“UNDERGROUND”: Things That Make Me Go . . . Hmmm?

Ever since its premiere back in March 2016, I have been a major fan of “UNDERGROUND”, the WGN cable series about a group of Georgia slaves who attempt the journey to freedom in antebellum America. But I am also a big history buff. And since “UNDERGROUND” has a strong historical background, it was inevitable that I would notice how much the series adhered to history. Although the series’ historical background held up rather well, there were some aspects of the series that I found questionable, as listed below:

 

“UNDERGROUND”: THINGS THAT MAKE ME GO . . . HMMM?

Women’s Hairstyles – I had no problems with the hairstyles worn by the African-American female characters. However, I cannot say the same white female characters – especially the two sisters-in-law, Northern socialite Elizabeth Hawkes and Southern plantation mistress Suzanna Macon. The latter’s hairstyle seemed to be some vague take on mid-19th century hairstyles for women. However, the hairstyle worn by the Elizabeth Hawkes character seemed to be straight out of the late 19th century or the first decade of the 20th century.

 

Patty Canon – A group of professional slave catchers/traders were featured in the episodes between (1.06) “Troubled Waters” and (1.09) “Black & Blue”. These men were led by a notorious illegal slave trader named Patty Cannon. The lady herself finally appeared in the flesh in the tenth and final episode of Season One, (1.10) “White Whale”. However, the presence of Miss Cannon in a story set in 1857 proved to be anachronistic, for she lived between the 1760s and 1829. Hmmm.

 

Location, Location and . . . Location – One aspect of the series that annoyed me was that viewers were more or less left in the dark of the fleeing fugitives in two episodes – “Troubled Waters” and (1.07) “Cradle”. Their journey in Season One was spread throughout four states – Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio. I really wish that showrunners Misha Green and Joe Pokaski could have kept track on the fugitives’ location – especially in that particular episode. Also in “Troubled Waters”, they traveled north (I think) aboard a keelboat that previously served as a floating whorehouse. I am aware that a few rivers in the United States flow northward. But I could have sworn that the two nearest ones in the series’ setting would be the New River in southeastern North Carolina and the Monongahela River that flows from West Virginia to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Neither river is that close.

 

James as a Field Slave – In the second episode, (1.02) “War Chest”, viewers learned that the Masons’ housekeeper, Ernestine, is willing to have sex with planter Tom Macon in order to secure the safety of her children, which includes preventing their seven year-old son James from becoming a field slave. Ernestine’s efforts come to nothing for the episode “Cradle” opened with Ernestine and her older son, Sam, preparing young James for the harshness of the cotton fields. While the scene was heartbreaking, I also found it slightly unrealistic. Slave children on large-scale plantations would not be sent to the fields (cotton, sugar, tobacco, etc.) until they were at least nine or ten years old. The sight of James in the cotton field would have been more realistic if he had been a few years older.

 

Harriet Tubman – The series’ Season One finale ended with successful fugitive Rosalee meeting the famed Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman at the Philadelphia home of abolitionist William Still. This is not a blooper, considering that Miss Tubman’s base of operation stretched between Maryland (her home state) and the New York-Canada border. However, since news of actress Aisha Hinds being cast to portray the famous abolitionist in the series’ second season, I cannot help but wonder if the setting will shift toward the East Coast.

 

Sam’s Role on the Macon Plantation – The series’ premiere, (1.01) “The Macon 7” first introduced Sam – Rosalee’s older half-brother and Ernestine’s oldest child – as the Macon plantation’s carpenter. Audiences saw Sam serve in this role until the fifth episode, (1.05) “Run & Gun”, when he and the other remaining slaves on the plantation worked out in the cotton field to put out the fire caused by one of the main fugitives, Cato. Sam worked in the cotton field until his escape attempt at the end of “Cradle” and his death in (1.08) “Grave”. Yet, I have no idea why owner Tom Macon kept him in the cotton fields. Considering that the latter never suspected him for helping the Macon 7 escape, why would he have Sam working in the field, instead of the carpenter’s wood shop?

