Saturday, June 24, 2006

Executive Service, The Peoples House

A Boxed-set Review

From the golden age of the mini-series came Ed Friendly production of Backstairs at the White House, a sort of epic sitting room drama based on the memories of Lillian Rogers Parks. In 1909 Lillians mother Maggie (Olivia Cole), separated from her alcoholic husband and trying to raise her polio stricken daughter and rambunctious young son, took a position in the White House domestic staff as a maid and hair stylist, a job that would come to dominate her family's lives. In time Lillian (Leslie Uggams) would come to work at the White House too as a seamstress and maid, while brother Emmett would be gased in World War One and spend most of his life in Arizona 'recovering'. The Rogers story and those of many of the staff are quite endearing, indeed it is the personal narrative that gives this production its continuity and much of its heart. However its the 'backstairs' look at the private lives of eight first family's that provides the hook for most viewers.

Backstairs view of the presidency is mostly romantic, though some first family's come of better then others, often not the ones you might expect. I found myself really liking the Tafts and while one could rightly argue they were in over there heads, they never the less seem like quality people. Nellie Taft (Julie Harris) was a bit of perfectionist, and the true force behind her husbands political aspirations, yet some one whom you can readily understand. President Taft (Victor Buono) was a jovial, and surprisingly humble fat man who really loved his wife and wanted to do well by his country, while never really enjoying the presidency. The Wilsons, whom I've been fans of since watching a mid-40's bio-pic of the man, come off less well then the Tafts. It takes a while for the White House staff to warm up to this old school master (Robert Vaughn) and the two wives he had in office. The first was Mrs. Ellen Wilson (Kim Hunter) who truley a rock to her husband, one on which he so depended that he rather quickly remarried after her passing. The second Mrs. Wilson (Claire Bloom) was a surprising strong women, whom many accuse of essentially running the country after her husbands stroke in 1919.

When the Wilsons left in came the Hardings. Warren Harding (George Kennedy) is now considered to be one of the most notoriously corrupt presidents in our nations history, though while he was in office he was near universally beloved. Mrs. Florence Harding (Celeste Holm) was the kind of First Lady spirituallist we now associate with Nancy Reagan, as well as being some what dotty and slyly knowing of her husbands indiscretions. When president Harding died while on a cross country train trip, Mrs. Harding stayed in mourning in the White House for a couple of weeks before the Coolidges moved in. Grace Coolidge (Lee Grant) is considered in some circles to have been the perfect model of a first lady, and I've long thought that Mr. Coolidge (Ed Flanders) could have handled a major crises had one occurred during his tenure in office. The Coolidges are probably my favorite first family depicted in the series, they are out of Lynch with their eccentricitys, weird seemingly contradictory traits, and the truth of their emotions.

The Hoovers however where cold toward the staff (especially Mr. Hoover played by Larry Gates), and often acted detached from what was going on in the country, as witness their constant elaborite entertaning of guests. Mrs. Lou Hoover (Jan Sterling) even took to communicating with the staff largely through 'short-hand' hand gestures. The Roosevelts (John Anderson and Eileen Heckart) where saintly idealists out of a screwball comedy or George Kaufman play. They where followed by the down to earth Trumans, with Bess played by Estelle Parsons and Harry Morgan as the obvious casting choice for the president. Andrew Duggans president Eisenhower was kind enough if emotionally distant from the staff, while Barbara Barrie's Mamie Eisenhower was kind of nuts. Some Elders I served around on my mission briefly taught a former member of Mamie Eisenhowers White House staff, and apparently he said she was a drunk, I wouldn't doubt it.

Backstairs at the White House also stars Louis Gossett Jr., Leslie Nielsen, and Cloris Leachman as members of the White House staff. This was a truly enjoyable mini-series, and though it sounds a little corny I really was sad when it ended.


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