, giving some totally random dude complete and total authority to enforce the law in whatever he sees fit isn’t always the best way to handle things.  Roy and his men quickly become just as corrupt as the old redneck policemen.  The only thing protecting Duke is his friendship with Roy but even that is endangered when T.J. decides that he wants Aretha for himself.  T.J. decides to turn Roy and Duke against each other.  It all eventually leads to an epic fist fight, with the winner earning the right to remain in Bucktown…

(Of course, you may be wondering why anyone would want to remain in Bucktown as the place is kind of a dump, regardless of who’s in charge.)

Released in 1975, Bucktown is a pretty basic action film but I liked it because it appealed to all of my anti-authoritarian impulses.  There have been so many movies about what it takes to clean up a town but there haven’t been many made about what actually happens after all of the corrupt cops and greedy businessmen have been kicked out.  Thalmus Rusulala was great as the charismatic but dangerous Roy and Tony King, a favorite of Italian exploitation fans everywhere, was an effective villain.  Pam Grier doesn’t get to do much but she does the best with what she’s provided.  Of course, the entire film is dominated by Fred Williamson, who may not have been a great actor but who had an undeniable screen presence.  Williamson struts through the film like the hero of stylish Spaghetti western.

Bucktown is an entertaining 70s action film.  Though it doesn’t deeply explore any of the issues that it raises, it still deserves some credit for raising them.  If nothing else, it’s a film that shows why Fred Williamson retains a cult following to this day.

The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Scream Blacula Scream (dir by Bob Kelljan)


Am I correct in assuming that everyone knows who Blacula was?

Blacula is often described as being the black Dracula but actually, it’s a little bit more complicated than that.  In life, he was an African prince named Mamuwalde who, in 1780, went to Dracula’s castle and asked for the count’s help in suppressing the slave trade.  Dracula turned him into a vampire instead and, after declaring that Mamuwalde would forever be known as Blacula, he proceeded to lock Mamuwalde in a coffin.  That’s where Mamuwalde remained for 290 years, until he managed to escape.  By that point, his coffin had been relocated from Transylvania to Los Angeles.

All of that was revealed in the 1972 film, BlaculaBlacula, which starred a distinguished Shakespearean actor named William Marshall in the lead role, was a surprise hit so, of course, Mamuwalde (played again by Marshall) returned the following year in a sequel.  It didn’t matter that the first Blacula ended with Mamuwalde deliberately ending his existence by walking out into the sunlight.  Blacula would return!

It also didn’t matter if anyone in the audience for Scream, Blacula, Scream had somehow missed seeing the first movie.  Scream, Blacula, Scream features lengthy flashbacks to the first film.  It makes sense, really.  Why waste money on all new footage when you can just pad the sequel with scenes from its predecessor?

I’m disappointed to say that Scream, Blacula, Scream did not feature any disco action.  When I saw that this movie would be airing on TCM Underground, I decided to watch it specifically because I figured there would be at least one scene of Blacula dancing underneath a spinning disco ball.  I mean, it was a movie from the 70s, right?  Honestly, I think that if Scream, Blacula, Scream had been made later in the decade, it would have featured at least one disco dance scene.

What the film did have was a lot of voodoo.  Judging from this movie, Live and Let Die, and the House on Skull Mountain, it would appear that people in the early 70s were really obsessed with voodoo.  When the movie opens, a voodoo priestess named Mama Loa is dying and she’s just named her apprentice, Lisa (Pam Grier), as the new head of the cult.  Mama Loa’s son, Willis (Richard Lawson), isn’t happy about this decision so, for some reason, he decides that it would be a good idea to bring Blacula back to life.

Willis apparently thought that the revived Blacula would be his servant but it doesn’t work out like that.  First off, Blacula was perfectly happy being dead.  Secondly, he is no one’s servant.  Blacula promptly bites Willis on the neck and then proceeds to vampirize nearly everyone that he comes across.  Soon, Blacula has an army of vampires but all he wants is to be human again.

And who can help him reach that goal?

How about the city’s newest voodoo priestess, Lisa?

Now, I will say this about Scream, Blacula, Blacula.  The main character is named Lisa and that automatically makes it an above average movie.  The entire movie features people saying, “Lisa” over and over again and you know I loved listening to that.