 

Boo’s Fate – The Season One finale saw the youngest of the Macon 7, Boo, playing in the garden of William Still’s Philadelphia home. Before that, the young girl lost her mother Pearly Mae first to slave catcher August Pullman and later to Ernestine’s act of murder on the Macon plantation. She then lost her father to members from Patty Cannon’s gang on the banks of the Ohio River. After spending time at the home of Elizabeth and John Hawkes, she was reunited with Rosalee and Noah, before joining the former at Still’s home. But Noah got captured and Rosalee decided to return south to find him. So what will happen to Boo, now that she is literally orphaned? She certainly cannot remain in the United States. Her time with the Hawkes proved that.

 

End of the Journey – Northern States or Canada – Ever since the series began, many characters – especially the Macon 7 – discussed about taking the arduous 600 miles or so journey from Georgia to the Ohio River and freedom. Yet, no one even brought up the idea of continuing the journey to Canada. After all, Season One is set in 1857, seven years following the passage of the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act. The fugitive law was mentioned by Elizabeth Hawkes’ former beau, Kyle Risdin, who used it to force her husband John Hawkes to assist in the search and capture of a fugitive slave. So why did the Hawkes, Still, and the Underground Railroad conductors in Kentucky (I believe) failed to inform members of the Macon 7 that reaching the North would not be enough . . . that they would have to travel all the way to Canada in order to be safe?

 

Ernestine’s Position on the Macon Plantation – Sam was not the only member of Rosalee’s family that left me confused about the chores assigned on the Macon plantation. I also found myself confused about the chores of Rosalee’s mother, Ernestine. “The Macon 7” made it clear that Ernestine was the Macon family’s housekeeper. In fact, the series featured scenes of her acting as supervisor of the house slaves. And yet . . . other episodes featured Ernestine supervising the work inside the plantation’s kitchen. I found this odd. Surely the plantation had its own cook preparing and supervising the meals? Plantations and the households of wealthy families would have a cook. Why did this series have Ernestine, a housekeeper, supervising the kitchen? As housekeeper, Ernestine would not be serving drinks or food to the Macon family and their guests. She would order a maid for this function. Yet, the series has shown Ernestine not only ordering maids to serve food, but also herself performing the same chore. Huh? But the biggest mind bender occurred in the fourth episode, (1.04) “Firefly”, which featured Ernestine butchering a hog. I really found this difficult to accept. The housekeeper of a wealthy family acting as a butcher? C’mon! Really?

Despite the above quibbles, I really enjoyed “UNDERGROUND” and look forward to watching Season Two. I only hope that this second season will feature less anachronisms.

Least Favorite Movie Period Dramas

Below is a list of ten of my least favorite movie period dramas:

 

LEAST FAVORITE MOVIE PERIOD DRAMAS

1. “Legends of the Fall” (1992) – Edward Zwick directed this dull and overrated adaptaion of Jim Harrison’s 1979 novella about the lives of a Montana ranching family during the early 20th century. Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins starred.

2. “Barbary Coast” (1935) – Howard Hawks directed this turgid tale about an Eastern woman who arrives in San Francisco during the Gold Rush and comes between a corrupt gambler/saloon keeper and a miner. Miriam Hopkins, Edward G. Robinson and Joel McCrea starred.

3. “Mayerling” (1968) – Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve starred in this lavish, yet dull account of the tragic romance between Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and his mistress, Baroness Maria Vetsera. Terence Young directed.

4. “Idlewild” (2006) – André 3000 and Big Boi starred in this confusing and badly written musical set during Depression Era Georgia. Bryan Barber directed.

5. “Becky Sharp” (1935) – Miriam Hopkins earned a surprising Best Actress nomination (surprising to me) in this unsatisfying adaptation of William Makepeace Thackery’s 1847-48 novel, “Vanity Fair”. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, the movie is known as being the first full-length production in Technicolor.

6. “Gods and Generals” (2003) – Stephen Lang, Jeff Daniels and Robert Duvall starred in this adaptation of Jeff Shaara’s 1996 Civil War novel and prequel to the much superior 1993 movie, “Gettysburg”. Ronald Maxwell directed.

