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No fewer than eight Presidential administrations--from Taft through Eisenhower--are examined through the eyes of the White House staff--maids, assistants, servants, doormen and other "menial" workers. The main character is Lillian Rogers Parks, a maid at the White House for three decades and the author of the non-fiction book upon which this miniseries is based. Written by
Marty McKee <firstname.lastname@example.org>
A Nice Heaping Helping at Presidential Living in the White House (1911 - 1961)
This was a very good series, based on the memoirs of an employee at the White House from the Taft Administration through President Eisenhower's. It's obvious too that besides the book by Lillian Rogers Parks, there are also bits from other White House books that are frequently used by historians (Leslie Nielson plays White House usher Ike Hoover, who wrote an important volume that is frequently used as a source book). Leslie Uggams plays Lillian, and the film begins with Lillian's mother Maggie (Olivia Cole) starting there in 1911 when William and Nellie Taft are in the White House (or as the unhappy Taft called it, "the great White Jail"). Maggie's daughter Lillian eventually overcomes a physical disability to become a useful member of the staff.
But the most interesting thing in the series was the glimpse into the eight first families who inhabited the building from 1909 to 1961. Interestingly the families preceding and following the framing administrations (Theodore Roosevelt's and John Kennedy's) are better known to most people than some of those in the eight (the Tafts, Hardings, Coolidges, and Hoovers are not all that well known today - although Warren Harding's scandal filled administration is recalled to some extent).
Each administration and the way they handled the White House is different. Taft (Victor Buono, in a rare nice-guy role) is concerned with the health of wife Nellie (Julie Harris) who had a stroke and had to learn how to speak again. He is also upset at how his old friend Teddy Roosevelt has turned against him (in one moment he shows how a reconciliation is impossible, as he is depending on Major Archibald Butt to bring Teddy and him back together - and Butt's returning from Europe on the Titanic). Wilson (Robert Vaughan) has two wives, and the first one (Ellen - Kim Hunter) was better liked than the second (Edith
Claire Bloom) . Later it is Wilson's health collapse in the fight for
the League of Nations that is followed, with Edith taking over his office quietly.
Warren and Florence Harding (George Kennedy and Celeste Holms) are stuck with a dimwitted husband (and a corrupt one) learning that his administration has more holes in it than a swiss cheese. His infidelities are revealed (before Kennedy and Clinton Harding was our most priapic President). Also shown is Mrs. Harding playing Warren's favorite song (Carrie Jacob Bond's "The End of a Perfect Day.") on the piano.
But George Kennedy and the script writer has one moment giving some dignity to our 29th President. During the 1920 campaign a nasty smear was thrown at Harding based on rumors that his family was not originally white but African - American (see Francis Russell's THE SHADOW OF BLOOMING GROVE for an account of this). Maggie sees a furious Harding ripping up a "book" about his ancestry by one "Professor" William Estabrook Chancellor that the Justice Department confiscated. Harding sees Maggie, turns to her, and heartily apologizes for the racist piece of garbage directed at all African-Americans. After he leaves, Maggie sees the book and tells another servant to let the book burn.
Ed Flanders shows Coolidge as a businesslike, honest man - a welcome change in terms of abilities to Harding, who is in love with his wife Grace (Lee Grant), and broken - hearted about the death of his younger son Calvin from blood poisoning in a freak accident. Flanders has a great moment telling off (in ironic manner) Cloris Leachman as the snooty head of the staff (leading to her resignation).
The Hoovers (Larry Gates and Jan Sterling) are done too quickly, and one gets the impression they were too aloof from the staff. F.D.R. (John Anderson) and Eleanor (Eileen Heckart) are shown to be sympathetic to the minority groups due to the President's physical condition. The Trumans (Harry Morgan and Estelle Parsons) show that President's feistiness (and Bess's love of mystery novels). And then President and Mrs. Eisenhower (Andrew Duggan and Barbra Barrie) raps things up as we reach fairly modern times.
It was a welcome view of Presidential private lives rarely done before or since on television (except for individual Presidents or events in their administrations). It has not been revived on television since 1979, but now is on video and well worth catching.
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