Director Larry Peerce on One Potato, Two Potato at TCMFF 2016
February 13, 2017
When TCM unveils the TCMFF schedule (another month or so until we get to behold the entire 2017 lineup!), my eyes always instantly search out the titles I've never heard of before, after the pre-Codes, of course. I can always count on TCM to throw some rare gem(s) almost no one knows about into the mix: at the 2014 festival, it was On Approval (1944); in 2015, Why Be Good? (1929) and in 2016, One Potato, Two Potato (1964).
As I noted in one of my wrap-up posts, a fire alarm interrupted the final few minutes of One Potato, Two Potato, which was my first film of the 2016 festival - I actually ran from the red carpet to catch it. Though the emotional impact of the uninterrupted picture would have arguably packed a stronger punch, the gut-wrenching ending nonetheless hit hard. In fact, I spotted several fellow audience members in tears on the way out...as I tried to dry some of mine.
This Czech poster for One Potato, Two Potato is absolutely devastating.
Released three years before the famous Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), One Potato, Two Potato centers around an interracial romance and marriage between Julie (Barbara Barrie), a white divorcee with a daughter, and Frank (Bernie Hamilton), a black man. Focusing on what was still a very controversial subject - Julie and Frank even have a baby together after they get married - One Potato, Two Potato didn't make many waves in the States when it came out, perhaps because the film was made independently at a time when most productions were still studio-backed (though it gained enough attention to get into the Cannes Film Festival). I gather it was partly this indie mentality that allowed for the picture's frank, yet subtly emotional and powerful take on the tale - one that is heart-warming and infuriating at the same time. This is another movie (on my list of about 54,872,792) that I want to watch again before writing about it more in depth, but in the meantime below are some highlights from director Larry Peerce's conversation with film historian Donald Bogle at the screening.
Bogle began the discussion by lauding Peerce for directing such a pioneering work, one that he feels isn't given enough credit - not just for its story but also the way the picture was made and what it accomplished. While today a sizable independent movement exists within the film industry, back in the 1960s that spirit was almost nonexistent. Combine that with the obstacles of producing and releasing an indie featuring a subject matter not widely accepted until decades later, to boot, and one can imagine how difficult it must have been to pull this production off. Though other movies, such as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, would broach a similar topic within a few years, Bogle lauded One Potato, Two Potato for possessing "such a real quality to it...it has a real power."
Note: Parts of Peerce's story didn't make 100% sense to me, but I'll do my best to put the pieces together as accurately as possible. If you spot any factual errors in here, please let me know!
Donald Bogle and director Larry Peerce at TCMFF 2016. (Picture by Kim Luperi)
On how it all began
Sometime in the early 1960s, Peerce put a call in to friend Sam Weston. Weston would go on to produce One Potato, Two Potato, but at this point, Peerce merely phoned to tell Weston that he wanted to make a movie. Weston looked at the story Peerce had (I don't think it could have been One Potato, Two Potato based on what Peerce later said about the script, but perhaps it was another screenplay), and he thought the idea was great; however, Weston doubted anyone would see it and joked that he and Peerce would have to screen the film for themselves - one week he'd go to Peerce's house and the next they'd watch it at Weston's. Despite Weston's reservation regarding an audience, he wanted them to take a stab at making a movie. Though Weston did look at an idea or script Peerce had, at this point, it didn't seem like they had a specific idea in mind, because Weston advocated for taking the money Peerce raised to produce a short and find a project they could put the money towards. They started to brainstorm – what would they make in Hollywood? A Western, a love story? Going down the list of genres, Peerce and Weston came to the conclusion that they wanted to choose something "not inside the mainstream, if you will."
On landing an idea
Whilst digging for material and potential topics, Peerce and Weston stumbled upon a newspaper article, probably in The Los Angeles Times, detailing a situation similar to the one in One Potato, Two Potato. Not long after, they met with an agent who offered them a variety of projects, but none interested the duo. However, as they were leaving the agent's office, he presented them with something: it was Orville H. Hampton's idea, which would become the basis for One Potato, Two Potato. Besides the aforementioned short clipping in The Los Angeles Times, which related the details of an interracial coupling in California in 1963, another similar article came from Indiana as well and possibly somewhere else, too. That was all Peerce and Weston needed to know; as long as they had different episodes to cull from, they figured they'd be legally covered, aka they couldn't be sued.
From left to right: Martha Richards (Vinnette Carroll), son Frank (Bernie Hamilton), daughter-in-law Julie (Barbara Barrie) and husband William (Robert Earl Jones).
