Saturday, May 3, 2008

Backstairs at the White House

Source Material: My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House by Lillian Rogers Parks and Frances Spatz Leighton

Director: Michael O'Herlihy

Teleplay by: Gwen Bagni and Paul Dubov

Year: 1979

Cast Highlights:
Olivia Cole: Maggie Rogers
Leslie Uggams: Lillian Rogers Parks
Louis Gossett Jr.: Levi Mercer
Robert Hooks: John Mays
Leslie Nielsen: Ike Hoover
Cloris Leachman: Mrs. Jaffray
Hari Rhodes: Butler Coates
Paul Winfield: Emmett Rogers Sr
Bill Overton: Doorman Jackson
Victor Buono: President William Howard Taft
Julie Harris: Helen 'Nellie' Taft
Robert Vaughn: President Woodrow Wilson
Kim Hunter: Ellen Wilson
Claire Bloom: Edith Bolling Galt Wilson
George Kennedy: President Warren G. Harding
Celeste Holm: Florence Harding
Ed Flanders: President Calvin Coolidge
Lee Grant: Grace Coolidge
Larry Gates: President Herbert Hoover
Jan Sterling: Lou Hoover
John Anderson: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Eileen Heckart: Eleanor Roosevelt
Harry Morgan: President Harry S. Truman
Estelle Parsons: Bess Truman
Andrew Duggan: President Dwight D. Eisenhower
Barbara Barrie: Mamie Eisenhower

I saw this miniseries when it first aired in 1979. I was seven years old, and not the best judge of artistic merit, but I remember being struck by the breadth of history that it showed and the humor in it. Years later, I decided to watch it again and found, sadly, that it didn't really hold up.

Basically, this is two movies that are very unevenly matched. On the one hand, there is the story of the Rogers family: Maggie, Lillian, and Emmett. Maggie works as a beautician and a maid, gains employment at the White House, and gradually gets drawn into the drama of working for America's first families. Her daughter, Lillian, is an energetic free spirit who also ends up working at the White House, where she and her mother often find themselves at loggerheads. Emmett is a nice guy who gets gassed in World War I and moves to Arizona.

The Rogers family story feels, at times, like a minstrel show. As Maggie, Olivia Cole is all pop-eyes and surprise, constantly amazed and irritated at the trouble that her daughter gets into. Meanwhile, Leslie Uggams plays Lillian as a sassy, yet fundamentally kind wild girl. Emmett is a decent, reliable man, as are most of the black male characters. For large portions of the film, these characters feel like a white ideal of the "Uncle Tom" stereotype: funny, sweet, and trying oh so hard to please the white folk.

The other story involves the various Presidents who occupy the White House: Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower. In this respect, the film varies from brilliance to elementary school-level amateurishness, depending upon the Presidency being covered. While Robert Vaughn's Wilson is dry and wooden and George Kennedy's Harding veers into scenery chewing, Harry Morgan does a solid job as a snappy Truman and Andrew Duggan's Eisenhower is spot-on perfect. The real kudos, however, belong to John Anderson and Ed Flanders. As Calvin Coolidge, Flanders is perfect: strict, melancholy, and very funny in a dry way. On the other hand, John Anderson's FDR is hilarious, energetic, and charismatic. One sometimes hears about FDR's sexual magnetism and reputation as a playboy. Anderson makes this side come alive; his Roosevelt is an absolute delight, flirty and playful and brilliant.

Overall, the casting is one of the best parts of this film. Having grown up on 1980's television, I loved seeing so many of my favorite actors gathered here. For me, Victor Buono will always be Batman's King Tut, Harry Morgan is MASH's Colonel Potter, Leslie Nielsen is cemented as Police Squad's Frank Drevin, and Cloris Leachman is Young Frankenstein's Frau Farbissna. It was an absolute joy to see them as William Howard Taft, Harry S. Truman, Butler Hoover, and Housekeeper Jaffray, even if they often looked nothing like the characters that they were playing.

Overall, this movie is a useful history lesson and, despite its low production values and uneven acting, it is a lot of fun. The later nights are, far and away, superior to the earlier ones.

Physical resemblance: 4-10
Historical Accuracy: 6
Acting: 6
Production Values: 4
Cinematography: 3
Directing: 7
Overall: 6

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