7. “The Hindenburg” (1975) – Robert Wise directed this rather dull account of the Hindenburg air disaster. The movie starred George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft.

8. “Anna Karenna” (2012) – Joe Wright directed this stagey adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1877 novel. Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-Johnson starred.

9. “Glorious 39” (2009) – Stephen Poliakoff directed this slow and pretentious thriller about a young woman who discovers that her family are pro-appreasers who wish for Britain to seek peace with Nazi Germany on the eve of World War II. Romola Garai starred.

10. “Alice in Wonderland” (2010) – Tim Burton directed this dull and overrated adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and 1871 novel, “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There”. Mia Wasikowska and Johnny Depp starred.

Top Favorite Episodes of “THE YOUNG RIDERS” Season One (1989-1990)

Below is a list of my top favorite episodes from ABC’s 1989-1992 Western television series called “THE YOUNG RIDERS”. Created by Ed Spielman, the series starred Ty Miller, Josh Brolin, Stephen Baldwin and Anthony Zerbe:

TOP FAVORITE EPISODES OF “THE YOUNG RIDERS” SEASON ONE (1989-1990)

YR - Speak No Evil

1. (1.04) “Speak No Evil” – When Pony Express rider Ike McSwain turns in the leader of a gang responsible for a stagecoach massacre, the other gang members try to kill him in order to prevent him from testifying. Albert Salmi guest-starred.

YR - Unfinished Business

2. (1.16) “Unfinished Business” – The estranged husband of the Sweetwater Express station caretaker Emma Shannon, survives a wagon train massacre and turns to her for shelter, while the men responsible searches for him. Cliff De Young and Frederick Coffin guest-starred.

YR - Black Ulysses

3. (1.06) “Black Ulysses” – The Express riders struggle over whether to obey the Fugitive Slave Law or protect a fugitive slave from a group of militiamen, who have been tracking him from Missouri. Stan Shaw and Tim Thomerson guest-starred.

YR - Gathering Clouds

4. (1.23-1.24) “Gathering Clouds” – Virginia-born The Kid is recruited by the U.S. government to infiltrate a group of Southern guerillas, while the town of Sweetwater deal with the ruthless methods of an Army captain, who is determined to capture the group. David Soul and Cynthia Nixon guest-starred.

YR - Bull Dog

5. (1.19) “Bulldog” – When the Pony Express owners plan to move the mail route north through Sioux burial lands, they send a recent college graduate, with a case of hero worship for James Hickok, to secure the arrangement. Fisher Stevens guest-starred.

YR - Bad Blood real

Honorable Mention: (1.05) “Bad Blood” – Express rider Louise “Lou” McCloud returns to the orphanage where she had been raised to visit her younger brother and sister and discovers that her estranged father, a ruthless gunrunner, had retrieved them. Jon De Vries guest-starred.

 

“GONE WITH THE WIND” (1939) Review

“GONE WITH THE WIND” (1939) Review

Several years ago, I had come across an article that provided a list of old classics that the author felt might be overrated. One of those movies turned out to be the 1939 Oscar winning film, “GONE WITH THE WIND”. Not only did the author accuse the movie of being both racist and sexist, he also claimed that the movie had not aged very well over the past seven decades.

Did I agree with the author? Well, let me put it this way. I would say that “GONE WITH THE WIND” has managed to withstand the tests of time . . . to a certain extent. As the author had pointed out, the sexism and racism are obvious and rather off-putting. First of all, the slaves came across as too servile for my taste. Although there were moments when it seemed the slave Prissy did not particularly care for the movie’s heroine, Scarlett O’Hara. And although Prissy was not the only dimwitted character in the story (think of Melanie and Charles Hamilton’s Aunt Pittypatt, the Tarleton brothers, and yes, even Charles Hamilton himself), she had the bad luck to spout that unfortunate line that must have been the bane of actress Butterfly McQueen’s life – “Miz Scarlett, I know nothin’ bout birthin’ no babies.”. The movie’s portrayal of the newly freed slaves struck me as schizophrenic. They either remained loyal to their former masters – like Mammy, Prissy and Pork (the O’Hara house servants); or they were shiftless, lazy blacks who easily “bought the Yankees’ lies” and preyed upon their former masters and mistresses – especially white women. This last sentence reminded me of the Shantytown sequence. And I just remembered that both a white man and a black man nearly attacked Scarlett before she was rescued by Big Sam. In other words, this film was just as insulting to working-class whites (think former overseer Jonas Wilkerson and Emmy Slattery), as it was to the black characters. I forgot that despite its occasional celebration of the working-class (especially during the Depression Era), many Hollywood films tend to reek of class bigotry.

