Mixed Company

Director: Melville Shavelson
Joseph Bologna, Barbara Harris, Tom Bosley

With most married couples, there are a few important decisions both parties have to decide on before they reach the altar. One of those important decisions is whether or not they should have children, with the follow-up question to that being that if they do decide on children, how many should they have. There is also the question as to whether they want to have children the traditional way, or get children another way. Certainly, there are advantages of having children the traditional way, the biggest being that it's sure a lot of fun making your own babies, if you know what I mean. But for some couples, having children the traditional way may not be an option, a lot of times being that for medical reasons they can't make their own babies. What then can they do? Well, as I suggested earlier, there are other ways of getting children, one of them being the process of adoption. Certainly, adoption has some serious advantages that you can't have when making your own babies. You can choose the sex of the child you want, for example. And if you don't want to go through the process of dirty diapers and the Terrible Twos, you can adopt a child who is several years old. But there are problems with the adoption process, at least with the one I have observed in my own country as well as the one you find in the United States. I personally know a couple who were seriously considering adoption, going as far as getting a social worker who would help them with the process. But when they saw that the process would take a number of years, cost a considerable amount of money, and involve a bunch of complicated work, they ultimately changed their minds.

I certainly don't blame that couple for changing their minds about going through the domestic adoption process. The government of my country at one point did execute a campaign trying to convince my fellow citizens to adopt the thousands of children in the country who were without a parent, though it was short-lived. One of the reasons that they started the campaign was that many of the people in my country who were interested in adopting a child were finding that it was much easier to go to another country and adopt a foreign child. There is much less red tape, and there is often a lot less expense involved. While there are definitely advantages of adopting a child from a foreign culture, there are also some potential problems that can come up. The child may be from another race, and when he or she starts to get older, the child may start to feel that he doesn't belong in the family - or the family's culture - because he or she looks different. But I do know personally that adopting a child from a foreign culture can be done well enough so that both the child and the adoptive family can benefit. One of my best friends here in town has an older brother who was adopted from Korea when he was just an infant. He grew up well loved and supported, and didn't seem to have any personal problem growing up, nor did he have any brushes with the law (well, except for the time he made a pair of nunchucks and took them to school.) Today, he is employed in a steady job, has his own home, and is happily married to a lovely woman. I've talked to him several times, and he is a very nice guy with a good sense of humor.

So as I said, it's possible to adopt children from another culture, and both the adoptive parents and the adopted child have no problems and in fact benefit from the relationship. Of course, when it comes to the subject of adoption in the world of motion pictures, filmmakers don't seem very Mixed Companyinterested in portraying adoption (domestic or foreign) as being trouble-free, probably because that route would not offer very much drama or conflict to an audience. When filmmakers do tackle adoption, they seem to go towards one of two extremes. The first path is one with a lot of drama and angst, with both the child and the adoptive parents involved in serious struggle. The second path is comic in nature, with all sorts of wacky things happening, like with the Problem Child movies. That is the path that Mixed Company follows. This comic path wasn't what attracted me to the movie, but instead the fact that this 1970s adoption movie was one of the first to be strongly focused on the subject of adopting children from different cultures. I was curious to see what the viewpoint on the subject was more than forty years ago, and if things had changed for the better (or worse) since then. The central characters of the movie are a married couple, Pete (Bologna, Cops & Robbers) and Kathy (Harris, Nashville), who presently have three children. Kathy wants a fourth child, but their doctor has told the couple they are unable to have any more children. At least the traditional way, that is. At her job at a foster home, Kathy soon after gets the idea of adopting a child. But since she finds there are precious few Caucasian children available to be adopted, she finds her choices are pretty much limited to children of minority races. Kathy does not mind this at all, and she arranges to take home an African-American child by the name of Freddie (Haywood Nelson, What's Happening!) for a trial period. This horrifies Pete, because he is a very bigoted person. But Pete's objections do not sway Kathy's mind. In fact, a short time later, she not only brings home a Vietnamese child (Jina Tan), but also a Native American child (Stephen Honanie). As you can imagine, Pete is even more upset, and not only has to tolerate these children for his wife's sake, he has to deal with the upset racist Caucasians who live in his area, like his next door neighbor Al (Bosley, The Bang Bang Kid).

