One Potato, Two Potato (1964): Oscar-Nominated, Social Problem Film about Racism, Starring Barbara Barrie, Bernie Hamilton, Richard Mulligan

Made in 1964 by Larry Price, the low-budget, Oscar-nominated indie, One Potato, Two Potato dealt with the provocative and inflammatory topic of racism and miscegenation.

Grade: A (***** out of *****)

One Potato, Two Potato
One Potato, Two Potato FilmPoster.jpeg

Film poster

A white woman named Julie Cullen (Barbara Barrie) divorces her husband (Richard Mulligan) and then falls in love with and marries an African-American, Frank Richards (Bernie Hamilton).

When her husband sues for child custody, arguing that a mixed household improper to raise the girl, Richards fights for his parental rights in court. But the judge (Harry Bellaver) proves prejudiced and assigns the child to her biological father.

Ahead of its time, One Potato, Two Potato was well received by critics. Seen from today’s perspective, it’s interesting to observe that the tale focuses with equal attention to the injustices suffered by the black man, as well as those inflicted on a poor white woman.

Narrative Structure (Detailed Synopsis)

Julie Cullen (Barrie) a young white divorced parent, on her own for the past four years since her husband abandoned her and their daughter, Ellen, only a year old at the time. At work, Julie meets Frank Richards, who is black, and the two strike up a friendship that blossoms into a romance.

Their relationship is strained by the racial prejudices of many around them, including Frank’s parents, William and Martha, who oppose the pairing. But ultimately, Frank and Julie decide to persevere through such difficulties. Later on, they get married while led for Julie and Ellen to move in with Frank and his parents. Ellen’s arrival immediately softens Martha’s heart, but William remains cool, steadfast in his belief that Frank and Julie’s marriage is a foolish endeavor. His attitude changes only when Frank and Julie have a son together. When William first holds his new grandson, he loses any remaining animosity and the household becomes a happy one for all.

Eventually, Julie’s ex-husband, Joe returns, seeking to establish visitation with Ellen. However, when he realizes that Julie’s and Ellen’s new family is black, he finds it unacceptable and petitions the court for legal custody. Frank’s lawyer tells him that Joe is likely to win. Agreeing with the lawyer’s analysis, William advises Frank to take Julie and the children and flee the state. Frank, however, decides to stay and fight the case in court.

When Julie appeals to Joe directly, it angers him, and he even attempts to force himself on Julie physically. Frank is frustrated by his inability to defend his wife by confronting Joe–he knows that it will end whatever small chance he and Julie have of winning the custody.

The judge looks carefully into Ellen’s family situation, and interviews her. She reaffirms her love for Frank, and seems oblivious to the racial issues. When the judge asks her about her baby brother being “different” from her, she says, of course, he is a boy, while she is a girl.

While the judge does not condone racial prejudices and agrees they should be fought, he also says that he cannot ignore they exist and, if Ellen remains with Frank and Julie, it will negatively impact her wat adulthood. For that reason, he grants Joe’s petition for custody

When Joe arrives to pick up Ellen, she is excited, thinking her father is just taking her for a visit. When she realizes she’s being sent permanently and that her brother is remaining behind, she assumes she is being punished for having misbehaved, Joe loads Ellen and her clothes into a taxi as the family looks on in sorrow.  The girl then beats her mother forcefully.

In the last, heartbreaking scene, as the taxi drives away with Joe and Ellen in the back seat, she presses her face against the car’s rear window, crying while pleading to be allowed to stay and promising that she will be a good girl.

In the first last shot, the mother runs helplessly to see her girl leaving, and the camera pulls back, isolating her in a long shot that emphasizes her sorrow and despair.

One Potato, Two Potato was shot in and around the small city of Painesville in northeastern Ohio.

For her role as Julie Cullen Richards, Barrie won the Best Actress award at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival, in a tie with Anne Bancroft for The Pumpkin Eater.

The film preceded the more famous (but less interesting) Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and the subject of interracial marriage by three years.

About Richard Mulligan (1932-2000)

Mulligan was an character actor known for his role as Burt Campbell, the loving, protective husband of Cathryn Damon’s character, in the sitcom Soap (1977–81). He had starring role as Dr. Harry Weston in Empty Nest (1988–95), for which he won both the Emmy and Golden Globe Award for Best Lead Actor in a Comedy in 1989. Mulligan was the younger brother of film director Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird).

 

Cast
Barbara Barrie as Julie Cullen Richards
Bernie Hamilton as Frank Richards
Richard Mulligan as Joe Cullen
Harry Bellaver as Judge Powell
Marti Mericka as Ellen Mary
Robert Earl Jones as William Richards
Vinnette Carroll as Martha Richards
Sam Weston as Johnny Hruska
Faith Burwell as Ann Hruska
Jack Stamberger as The Minister
Michael Shane as Jordan Hollis

Oscar Nominations: 1

Original Story and Screenplay (written directly for screen): Orville H. Hampton and Raphael Hayes. The winner, however, was the Cary Grant silly comedy, Father Goose.

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winners were S. H. Barnett, Peter Stone, and Frank Tarloff for the Cary Grant comedy, Father Goose.

Credits:

Directed by Larry Peerce
Produced by Sam Weston
Written by Orville H. Hampton, Raphael Hayes
Music by Gerald Fried
Cinematography Andrew Laszlo
Edited by Robert Fritch
Distributed by Cinema V

Release date: July 29, 1964

Running time: 83 minutes