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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Before 1920 America had dramatists, but little of their work survives
into modern times. The reason is the dollop of reality and grim truth
that was called Eugene O'Neill, and which started coming to Broadway as
the Roaring 1920s came in. But it is a little unfair. Certain pre-1920s
works might be worth more than a little footnote in a study of the
American stage. Perhaps George M. Cohan's musicals like "Little Johnny
Jones" cannot be revived, but his dramatic works like SEVEN KEYS TO
BALDPATE and THE TAVERN have been revived by amateur groups. In fact,
SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE was made into a television drama on THE DUPONT
SHOW OF THE WEEK with Fred Gwynne and Joe E. Ross back in the 1960s.
One forgotten early dramatist was Percy Mackaye. His father Steele MacKaye was a prominent actor-manager-producer of the 19th Century. Percy turned out to be talented in doing stage works like historical pageants, but he also turned out this play, THE SCARECROW, based on a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It takes place in New England in the 1690s, and it is in the shadows of the Salem Witch trials. The characters live in a small town, and one of them is Dickon, a malevolent little man who is actually the Devil. Dickon knows more of the weak side of several of the town leaders, and he decides to teach them a lesson by bringing to life a scarecrow as a visiting nobleman, Lord Ravensbane. The townspeople react to this "social lion" in different ways, not noticing that he only functions while he is smoking his pipe (when it is out of his mouth he loses his "life force"). But Dickon's plan has one flaw in it - Ravensbane turns out to be a nice individual, who even falls in love. And the crisis develops when he discovers how artificial is his being, and how he is determined to shake off the control of the devil who made him.
This televised dramatization appeared in 1972. It's supporting cast includes that tragic figure of Peter Duell, in one of his last performances before his suicide. Will Geer, Elisha Cook Jr. (in a bit part, unfortunately), Nina Foch, a young Blythe Danner (as the heroine), and even "VERTIGO"'s Tom Hellmore are in the cast - but the major acting honors go to Norman Lloyd as the amusingly devilish Dickon, and to Gene Wilder. It was only six years from his first major part in BONNIE AND CLYDE, and five since his star turn in THE PRODUCERS. Within another year he'd be in BLAZING SADDLES. But in none of these parts had Wilder played a romantic, and tragic figure. Watching his Ravensbane shows a side to his acting we rarely saw in his early career. And he carried it off very well indeed. It is good to see that it is on DVD now.
I was curious about this film a few months ago, and lamented that it was not
available on tape or DVD anywhere. So imagine my surprise when I found it
nestled in the bowels of my own massive video collection a short while
later! I'd taped it 10 years earlier and obviously forgotten all about it.
It is a charming little movie--obviously a low-budget, in a "play" format. (Meaning, not any outdoor scenes, all shot inside on a soundstage, etc.) The sets are inexpensive, and the video quality is what you might expect from the era in which is was filmed. (Early '70s.)
Based on an old play, the story moves along nicely, and the entire cast is excellent. Blythe Danner (Gwyneth Paltrow's mom), Will Geer (Grandpa from "The Waltons"), and the late Pete Duel ("Alias Smith and Jones") all do a good job in their rolls.
Of course, Gene Wilder is the star (as the "Scarecrow") and he is very sweet indeed. Interesting to watch, if you can find it. I'm glad I did!
The Scarecrow is a quirky 1972 made for t.v. film starring Gene Wilder.
Boris Sagal directed this Broadway Theatre Archive and has gone quite
forgotten in Gene Wilder's filmography. Conquering such subjects as
love and witches, this film based on the 17th-century witch scares The
Scarecrow does an able job at illustrating the fate which befell those
who were even interested in witchcraft. A wonderful ensemble cast
including Blythe Danner, Norman Lloyd, The Scarecrow is an intense
exploration of forbidden love.
Massachusetts in the 1690's wasn't the easiest place to live in. Young Rachel Merton (Blythe Danner) is interested in witchcraft, and the tools of those who practice it. When she happens upon a gorgeous mirror that is to show one's true self and love, she decides she must have it. Under the cover of a rising sun, she sneaks out of her home not telling Richard Talbot (Pete Duel) to whom she has been promised in marriage. Richard, suspicious of her early morning activities, travels to the witch from whom she buys the mirror, and is furious to see his fiancé giving into the ideas of witchcraft. When the witch is ridiculed by Richard and the girl's Uncle, Justice Gilead Merton (Will Geer) she becomes enraged and promises revenge. Her errand boy, Dickon (Norman Lloyd) tells her about a spell he can perform on a scarecrow to bring it to life and embody the illegitimate child she had with Justice Gilead Merton. Dickon performed the spell and the two begin to teach the man that has sprung to life from the straw, the one they call Lord Ravensbane (Gene Wilder) all the regal habits he will need to know to enact the ultimate revenge of making the niece of the Justice fall in love with a product of witchcraft.
A wonderfully acted piece, The Scarecrow, is filmed exactly as one would see it onstage. There are very few sets and costume changes involved, and what really shines through is the acting of the characters on screen. Some of the dialogue that accompanies a play of this nature was a bit hard to handle after an hour. For instance, the phrase "permit me" was uttered before anyone said anything, or so it seemed. There was also the prevalence of referring to everyone by their name each time they spoke to them, which was enough to wear at the nerves a little bit. Of course, this goes along with watching a film or play of that period, it should still be noted that those idiosyncracies definitely stand out. Each character was extremely convincing in their role. The play was filled with top notch performances, which was the best part of an otherwise stuffy dialogue-centered piece. Wilder's performance was as cautiously angelic as ever, proving how much talent he had as an actor, even in 1972. The Scarecrow is definitely one of Wilder's early performances not to be ignored.
Only Nathaniel Hawthorne could have written something like this quirky drama. Legendary actress Nina Foch plays a witch and Norman Lloyd plays a devil-type character in New England in the 1600s. Gene Wilder comes to alive as a scarecrow who comes to life and falls in love with the lovely, younger Blythe Danner. Her daughter Gwyneth Paltrow has an amazing resemblance but I prefer Blythe as one of my favorite actresses who never got the fame that her daughter now enjoys. Blythe Danner plays the lovely Rachel, a young girl who buys a mirror from the witch. Again, the story is well-done and told with a first rate cast of characters and a cast who could play them to their audience. They don't show televised stage dramas anymore on television which is a terrible shame because we need them more than ever.
I remember watching this a long time ago. I really liked it and was trying to see if it was on vhs or dvd on the net. I have always liked Gene Wilder and this was one of the quirky movies that really made an impression on me. Too bad I never recorded it.
I finally found a dvd on this movie on Amazon.com. Of course I had to buy it since I've been looking for it for years. I had forgotten how good it really is. The acting is excellent, the show itself is a bit quirky, but totally enjoyable. I had forgotten Pete Duel was in this. I'd recommend it to anyone.
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