A Majority of One is categorized as a romance with a mixture of drama and comedy. But what makes it an important film across the ages is its focus on overcoming bigotry.
Mrs. Jacoby (Rosalind Russell) is invited across the ocean with her daughter Alice and her husband Jerry, who for the diplomatic corp. Mrs. Jacoby is neither a fan of the long flight across the country and the slow journey across the ocean nor a fan of Mr. Asano (Alec Guinness), the Japanese gentleman who tries to befriend her on the ship. When he confronts her coldness, she recites the letter that informed her and her husband of their son’s fatal wounds in the Second World War. Mr. Asano deflects her accusation that all Japanese are responsible by revealing that he and his wife lost their children too and wanted nothing more than to live peaceful lives while their government tried to take over the world. Mrs. Jacoby and Mr. Asano grow fond of each other, distanced only by her children who worry about diplomatic propriety. Watch the film if you want to know how the couples fare in Japan.
Right from the start, I watched for signs of a Jewish home, and I wasn’t disappointed. Hard to see at first glance, the apartment door has a mezuzah (look again when Mrs. Jacoby goes out the door to greet her daughter). A picture of a rabbi hangs by the front door over her china cabinet, and the side table with pictures of her late son and husband has a large menorah. The conversation with Essie leaves little doubt about their Jewishness. In fact, the only doubt comes from mention of the ice bucket being a Christmas gift from the neighbor’s son, but with a name like Essie (Esther?) Rubin, how could she be anything but? When Mrs. Jacoby and her daughter have a moment alone, Mrs. Jacoby asks Alice if she remembers the day and if she lit a yahrzeit candle in memory of her brother.
The writers kept Mrs. Jacoby’s Jewish identity consistent throughout the film, from chatter on the ship to the kosher dinner served by Mr. Asana to the Shabbat supper that closes the film. When Mrs. Jacoby covers her head to light the candles, I am reminded of the smaller, lacy head covering that my mother wore or let me wear when we lit the same candles. So much time has passed since our family Shabbat dinners at home that I’d forgotten the tradition. I still light candles on Friday nights most weeks, but often it is a quick pause in whatever secular thing I am doing. Perhaps reinstating the head-covering tradition will add holiness to my lighting.
This movie was released in 1961, two years after the Broadway play by the same name opened. These are 16 and 14 years after the end of World War II. When Jerry and Alice challenge Mrs. Jacoby’s dislike and distrust of the Japanese, she says that people say the Germans and Japanese are now our friends but that she cannot forget so easily. Do we see echoes of this now, 18 years after the September 11th attack? Was the film showing a sign of the times and that generation, or will we feel the same reluctance to forgive current events ten years from now?