Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I remember being forced to read a dull children's book about Eleanor Roosevelt when I was in grade school - it just made it seem as though the famous first lady was an energetic person who helped FDR get around in his wheelchair. I'm not kidding, my only strong memory of the book was that we were supposed to be impressed by the fact that sickness and a handicap might happen to anybody, even a president.
Eleanor Roosevelt is one of those personalities that one hears lauded all through life, and this DVD of the PBS long-form biography seemed a good opportunity to finally catch up with the lady. It's certainly worth it, as the story of this great woman is as inspirational as biographies get. There doesn't seem to be much room left in the modern culture for the kind of integrity she represents.
Clocking in at 2.5 hours, Sue Williams' show has the luxury of telling its story in uncommon depth. It isn't the expected tale of a privileged child from a stellar family of New York society. Little Eleanor had serious family problems and was raised by relatives while her beloved father drank himself to death; the docu immediately establishes the personality of a shy, closed-off little girl desperately in need of parental affection.
A liberal education, trips to Europe and exposure to free-thinking women were Eleanor's background. By the time she was being courted by a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the society girl was deeply involved in New York charities and was teaching in a school for poor kids.
The recurring theme in Eleanor Roosevelt's adult married life seems to have been a grudging acquiesence to powers out of her control. Whenever Franklin runs for office she's expected to abandon her personal pursuits and play the 'good wife.' She proves an instrumental part of her husband's political life as an advisor and confidante; when he's elected President she becomes an activist First Lady. Acting as FDR's social conscience, Eleanor provides much of the spirit of the New Deal and tries her best with some fairly radical social experiments, like government-funded planned communities for Appalachian unemployeds. Republicans and conservatives consider her their worst enemy, as she becomes a master of public relations and enjoys almost unanimous public approval for her efforts, even the occasional failure. She aired her views in a liberal newspaper column and was instrumental in keeping the New Deal alive.
Eleanor Roosevelt courts more controversy with her stand against racism. The celebrated Marion Anderson flap occurs when the Daughters of the American Revolution refuse permission for the African-American contralto to sing at a formal affair; Eleanor voices her outrage in her newspaper column and arranges for Anderson to sing at Easter services at the Washington Monument, which becomes a famous newsreel and a Civil Rights landmark almost twenty years before the 'official' start of the Civil Rights movement.
During the war Eleanor is one of the most popular VIP visitors to the front. She promotes the cause of Negro troops when almost noone else would.
The docu's sensitive script makes us feel very close to this woman and aware of her perceived failures as well as her triumphs. Eleanor's personal life is something of a mess, with a marriage spoiled by a domineering mother-in-law who ruled her son's life in a 19th-century fashion. She is devastated by FDR's infidelities and their life together eventually becomes more of a professional association than a marriage. She sufferes terrible indignities that would crush a lesser woman. Only after FDR dies is she told that he preferred to spend his last hours with a lover kept hidden from her, a woman that years before he swore he'd not see again.Eleanor's activities after FDR's death prove that she was his equal as a politician.
Eleanor Roosevelt also becomes a target of J. Edgar Hoover, who takes it upon himself to spy upon her every association and add his personal comments to her F.B.I. file. If ever one needs convincing that the bureau at that time was conducting smear campaigns against liberals, the evidence is here.
Eleanor lives for the better part of two more decades, a revered and much-honored woman who makes countless television appearances. Just to prove this, the docu shows a segment of a Frank Sinatra special that he dedicates to her as a special guest.
Paramount's DVD of the PBS American Experience docu Eleanor Roosevelt is a finely-crafted work given an excellent encoding. All aspects of the show are top-flight, from Tom Phillips' sensitive music to the few recreated images at the beginning offered to illustrate Eleanor's lace-and-silverware 1890s childhood. The photo and newsreel documentation is superb, with perfect-quality transfers of many of the First Lady's countless news-op appearances. The lengty running time passes quickly, as the film is as entertaining as any fictional drama.
The plain-wrap packaging is going to appeal mostly to schools and other institutions. As with other PBS releases, the corporate sponsor logos and ads from television are retained intact. The descriptive copy for the show on the package back is well written, all except for a line saying that Ms. Roosevelt's private life was marred by "a never-ending search for intimacy." Writer-director Sue Williams dutifully reports on the various men in Eleanor's life and allows us to surmise that she had normal desires like any person, but the "search for intimacy" phrase conjures images of poor Eleanor being on the make, and doesn't do her justice. After watching this show, one's image of Eleanor Roosevelt will never again be the homely lady in the newsreels, christening warships with a squeaky voice.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
American Experience: Eleanor Roosevelt rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 13, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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