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Movie Review - Backstairs at the White House - a Mini-Series in Four Parts (1979)

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This classic television Mini-series has four parts, each on a separate disc. Viewing of the entire film requires nine hours. The true story takes us behind the scenes at the White House to witness the administrations of eight Presidents, from William Howard Taft to Dwight D. Eisenhower. We view them through the eyes of the help who are privy to the private lives of the residents, and yet have a fierce loyalty to them. The time frame involved takes in 52 years, from 1909 to 1961.

The White House

                                                                      The White House

The series is based on the life of Maggie Rogers (played by Olivia Cole) whose real life story has been remembered through her daughter's book entitled “My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House.” Maggie's daughter, Lillian Rogers Parks (played by Leslie Uggams), also worked there as a seamstress despite her handicapped leg which she acquired from a bout with polio.

Most of the backstairs help at that time were black and our story begins when Maggie Rogers has just been hired as a housemaid to President Taft's wife, Nellie Taft (Julie Harris), principally on Maggie's credential that she is a hair dresser. The viewer also learns about the private lives of the backstairs help. Maggie's husband Emmett (Paul Winfield) holds a job far away from his wife and son and daughter. On his all-too-brief return, Maggie learns that he has once again lost his job because of his alcoholism. Maggie has the full responsibility of caring for her two children and barely ekes out a living from her services at the White House.

A stellar cast was chosen to portray both the residents and the staff. They include Lou Gossett Jr., Cloris Leachman, Leslie Nielsen, Julie Harris, Robert Vaughn, Kim Hunter, Celeste Holm, George Kennedy, Claire Bloom, Lee Grant, Harry Morgan, and several other talented actors highly visible in the 1970's, 1980's and thereafter.

We are introduced to some interesting material concerning the lives of the eight presidents who are placed under a microscope here. For instance,

The newspapers released the fact that the portly President William H. Taft became stuck in his bathtub and had to be rescued.


Woodrow Wilson

                                                            President Woodrow Wilson

President Woodrow Wilson's second wife Edith made certain that the press was unaware of Wilson's inability to perform his office after he was stricken with a heart attack. Edith took over many of his responsibilities, keeping the American public in the dark about the true nature of his illness.

President Warren Harding's administration was wracked by scandal and corruption including the infamous Teapot Dome Scandal. It appears that Harding led a dissolute life, was unfaithful to his wife Florence, and died after two years in office after complications from a heart attack.

President Coolidge was depicted as a penny pincher and was called Silent Cal. Sadly, when Coolidge was in office, their son Cal died of blood poisoning as a result of a blister on his foot after a game of tennis.

Herbert Hoover became a one-term President from 1929 to 1933. The depression had arrived and Hoover paid for all of his entertaining out of his private funds. Hoover lost his campaign for a second term to Franklin D. Roosevelt.


Franklin D. Roosevelt

                                                           President Franklin D. Roosevelt

The lively Roosevelt family invaded the premises. The President's secretary, Missy LeHand also became a resident and was the topic of discussion because of her relationship with FDR. On December 7, 1941, President Roosevelt informed the nation that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and war was declared with the Japanese.

Vice President Harry Truman took Roosevelt's place after he died. It was during Truman's presidency that the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima. Truman won the next election from Thomas Dewey although the papers originally claimed that Dewey had won.

Dwight D. Eisenhower became the 34th president. It appeared that the help viewed Ike and his wife Mamie as the least liked of all the Presidents. They were not at all friendly to the staff.

Maggie served in the Presidential mansion for 30 years before she retired in 1939. Her daughter Lillian took her mother's place as first maid. She also promised her mother that she would finish the book which Maggie had started concerning her life in the White House. Lillian kept her promise.

The American President: A Complete History
Amazon Price: $19.95 $6.31 Buy Now
(price as of Sep 7, 2014)


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