And the sexism was no better. I found the story’s male romantic lead Rhett Butler’s determination to view Scarlett as his own personal child bride rather distasteful – along with his act of marital rape. The first half of the movie allowed Rhett to express some kind of respect toward Scarlett’s pragmatism and ruthlessness. But once she became his wife, he seemed to long for some kind of child bride as well. But if I must be honest, I have seen movies that are just as bad or even worse. I realize that the Melanie Hamilton character is highly regarded by many as the ideal woman, I personally found the character hard to accept. I nearly rolled my eyes in one scene that featured her sacrificing her wedding ring for “the Cause” (namely the Confederacy). That woman put the Madeline Fabray character from John Jakes’ North and South” trilogy to shame. Ideal characters – especially ideal women – have always been a turn off for me. They tend to smack of illusions of the worst kind.

I had once seen “GONE WITH THE WIND” at one of my local movie theaters when it had been re-released to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 1989. The first half of the film struck me as being well-paced and filmed. The dialogue sparkled and Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable, and the rest of the cast could not have been better. I could not say the same for the film’s second half. The real problem with “GONE WITH THE WIND” manifested in Part Two. Once Scarlett had married Rhett . . . the movie slowly began to fizzle. Oh sure, it had its iconic moments – Scarlett appearing at Ashley’s birthday party in the infamous red dress, Bonnie Blue Butler’s death and Mammy’s grief-stricken reaction. Unfortunately, it did not take me very long to fall asleep . . . even before poor Bonnie Blue’s death. I managed to wake up in time to witness Hattie McDaniel’s brilliant monologue on the decline of Butlers’ marriage and Bonnie Blue’s death. I do not think one can really blame the movie’s credited screenwriter, Sidney Howard and the screenwriters who worked on the project. Margaret Mitchell’s novel had this same problem as the movie. Namely, it started brilliantly and ended with me crying in despair for the story to end. I suspect that Selznick had decided not to risk earning the fans’ ire by refraining from changing the novel’s structure too much after the other changes he had made.

And the main reason why “GONE WITH THE WIND” threatened to fizzle out in the end? Quite frankly, the story seemed unable to maintain the same pace throughout the film. Even worse, this seemed to have turned “GONE WITH THE WIND” into a movie with conflicting genres. I do not know whether to list it as a historical drama or a costumed melodrama. Most of the movie seemed like a historical drama – especially the first half that ends with Scarlett’s return to Tara. But once Scarlett’s second husband – Frank Kennedy – was killed during the Shantytown attack sequence, the movie purely became a costumed melodrama. This change in genre not only made the movie seemed slightly schizophrenic, it nearly grounded the film’s pacing to a halt.