Other than that, though, the movie was kind of a mess.  It was obviously written and filmed in a hurry and, as a result, a lot of the action felt like padding.  For a subplot that wasn’t that interesting to begin with, the voodoo cult power struggle got way too much screen time.  On the plus side, William Marshall and Pam Grier were both a hundred times better than the material that they had to work with.  Regardless of how ludicrous the dialogue was, Marshall delivered it with dignity and just the right hint of ennui.

Scream, Blacula, Scream is not a particularly good film but it’s worth seeing for Marshall and Grier.

 

Horror on TV: Twilight Zone 2.26 “Shadow Play”


 

TheTwilightZoneLogo

This is one of my favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone! In Shadow Play, a man (Dennis Weaver) is curiously unconcerned about being on death row. According to him, it’s all just a recurring dream and everyone around him — the other prisoners, the District Attorney, the judge, the jury, and everyone else — is just a part of his dream. As the other characters start to realize that Weaver could be telling the truth, they’re forced to consider what will happen when he either wakes up or starts the dream over…

I love this one. It’s just a lot of fun and not quite as heavy-handed as some of The Twilight Zone‘s other attempts at social commentary.

This was originally broadcast on May 5th, 1961. It was directed by John Brahm and written by Charles Beaumont.

Embracing the Melodrama #23: The Swimmer (dir by Frank Perry)


The Swimmer

The 1968 film The Swimmer opens with Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) emerging from the woods that surround an affluent Connecticut suburb.  He’s a tanned, middle-aged man and, because he spends the entire film wearing only a bathing suit, we can tell that he’s still in good shape for a man in his 50s.  When Ned speaks, it’s with the nonstop optimism of a man who has found and claimed his part of the American Dream.  In short, Ned appears to be ideal American male, living in the ideal American community.

However, it gradually starts to become apparent that all is not well with Ned.  When he mysteriously shows up at a pool party being held by a group of his friends, they all seem to be shocked to see him, commenting that it’s been a while since Ned has been around.  Ned, however, acts as if there’s nothing wrong and instead talks about how beautiful the day is and says that he’s heading back to his home.  He’s figured out that all of his neighbor’s swimming pools form a “river” to his house and Ned’s plan is to swim home.

And that’s exactly what Ned proceeds to do, going from neighbor to neighbor and swimming through their pools.  As he does so, he meets and talk to his neighbors and it becomes more and more obvious that there are secrets hidden behind his constant smile and friendly manner.  As Ned gets closer and closer to his actual home, the neighbors are far less happy to see him.

At one house, he runs into Julie (Janet Landgard) who used to babysit for his daughter.  Julie agrees to swim with Ned and eventually confesses that she once had a crush on him.  When Ned reacts by promising to always protect  and love her, Julie gets scared and runs away.

At another house, Ned comes across another pool party.  A woman named Joan (played by a youngish Joan Rivers) talks to him before a friend of her warns her to stay away from Ned.

When Ned reaches the house of actress Shirley (Janice Rule), it becomes obvious that Shirley was once Ned’s mistress.  They discuss their relationship and it quickly becomes apparent that Ned’s memories are totally different from Shirley’s.

And, through it all, Ned keeps swimming.  Even when he’s offered a ride to his house, Ned replies that he has to swim home.

The Swimmer is a film that I had wanted to see ever since I first saw the trailer on the DVD for I Drink Your Blood.  (That’s an interesting combination, no?  I Drink Your Blood and The Swimmer.)  I finally saw the film when it showed up on TCM one night and, when I first watched it, I have to admit that I was a little disappointed.  Stylistically, the film itself is such a product of the 1960s that, even though suburban ennui and financial instability are still very relevant topics, The Swimmer felt rather dated.  I mean, I love a good zoom shot as much as anyone but, often times during the 60s, they seemed to be used more for the sake of technique than the sake of story telling.

However, the second time I sat through The Swimmer, I appreciated the film a bit more.  I was able to look past the stylistic flourishes of the direction and I could focus more on Burt Lancaster’s excellent lead performance.  Lancaster plays Ned as the epitome of the American ideal and, as a result, his eventual collapse also mirror the collapse of that same ideal.  The Swimmer is based on a short story by John Cheever and, quite honestly, the film’s story is a bit too much of a literary conceit to really work on film.  That said, The Swimmer — much like the character of Ned Merrill — is an interesting failure, which is certainly more than can be said of most failures.