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DVD
 
Getting Personal with the Presidents
By Rory L. Aronsky

   
 
"Backstairs at the
White House"

Acorn Media
Not Rated
$59.92
Four discs
Movies:
(out of four)
DVD:
 
   

Geology, algebra, chemistry, geography and other fact-based subjects require memorization. Know this formula. They all lead from A to B to C or various combinations. History involves people, has drama, and is open to interpretation. In other words, it’s English class with a more truthful beat—the stuff that inspires fiction. Romances? Wars? It all ties together.

That’s why history should be taught like an English class. Get to know our founding fathers. See the Boston Tea Party as a risky action sequence if you’re so inclined. The stories may differ from author to author and educator to educator, but a ravaged battlefield can be just as affecting as the journey in Beowulf.

That’s the nature of “Backstairs at the White House,” an important miniseries from 1979 that aired on NBC and is finally getting new life on DVD, with a respectable four-disc set and a beneficial 17-page booklet. The series changes the way we normally see the U.S. presidents— through their portraits, their speeches and—if available—the words of others.

To us, they may seem like enigmas of authority. Maggie Parks and Lillian Rogers Parks never saw several of them that way. They worked at the White House for William Howard Taft and continued all the way through the Eisenhower administration. As mother and daughter, they were the maids of the presidents and first ladies. Based on My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House by Lillian Rogers, “Backstairs at the White House” transforms these men into human beings.

No longer are they simply crusty relics of a time long ago. They have feelings, worries, anger, joy and deep sorrows just as much as we do from day to day. Woodrow Wilson (Robert Vaughn) suffers a stroke, leading his second wife Edith (Claire Bloom) to take charge of her husband’s duties. Wilson’s successor, Warren Harding (George Kennedy), slowly realizes that his presidency has slipped from him and landed in the hands of his cronies, who have only used him to get what they wanted.

Each actor in this production, from Olivia Cole as Maggie and Leslie Uggams as Lillian (with Tania Johnson as a young Lillian, who’s great in a conversation with Victor Buono as Taft) to the presidential actors, tapped into new realms to portray creators and witnesses to history. In supporting roles, Leslie Nielsen plays the stately chief usher Ike Hoover, and Cloris Leachman icily performs as housekeeper Mrs. Jaffray.

The creative and economical filmmaking of producers Ed Friendly and Michael O’Herlihy, who also directed, complements these actors’ talents. It also gives weight to weak moments by actors such as Lee Grant as First Lady Grace Coolidge, who is distraught after the death of her youngest son. Grant slides dangerously close to melodrama, something the production shuns outright in the hours preceding that administration. Whether the real Mrs. Coolidge acted like this or not, it doesn’t fit well in the piece.

Harry Morgan plays Harry S. Truman with a touch of Colonel Sherman Potter—perhaps Morgan was on hiatus from“M*A*S*H.” It’s a distraction, but one which smooths itself out when Truman directs Maggie to lay some suits out for him on the bed because he has to speak to “Joe Stalin and Churchill” about ending World War II. As Truman’s reflection walks away from the mirror, the glass is replaced by footage of an atomic bomb explosion, a powerful revelation of the result.

Maggie and Lillian also live their own lives, encountering financial hardships, promises gained and lost and the turmoil of Emmett, Jr. (Kevin Hooks), the brother and son who’s in flux after being gassed during World War I. They go through almost as much as the various first families, but as they stay, the power changes and there are always new people to meet and new eccentricities emerging—most amusingly when tobacco spittoons are placed a few feet apart on the floors of the East Wing as we hear Harding taking the oath of office.

Most of all, “Backstairs at the White House” inspires us to look into history, to read more, understand more and be more interested. The presidents have now become human by way of gripping storytelling and strong actors. In turn, curiosity takes hold. That is the greatest honor this miniseries has done for those men and us.

rory [at] saltshakermagazine.com

 

 
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