There were other minor aspects of “GONE WITH THE WIND” that I found rather questionable. Why was Melanie Wilkes living in Atlanta, following her marriage to Ashley Wilkes? Why did she not live with her in-laws at the Wilkes’ plantation, Twelve Oaks? And why was Scarlett still living at Tara, following her marriage to Charles Hamilton? She should have moved into the home of his aunt, Pittypat Hamilton, in Atlanta. One featured a brief scene in which Eddie Anderson’s Uncle Peter chasing a chicken in the Wilkes’ backyard proclaiming it to be “the last chicken in Atlanta”. Really? In December 1863, when the Union Army had yet to set foot in the state of Georgia, except at Fort Polaski, off the coast of Savannah? And could someone explain why social leaders like Mrs. Mayweather, Mrs. Meade and Aunt Pittypat needed Melanie’s approval for an auction regarding the city’s young female elite at the local charity bazaar and ball? Melanie was only a year or two older than Scarlett and probably eighteen to nineteen years old at the time. I found the entire moment implausible. And who exactly created the infamous green dress that Scarlett wore to pay Rhett a visitor, when he was a prisoner of the Union Army? Scarlett? Her sisters? Mammy, who was a housekeeper and not a seamstress? Prissy? Why was Rhett a prisoner of the Union Army . . . after the war ended? And why did Big Sam have that ludicrous argument with the other O’Hara slave over who would order the other field slaves to stop working? He was the foreman. It was his job. The other man should have known that.

Speaking of Big Sam, he was also featured in a scene in which Scarlett spotted him and other former Tara field slaves marching through Atlanta and on their way to dig ditches for the Confederate Army defending the city. What made me shake my head in disbelief was not only Sam’s cheerful attitude toward this task, but the fact that his fellow slaves were singing “Go Down Moses”, a song associated with American slaves’ desire to flee bondage and the Underground Railroad. Either David O. Selznick or his production team had no knowledge of the historical significance of this song, or . . . this scene was some kind of ironic joke. Last, but not least, one scene in the movie’s second half found Scarlett and Ashley arguing over their use of convicts as labor for her lumber mill. The problem is that the convicts were all white, and most convicts – then and now – were African-Americans. Is it possible that Selznick may have been guilty of whitewashing? Apparently so.

“GONE WITH THE WIND” does have its virtues. Most of the performances were first-rate. It especially benefited from Vivian Leigh as the movie’s lead, Scarlett O’Hara; Clark Gable as the roguish Rhett Butler; Hattie McDaniel as Mammy; Olivia De Havilland as the sweetly Melanie Hamilton Wilkes; Thomas Mitchell as Gerald O’Hara; Barbara O’Neil as Ellen O’Neil; Butterfly McQueen as Prissy; Laura Hope Crews as Aunt Pittypat, and even Leslie Howard, who had the thankless job of portraying the aristocratic loser, Ashley Wilkes. In fact, one has to give Leigh credit for basically carrying a nearly four-hour movie on her own. But there were other performances that I found memorable – including Oscar Polk, Victor Jory, Harry Davenport, Evelyn Keyes, Ann Rutherford, Everett Brown, Carroll Nye and Rand Brooks. Leigh, Gable, De Havilland and McDaniels all received Academy Award nominations. Both Leigh and McDaniels won in their respective categories.

The movie also benefited from a strong first half, which covered the war years. From the movie’s opening on Tara’s porch to that last moment when a besieged Scarlett vowed to “never go hungry again” in the middle of one of Tara’s fields, the movie steamed ahead with drive, without rushing along too fast. In fact, I would say that the film’s strongest sequence began with the Union Army’s siege of Atlanta and ended with Scarlett, Melanie and Prissy’s arrival at Tara. That sequence alone did an excellent job of expressing the horrors of war not only from the military point of view, but also from the viewpoints of civilians like Scarlett. Marceella Rabwin, producer David O. Selznick’s former executive assistant, had credited Victor Fleming not only for his direction of this sequence, but also the film’s strong drive and pacing. And since he ended up as the movie’s main director, I guess I will also give him credit. It still amazes me that a Civil War movie with no battle scenes whatsoever, could have such a strong and well-paced narrative – at least in its first half. The movie also benefited from the hiring of the Oscar winning production designer William Cameron Menzies, who used storyboards (a first in Hollywood for a live-action film) to provide the movie’s look and style. He was able assisted by another Oscar winner, Lyle R. Wheeler, who created the movie’s art designs. Many have complimented Walter Plunkett for his costume designs for the film. Granted, he had created some beautiful costumes. But my two favorite costumes worn by Vivian Leigh in the images below, are not particularly well-known:

