The short list of all-time best American miniseries would have to include Backstairs at the White House (1979), a superb drama following the (mostly black) White House staff through eight presidential administrations, from Taft through Eisenhower. The series was adapted from a biography/memoir written by Lillian Rogers Parks (1897-1997), who worked there as a seamstress for many years, and whose mother, Maggie, rose up through the ranks, eventually becoming Chief Maid.
Probably inspired by the surprising success in America of the British series Upstairs, Downstairs and certainly by the phenomenon of Alex Haley's Roots two years before, executive producer Ed Friendly must have reasoned that Backstairs at the White House held much the same appeal as the British show, with race as well as class being a source of dramatic conflict, and that securing Roots veterans Olivia Cole (as Maggie) and Leslie Uggams (as Lillian), as well as Louis Gossett, Jr. (as houseman Levi Mercer) would insure good ratings.
Beyond this, the series offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at both famous presidents and first ladies, as well as those all but forgotten by the general public. And so the series is really two shows at once: a compelling portrait of dedicated White House servants constantly at the mercy of political winds and eccentric whims of their charges, and the irony of working class blacks struggling to pay their rent while caring for the most powerful figures in world history. And, at the same time, the program is a mini-history of America, with eight distinctive portraits of presidents and their families told from a unique vantage point, where their most personal flaws, foibles, and occasional greatness is glimpsed on an extremely personal level. As such, this is a great show for parents to watch with their schoolchildren, or for anyone with an interest in American history.
Perhaps Backstairs' greatest achievement is Linda Francis and Felton & Feinberg's flawless casting. Where Roots had been such a gamble its producers grabbed any name talent that agreed to do the series, resulting in some unfortunate miscasting, Backstairs at the White House has a dream cast of fine African-American talent, including Robert Hooks, Paul Winfield, Hari Rhodes, and others, plus carefully-considered actors as the various presidents and first ladies. Appropriately, many of these parts are filled by larger-than-life actors with big screen presence, and to the casting directors' credit, the biggest stars don't necessarily play the most famous presidents. Victor Buono's size made him an obvious choice for Taft, but the cartoony villains he frequently played in the 1960s is erased with understated scenes of Taft with young Lillian (played as child by Tania Johnson) and his dedicated care of ailing wife Nellie (Julie Harris) after she suffers a massive stroke. Woodrow Wilson's (Robert Vaughn) presidency is likewise met with grave illnesses, and the contrasting relationships Maggie has with Wilson's first wife Ellen (Kim Hunter) and second wife Edith (Claire Bloom) is interesting.
One is tempted to note our current administration's striking similarity to that of Warren G. Harding (George Kennedy). In a marvelous touch, his arrival into the White House introduces the eccentric Florence Harding (Celeste Holm) creepily singing "Look for the Silver Lining" to a bemused Maggie. Ed Flanders and Lee Grant, as Calvin and Grace Coolidge, are intriguingly depicted as a warm and playful couple (whose family also meets with tragedy), a contrast to the president's stuffy image. Flanders' expressions of guilt and predictions of an imminent Great Depression he cannot stop make for great drama. Jan Sterling's iron-hand control of the servants as Mrs. Hoover, and Larry Gates' stuffy, almost invisible presence as the president soon give way to John Anderson and Eileen Heckart's personable, charismatic Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, which comes as breath of fresh air to the White House Staff. Moreover, Lillian's childhood polio and lifelong use of a crutch creates a unique bond between her and the wheelchair-bound president. After the realistically turbulent relationship between mother Maggie and daughter Lillian, the latter's relationship with FDR is the show's most memorable.
After Roosevelt's unusually long stay at the White House, the postwar years with Harry and Bess Truman (Harry Morgan and Estelle Parsons) and Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower (Andrew Duggan and Barbara Barrie) are almost jarring. Leslie Nielsen, before his big comeback as a comedy star, has a substantial role as Chief Usher Ike Hoover, while Cloris Leachman makes a strong impression as Mrs. Jaffray, the subtly racist supervising housekeeper who outstays her welcome at the White House by a great many years.
Cramming so much history into four episodes running a total of nine hours, references to historical events are sometimes crudely interjected, but for the most part screenwriters Paul Dubov (who died soon after this aired) and wife Gwen Bagni (together they created Honey West) admirably hold everything together. They recognized that the real appeal was in contrasting the various presidents and first ladies, and their often extreme quirks, phobias, and obsessions, from one first lady's fear of bald-headed men, to one president's whim that the male staff all be of the same height (resulting in the dismissal of one especially short butler, played by Matthew "Stymie" Beard).
Like the characters in Upstairs, Downstairs, the relationship between the White House Staff, the first families and their staff alternates between intimate personal relationships and crass, master-servant ones, sometimes turning on a dime from one to the other. Maggie so devotes herself to her job that she comes to regard (especially) her first ladies with the pride and concern one would associate parents toward their adult children, while the more cynical Lillian is reluctant to see herself sucked into such a sacrificial, life-draining existence. Fascinating stuff.
Video & Audio
Backstairs at the White House is presented on four single-sided DVDs, with one episode per disc. The first show runs 148 minutes, while the last three clock in at 99 minutes apiece. (Beware: there are spoiler-filled "previews" of each next episode.) The full frame transfers aren't the best; though shot in 35mm, the series looks murkier than it needs to be, with pretty lifeless color, thankfully none of which gets in the way of the drama. A more serious problem plagues Part 2 and the beginning of Part 3, a very odd transferring flaw. Images look fine when there is little movement, but tight shots of people walking, turning their head and such have a weird, almost chroma-key type effect, as if the video transfer was trying to create some sort of video matte. This gets quite annoying during these episodes without ruining them. The English mono sound is adequate; there are no subtitle or alternate audio options.
The only extra is a skimpy Cast Filmographies, with much less information than you could find with a quick scan of the IMDb. A DVD like this cries out for reams of text pages on the real-life Maggie and Lillian Rogers, and more details on the rest of the staff and the presidents and their families.
Correction The folks at Acorn Media have alerted us to a booklet inadvertently not sent to this reviewer. The 17-page, full-color insert is everything wished for above. Executive producer Ed Friendly discusses the making of the miniseries and there's a brief biography of Lillian Rogers Parks. Neil W. Horstman, president of the White House Historical Association, offers an overview of white house staffers going back to 1800, and there's an brief piece about the role of Chief Usher. A timeline of "Historical Highlights" and "Fast Facts about the Presidents" round out the booklet.
Despite the shortcomings of its transfer, Backstairs at the White House is a must-see series, a compelling true story loaded with drama and historical insight. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.