History books can only say so much about our presidents, the authors either exceeding or limited by their ability to write about the subject. Words can only do so much and in 1979, producers Ed Friendly and Michael O’Herlihy took a new step in examining that history, from a book by Lillian Rogers Parks called “My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House”. In 1909, Parks’ mother Maggie Rogers took a job as a maid at the White House in order to support her and her brother Emmett, Jr, which was in the time of William Howard Taft. Rather than these men remaining enigmas of our history, never quite able to understand fully who they were, the producers (O’Herlihy also directed) and writers Gwen Bagni and Paul Dubov took our nation’s leaders to an admirable plane by creating “Backstairs at the White House” as a miniseries, the famed Washington mansion seen through the eyes of Maggie (Olivia Cole) and Lillian (Leslie Uggams). Perhaps it was with the maids and butlers in the White House that these men and first ladies were at their most human, not a part of any history at the moment, but simply residents in Washington.
Threaded through the story of both women’s troubles, joys, and frustrations are moments to finally have their proper place on DVD and for more people to see than just those who watched it 26 years ago. A young Lillian (Tania Johnson) is invited by President Taft (a performance by Victor Buono that compels one to seek out his other works) to sit and dine with him and have a chat as well. Taft is distressed by the editorial cartoons in the newspaper that play on his girth, and is not happy with the latest development in which he got stuck in his previous bathtub, giving the papers a field day. In fact, Lillian is sitting in Taft’s newly-built bathtub when he spots her. For once, Taft and others aren’t simply words in a book, analyses by tireless historians trying to make a full picture of what these men did in office.
Taft is matched by his wife Helen (Julie Harris) who is protective of her husband, to the point where she looks over his daily schedule in the hopes that his days won’t be entirely harsh. In fact, when “Nellie” is struck down by a stroke, unable to speak, Taft sits by his wife’s bedside, utterly forlorn. He has turned from the kindly, thoughtful man we had seen with Lillian, to nothing more than a roly-poly rock.
“Backstairs” also dabbles in a lot of foreshadowing which actually delivers, such as when Taft tells Nellie, “You should have been President, Nellie; it suits you more than it does me,” with Nellie replying that there will one day be a woman President. Unofficially, Edith Galt Wilson (Claire Bloom) became that woman after President Woodrow (Robert Vaughn) had a stroke, deciding who was to see her husband and what legislation he would sign, effectively running the country with the belief that her husband’s recovery would be better suited inside the White House rather than as a former President. In fact, Woodrow understands this implicitly when his wife prepares him for a visit with a few Senators who are dispatched to check on his condition. She instructs Maggie and a few other household staff to assist her and the visit is successful, made even more so since these Senators don’t press that deeply on that matter.
The performances throughout are stellar, a few of them lasting admirably through thirty or more years at the White House. Lillian grows from a mischievous little girl to a sassy, say-what-should-be-said woman, refusing her mother’s suggestion that perhaps she should work in the White House too, until the Great Depression hits. Maggie grows older, more dignified, understanding of everything that needs to be done in this job, even when it rouses her out of the apartment after the harried Warren G. Harding (George Kennedy) dies in San Francisco, bringing forth Calvin Coolidge (Ed Flanders). In fact, it is Harding’s administration in a single shot in a parlor room which reveals the humanity of powerful men. Harding may have been elected by the American people on the basis of who he was, a down-to-earth man just like the rest of the country. But his presidency was controlled by corruption, oil reserves being transferred to various departments in his administration. Whom he thought were his friends, such as Attorney General Harry Daugherty (Barry Sullivan) were simply using him to get what they wanted and he desperately tried to make sure his presidency remained his own, to no success. Kennedy plays this to such full effect, realizing that he doesn’t have anything anymore. This is not his White House. Suddenly, Harding, like all the other presidents featured, comes out of the history pages and becomes human. No matter the prestige of being President of the United States, these men were still human.
Oh, but there is so much more to say. So much that could easily eclipse the length of this review and the entirety of Film Threat. There is Louis Gossett, Jr. as butler Levi Mercer in a dignified performance who becomes the close friend of the Rogers women over the decades. There are the Coolidges (Ed Flanders and Lee Grant) who weather tragedy in their White House and this is where Friendly and O’Herlihy unmask their true talent. There is a scene where Butler Coates (Hari Rhodes) teaches the Coolidge sons the new dances of the day and the youngest boy sits out one of the lessons, holding his left foot in his hand due to blisters. A high-angle shot in the boys’ bedroom comes next as one of the beds are removed by the butlers. Their youngest son had died, and we can fill in the previous details ourselves if we like.
Cloris Leachman appears in the first two parts as Housekeeper Jaffray, playing the role to chilly perfection as she demands that the White House be served with the utmost of care, whomever is occupying the Oval Office. In fact, only the Oval Office is not shown and it’s what gives this production even more respectability and is exactly what will keep all this memorable for even more decades to come. Leslie Nielsen is on hand as Chief Usher Ike Hoover, a quiet, distinguished role for him, made even more so as he serves as the announcer for the opening of each section of the miniseries. Harry Truman (Harry Morgan) in another scene is standing at a mirror saying to Lillian that he’ll need business suits packed for his next trip. He has to talk to “Joe Stalin and Churchill” about ending World War II. As Truman’s reflection walks away from the mirror, it is enveloped by footage of an atomic bomb going off, effectively showing what had to be done without making a big show of it. Harry Morgan isn’t entirely effective as Truman—as a result of performing him with a touch of Col. Sherman Potter—but his gruff, kind voice is still great comfort. Lee Grant, as Grace Coolidge, is the only cast member who feels out of place in all this, sliding perilously close into melodrama, grievous over her son’s death. It’s not entirely clear whether the real Grace acted this way in her bedroom, but that is what leads to the ultimate reward in “Backstairs at the White House”.
Amidst all the sets, the stately actors, the stories which kept the White House alive during those 52 years, and the unpretentious direction, there is something else which makes this all worth the time. In watching Maggie and Lillian navigate the corridors of the White House—Lillian using a crutch due to a bout of infantile paralysis—there’s suddenly the aching need to first read Lillian’s book and then find more books about these presidents. History has suddenly become a treasured maze. With these actors and first ladies playing these famous families as simply men and women who came into history on their own two feet, we should understand more about their presidencies. After this, there is nothing boring or tiresome about the prospect of understanding more of the White House as it once was. That is the greatest honor bestowed upon this staggering accomplishment, which should be sought out and viewed as quickly as possible.