However, I do have a problem with some of Plunkett’s designs. He had a bad habit of injecting modern fashion styles into some of his 19th century designs. Another virtue of the movie came from the score written and orchestrated by Max Steiner. Although he had received a nomination for his work, Steiner was defeated by Herbert Stothart’s work for “THE WIZARD OF OZ”. Menzies’ storyboards must have been a godsend not only for Wheeler’s Oscar winning art direction and Plunkett’s costume designs, but also Ernest Haller and Lee Garmes’ photography. I found the latter so beautiful and colorful that only the following images can only do further justice to the film’s striking visuals:

Gone-With-the-Wind-gone-with-the-wind-4370166-1024-768 Gone-With-the-Wind-gone-with-the-wind-4371112-1024-768

What else can I say about “GONE WITH THE WIND”? Unlike many other film critics and fans, it is not my favorite Best Picture winner. It is not even my favorite 1939 film. Between the overt political incorrectness and a weak second half, I would have never voted it as the 1939 Best Picture Oscar. But . . . despite its political incorrectness and the dull last hour of the film, “GONE WITH THE WIND” still managed to hold up pretty well after 77 years, thanks to its talented cast and crew and the drive of producer David O. Selznick.

Five Favorite Episodes of “UNDERGROUND” Season One (2016)

noahrosalee

Below is a list of my five favorite episodes from the WGN series, “UNDERGROUND”. Created by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, the series stars Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge:

FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “UNDERGROUND” SEASON ONE (2016)

1 - 1.05 Run and Guns

1. (1.05) “Run & Gun” – The attempt by the escapees from the Macon plantation to catch a northbound train out of the state is complicated at every turn; while Tom and Susanna Macon have the remaining slaves – especially Pearly Mae, who was captured while trying to run – questioned about their plans.

 

2 - 1.09 Black and Blue

2. (1.09) “Black & Blue” – One of the escapees, former house slave Rosalee, is captured in a small Kentucky town and held at a slaughter house, while fellow escapees Noah and Cato plot to rescue her. Underground Railroad agent John Hawkes (who is also Tom Mason’s brother) learns of his wife Elizabeth’s reckless action to save the orphaned escapee Boo from her ex-fiancé and U.S. Federal Marshal Kyle Risdin.

 

3 - 1.04 Firefly

3. (1.04) “Firefly” – A notorious slave hunter named August Pullman and his son Ben track Noah and Rosalee, following their escape from the Macon plantation at the end of the previous episode. The other slaves involved in Noah’s plot contemplate running, as well. Meanwhile, John and Elizabeth face a lethal predicament, when one of the runaways they are sheltering turns hostile.

 

5 - 1.01 Macon Seven

4. (1.01) “The Macon 7” – In the series premiere, Noah begins to plot an escape from the Macon plantation to the Ohio River and free states. He contemplates on choosing which slaves to be included in his plan, while dealing with a hostile Cato, who also happens to be one of the plantation’s field drivers.

 

4 - 1.07 Cradle

5. (1.07) “Cradle” – This episode featured a collection of vignettes about the younger characters – all children – facing the harsh realities of the world in antebellum America.

The 19th Century in Television

Recently, I noticed there have been a good number of television productions in both North America and Great Britain, set during the 19th century. Below is a list of those productions I have seen during this past decade in alphabetical order:

THE 19TH CENTURY IN TELEVISION

1. “Copper” (BBC America) – Tom Fontana and Will Rokos created this series about an Irish immigrant policeman who patrols Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood during the last year of the U.S. Civil War. Tom Weston-Jones, Kyle Schmid and Ato Essandoh starred in this 2012-2013 series.

2. “The Crimson Petal and the White” (BBC) – Romola Garai starred in this 2011 miniseries, which was an adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2002 novel about a Victorian prostitute, who becomes the mistress of a powerful businessman.

3. “Death Comes to Pemberley” (BBC) – Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell-Martin starred in this adaptation of P.D. James’ 2011 novel, which is a murder mystery and continuation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, “Pride and Prejudice”.

4. “Hell on Wheels” (AMC) – This 2012-2016 series is about a former Confederate Army officer who becomes involved with the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad during the years after the Civil War. Anson Mount, Colm Meaney, Common, and Dominique McElligott starred.