On the script and potential story issues
Peerce and Weston met with Hampton, who insisted on taking a stab at the first draft. After reading his finished product, Peerce and Weston weren't entirely pleased with Hampton's work, so they commissioned Raphael Hays for a re-write. (Peerce credits Hays with basically turning the tale into the picture we saw that day.) By the early 1960s, the Production Code's authority had declined quite a bit (it would remain in effect until 1968), but the rules still prohibited miscegenation on screen. When asked by Bogle if he was at all worried about the subject matter in regards to potential censorship and public response, Peerce replied: "Sure we were but we were young and stupid, which kind of makes you daring, even if you don't want to be."
On - what else? - money
Peerce originally had roughly $8,000-$10,000 squared away for his short, but he and Weston blew through that amount within a month between writing and other pre-production duties in New York. They moved into a hotel, but that didn’t help much, and before long they were broke. Peerce, in his early 30s at the time, retreated to his parents house, and Weston came with him (I believe) so they could continue working and raising money. As for investors, Peerce claimed that potential backers picked up the enormous script and remarked, “This feels great!” That’s about as far as most went into actually reading the screenplay.
Their estimated budget, after the script was delivered, was $150,000. All in all, the picture cost $240,000, still a small amount in the 60s, especially considering One Potato, Two Potato was made with an all-union crew from Los Angeles, minus cinematographer Andrew Laszlo, who was based in New York.
Julie with daughter Ellen (Marti Mericka). Mericka's only film credit is One Potato, Two Potato.
On Barbara Barrie
Peerce quoted someone who prophesized that if Barrie had been born a decade later, she would have been a huge star in the US, and Peerce agreed. But in the early 60s, he maintained that extraordinary beauty was still a prerequisite for stardom, and while Barrie was certainly attractive, she didn’t fit the standard definition of Hollywood glamour. Peerce knew Barrie socially, and from the beginning he believed she would be perfect for the part; in fact, Hayes actually wrote the second draft with Barrie in mind.
One Potato, Two Potato filmed in Painesville, Ohio. According to Peerce, the locals didn’t know what was going on; the team didn’t intentionally shield the film’s content from the public, but they didn’t make a big deal of it either. (Though Ohio repealed their miscegenation law in 1887, interracial marriage was still illegal in several states until it was declared unconstitutional in 1967.) Nonetheless, Peerce and the team remained cautious during production, especially concerning the scene where Julie and Frank kiss. When Bogle asked why that episode occurs at night – inferring that they may have waited until fewer people were around – Peerce skirted the question a tad and replied that the characters had just attended a wedding. Since they filmed during the summer, night scenes started when it was fully dark and continued through morning. The sequence involving the kiss began shooting around 2am, when the area was almost entirely empty.
Another fantastic foreign poster, this time a minimalist one from Poland.
On a scene Peerce believes still resonates today
Before the aforementioned first kiss scene, Frank and Julie walk through a town square. A flashing light stops them in their tracks: it’s a cop. The policeman patently infers that Julie’s a hooker, because who else would be caught with a black man late at night? Such a blatantly callous moment was indicative of the time, and sadly it's still emblematic of an issue the US currently grapples with, though perhaps in slightly different terms.
On the audience reception and industry recognition
Despite the indie production, One Potato, Two Potato made it all the way to the famed Cannes Film Festival. Cannes' appreciative audience reacted optimistically, and Barrie even received the Best Actress award (Peerce was also nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or, which he didn’t mention). However, the film’s response in the States was not as immediate or strong; British Lion subleased the picture to Cinema 5 in the US, which was run by arthouse theater owner Donald Rugoff. Contrary to what one may think, One Potato, Two Potato also made its way to the south, though the location presented a hurdle, and the market was not an easy one for them. What broke the barrier was Peerce's appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and a clip they screened during it; those two items helped sell the picture in the south and “legitimized” the movie enough for distributors and theater owners to screen it. Barrie also tied for 3rd place with Audrey Hepburn (for My Fair Lady) in the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, and, in another considerable nod from the industry - this time Hollywood - One Potato, Two Potato scored a Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Oscar nomination for Orville H. Hampton and Raphael Hayes.
One more poster - this time in English!
At TCMFF, this gem nabbed one of the prized TBA slots on Sunday due to fantastic feedback and high demand. I can only hope the film scores a DVD release soon, because it would be an absolute shame if it continued to idle on a vault shelf. One Potato, Two Potato deserves to be rediscovered and praised - perhaps now more than ever.
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