I like to think that while present-day society still has a way to go, we have made over the past few decades significant progress with various attitudes, such as with race relations. So I had an idea that Mixed Company, being more than forty years old, might have some attitudes that seen today might seem out of date, even if they were done with the best of intentions at the time. My first clue was looking at the theatrical poster for the movie, which was printed on the front of the movie's DVD case. On the poster, one of the biological children of the Harris and Bologna characters says upon news of his new ethnic adopted siblings, "At last I can learn how to hot-wire a car!" (Yeah, Native Americans sure are notorious car thieves, right?) If you think that is bad, consider what's to be found in the movie itself. When Freddie first comes to his new home, multiple members of the (white) neighborhood stare frozen in shock at the sight of this African-American child. (Two hours later, the neighbors come to Pete and Kathy with an offer to buy their house.) Freddie's teacher at school feels so sorry for him that she doesn't assign him homework like with her other students. Later, Kathy, pleading with her husband to accept Freddie, asks him, "How many black families can afford to adopt?" Kathy's biological children react to their new adopted siblings in ways ranging from the youngest (Ariane Heller) refusing to take a bite out of Freddie's hot dog to the middle child (Eric Olson, Viva Knievel!) saying, "Well, there goes the neighborhood" at the sight of Freddie moving in. Later in the movie, Pete's confrontation with members of the police over Freddie has the police telling Pete that not only is his adopting of Freddie "a long shot", but also asking him, "What will you do when he grows up and gets a white girl pregnant?"

Though racism certainly is still around more than forty years later, I don't think I have to tell you today a lot of what I described in the previous paragraph is mighty uncomfortable and unbelievable today. But most of the cringe-worthy moments come from Bologna's character Pete. When Freddie first comes to his house, Pete says to his wife, "Did you notice that he's a sp**e?" Later, he calls Freddie "Superfly" to his face, as well as explaining the presence of Freddie to a pal by saying "He's my uncle doing a Al Jolson imitation." And that's just some of the milder reactions he has towards ethnic people, not just limited to the three children his wife wants to adopt. Quite frankly, the character of Pete is one of the most distasteful characters I have seen in a movie for quite some time, not just with his blatant bigotry, but the fact that in just about every scene he comes across as unbelievably hostile, even to his wife and three biological children. I think the intention of writer/director Melville Shavelson (Yours, Mine And Ours) was to make Pete another Archie Bunker. But if you remember Archie Bunker, care was made by the show's creators and actor Carroll O'Connor to give Bunker a vulnerable and ignorant edge so that he'd remain palatable. Pete, on the other hand, is pretty much pure hatred for most of the running time. He is always lashing out, not just to the members of the basketball team he coaches (he calls one player a "jolly black giant"), but even towards his wife and biological children. He is such an ugly character, that not only will viewers be more wishing that he ends up in a really undesirable fate than to change his perspective, that when his character does start to come around in the last part of the movie, the transformation is so sudden and large that it goes beyond straining credibility.

As it turns out, none of the other principle characters (and the actors who play them) manage to win over the audience. Harris' character never really explains why she wants more children, for one thing, and it doesn't take long for the character to be shoved into the background and remain there for most of the rest of the movie. There isn't that much to be said about the kids in the movie as well; the character of Freddie has too much attitude to be sympathetic, and while there is initially some promise with the family's progressive-thinking oldest biological daughter (Lisa Gerritsen, Airport), the character is ultimately shoved into the background as well. With all these sour characters and the often uncomfortable racial attitude, it should come as no surprise that Mixed Company also fails at its main ambition to be a family-friendly comedy-drama the whole family will enjoy. It's simply not appropriate for kids, not just for the reasons already mentioned, but for the fact there is so much profanity (and an eyebrow-raising amount of nudity, both child and adult) that the movie would easily get slapped with a PG-13 (or higher) rating if submitted to the MPAA today. As for adult viewers, there certainly isn't that much to laugh about when the movie tries to be funny. The general tone of the movie is so sour, so hostile, that potentially funny scenes and one-liners simply can't induce the audience to let their guard down and laugh even a little. The more serious moments in the movie that could have had some serious dramatic impact also come across as equally painful to view because they are so cold and heavy-handed that viewers will just feel sad and depressed. Well before the end of the movie, I saw all too well that there was an old proverb that, slightly rewritten, was very apt: Misery loves mixed company.

(Posted June 28, 2021)

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