5. “Mercy Street” (PBS) – This series follows two volunteer nurses from opposing sides who work at the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia during the Civil War. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Josh Radnor and Hannah James.

6. “The Paradise” (BBC-PBS) – This 2012-2013 series is an adaptation of Émile Zola’s 1883 novel, “Au Bonheur des Dames”, about the innovative creation of the department story – only with the story relocated to North East England. The series starred Joanna Vanderham and Peter Wight.

7. “Penny Dreadful” (Showtime/Sky) – Eva Green, Timothy Dalton and Josh Harnett star in this horror-drama series about a group of people who battle the forces of supernatural evil in Victorian England.

8. “Ripper Street” (BBC) – Matthew Macfadyen stars in this crime drama about a team of police officers that patrol London’s Whitechapel neighborhood in the aftermath of Jack the Ripper’s serial murders.

9. “Underground” (WGN) – Misha Green and Joe Pokaski created this series about runaway slaves who endure a long journey from Georgia to the Northern states in a bid for freedom in the late Antebellum period. Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge star.

10. “War and Peace” (BBC) – Andrew Davies adapted this six-part miniseries, which is an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1865–1867 novel about the impact of the Napoleonic Era during Tsarist Russia. Paul Dano, Lily James and James Norton starred.

“LINCOLN” (1974-76) Review

154984517.jpg

“LINCOLN” (1974-76) Review

During the first half of the Twentieth Century, poet and historian Carl Sandburg wrote a six-volume biography on the life of the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. Years passed before David Wolper (“ROOTS”, “THE THORN BIRDS”, and the “NORTH AND SOUTH” TRILOGY) produced a six-part miniseries on Lincoln’s life and career, based upon Sandburg’s work.

“LINCOLN” is not what I would your usual biography with a straight narrative. With the exception of one episode that centered on Lincoln acting as a defense attorney in the 1830s and another that focused on the period between his first election and inauguration, the majority of the episodes centered on his administration during the U.S. Civil War. And not in any particular order. Below is a list for those who prefer to watch the entire miniseries in chronological order:

(1.03) “Prairie Lawyer” – Lincoln goes against future political adversary Stephen A. Douglas when he defends physician Dr. Henry B. Truett against murder charges in 1838.

(2.02) “Crossing Fox River” – This episode covers Lincoln’s life between winning his first presidential election in November 1860 and attending his first inauguration in March 1861.

(1.01) “Mrs. Lincoln’s Husband” – In the wake of the death of the Lincolns’ second son William “Willie”, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln‘s erratic behavior embarrasses and endangers her husband politically when a cabal of Republican senators question her loyalty to the Union.

(1.02) “Sad Figure, Laughing” – Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase and his daughter Kate attempt to undermine President Lincoln’s bid for re-election during the 1864 presidential campaign, when they become aware of how Lincoln’s jokes and stories seem to erode their fellow Republicans’ confidence in him.

(2.01) “The Unwilling Warrior” – Lincoln finds himself forced to learn the art of war, as he searches for the right general to lead the Union Army to victory between 1861 and 1865.

(2.03) “The Last Days” – Following the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender at the Appomattox Court House, President Lincoln plans Reconstruction with his cabinet and discusses a post-presidential future with the First Lady.

“LINCOLN” managed to garner a great deal of critical acclaim back in the mid-1970s. Did it deserve it? Perhaps. I found myself somewhat impressed by the production. The miniseries, from a visual point-of-view, has managed to hold up rather well in the past forty years. Aside from the exterior shots, the photography struck me as somewhat sharp and colorful, thanks to cinematographer Howard Schwartz . More importantly, director George Schaefer managed to avoid that “filmed play” aspect that had tainted many British television productions and a few American productions. Somewhat. There were a few scenes that seemed to stretch a tad too long in “LINCOLN”, but not fortunately long enough to stretch my patience too thin.

A part of me wishes that “LINCOLN” had included more scenes of Lincoln’s life before the Civil War. The 1974-76 miniseries must be the first of three productions titled “LINCOLN” – the other two being the 1988 miniseries and the 2012 Steven Spielberg movie – that seemed to be about Lincoln’s years in the White House. Another aspect of this miniseries that I found a bit odd is that it did not feature any African-American characters, other than the occasional extra portraying a White House servant. I think. There is a chance that my memory might be playing tricks with me. I simply find it odd that a production about a U.S. president who had such a strong impact on the history of African-Americans . . . did not feature any black supporting characters. No Elizabeth Keckley, the Washington D.C. seamstress who became Mrs. Lincoln’s personal modiste and close companion, or Frederick Douglass, who had met Lincoln in 1863. Considering Lincoln’s overly cautious approach on the subjects of abolition and civil rights, there is a chance that producer David Wolper feared that Lincoln’s reputation as an emancipator would have slightly eroded. It was okay to discuss slavery, which the production did . . . but not with any real depth.

The miniseries certainly did not hesitate to display Lincoln’s ruthlessness and talent for political manipulation. Even when those traits were occasionally clouded by compassion, humor and verbosity, it was on display. This was especially apparent in two episodes – namely “Sad Figure, Laughing”, in which Lincoln had to deal with the political machinations of Salmon Chase for the Republican nomination for President in 1864; and in “The Unwilling Warrior”, in which he dealt with one general after another in his search for the one military leader who could deal with the Army of Northern Virginia and Robert E. Lee.

The best aspect of “LINCOLN” were the performances. Well . . . some of the performances. I hate to say this, but some of the minor performances struck me as a bit theatrical or amateurish. There were some performances that struck me as solid – including Norman Burton as General Ulysses S. Grant, Robert Foxworth as John T. Stuart, Lloyd Nolan asSecretary of State William H. Seward, Ed Flanders as General George B. McClellan, and Catherine Burns as Mary Owens. But there were those performances that I found impressive. This especially seemed to be the case for Roy Poole as Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase, Elizabeth Ashley as the latter’s older daughter Kate Chase Sprague, Beulah Bondi as Lincoln’s stepmother Sarah Bush Lincoln, John Randolph as the first Secretary of War Simon Cameron and James Carroll Jordan as the Lincolns’ oldest son Robert Todd Lincoln.

But the two performances that outshone the others came from Hal Holbrook and Sada Thompson as the presidential couple, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. This is not really surprising. Of the three productions I have seen about Lincoln, the actors and actresses who have portrayed this couple have all given superb performances. This was the case for both Holbrook and Thompson. Holbrook seemed to have some special connection to the 16th president. The 1974-76 miniseries marked the first time he portrayed the role. He also portrayed Lincoln in the 1985 miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” and he appeared in the 2012 Steven Spielberg movie as an old political crony of the President’s,Francis P. Blair. Holbrook’s portrayal of Lincoln could have easily strayed into the realm of folksy idealism. The actor did not completely reveal the more negative aspects of Lincoln’s character, but he did a superb job in conveying not only the President’s style of humor, but also his political savvy and a temper that can be fearsome. In an odd way, Sada Thompson had the easier job portraying First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Hollywood productions are more inclined to explore the more negative aspects of her personality than Lincoln’s. What I enjoyed about Thompson’s performance is that she still managed to make Mrs. Lincoln a likable person, despite the character flaws. It is not surprising that Holbrook won an Emmy for his performance and Thompson earned a nomination. Both of them deserved the accolades.

There are aspects of “LINCOLN” that I found questionable. Well . . . my main problem is that the production did not focus enough on the question of slavery, which I found rather odd, considering the subject matter. I also wish that the miniseries had included more scenes of Abraham Lincoln’s life before the Civil War. Now some television viewers might find the scattered narrative somewhat disconcerting. I simply figured out the chronological order of the episodes and watched them in that manner. But overall, “LINCOLN” is a first-rate miniseries about the 16th President that holds up rather well, thanks to George Schaefer’s direction and a skillful cast led by the talented Hal Holbrook and Sada Thompson.