BOOTLEG FILES 155: “Eunice” (1982 made-for-television special starring Carol Burnett and Vicki Lawrence).
LAST SEEN: In its one and only broadcast in 1982.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: Most likely, it was just forgotten.
CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Unlikely.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing The Bootleg Files is to hear from readers with inquiries and suggestions about possible titles to profile. This week’s column came about thanks to Sherman FitzSimmons, who pointed me towards an obscure made-for-television production called “Eunice.”
“Eunice” is based on the long-running sketch “The Family” that was part of “The Carol Burnett Show.” Set in a small Southern town, it focused on an acutely dysfunctional relationship between the strident Eunice (Burnett), her loutish husband Ed (Harvey Korman) and her exasperating mother, Thelma Harper (Vicki Lawrence), who everyone referred to solely as Mama. During the run of “The Carol Burnett Show,” Eunice was given three siblings played by Betty White, Roddy McDowall and Alan Alda. These characters were peripheral to the sketch’s core and only appeared when the actors made guest appearances on the program. Another character, a dim hearing-impaired workmate of Ed, was played by Tim Conway, but he only turned up occasionally and was never central to storyline.
After “The Carol Burnett Show” ran its course in 1978, Burnett moved on to a variety of different parts including straight drama (the TV movie “Friendly Fire”), romantic comedy (“The Four Seasons,” directed by and co-starring her TV sibling Alan Alda) and musical comedy (the film version of “Annie”). Yet the popularity of her series persisted via reruns and Burnett decided to revive “The Family” for a one-shot production.
“Eunice” was shot as an extended theater piece in front of a live audience. All of the action was centered at Mama’s home, with the action moving back and forth between the ground floor kitchen and living room and the front porch. Burnett reunited with Korman (who co-directed “Eunice”), Lawrence and White. Roddy McDowall’s character was taken over by Ken Berry; Alda and Conway’s characters were written out of this show. A new character was created in Eunice’s father, but he was only heard briefly by an off-stage actor (in “The Family” sketches, the father is never mentioned and is presumed dead).
“Eunice” covers four acts. The first is 1955, when tumult in the Harper home finds Mama at odds with two of her young adult offspring. Phillip (Berry) had just returned from college and is abruptly leaving with a friend to New York, with the vague dream of becoming a successful writer. High school student Eunice is fixing to crash a local party with the hope of snaring Duke Reeves, the local stud. But Eunice had already committed to a date with Ed, who left school to work at a hardware store. Ed is not interested in the Duke Reeves party and he has a fight with Eunice. She accuses him of thinking about her in an impolite manner.
The second act takes place in 1963. Phillip has returned from New York with a new book on the best-seller charts. Eunice has married Ed and they have two sons, Billy and Bubba. Neither Mama nor Eunice can makes heads or tails of what Phillip wrote, but they are nonetheless proud of his work. Mama is decidedly not proud of Ed, whose attempts to fix her oven have left the appliance in near ruins.
The third act opens in 1973. Ed has already left Eunice for another woman, and their oldest son Bubba had disappeared without a trace. Phillip, who is visiting from Hollywood (where he is now living) had given Eunice money to locate her son. Eunice has developed a drinking problem and she turns up at Mama’s house inebriated. During that visit, she receives a phone call from Bubba. Without giving the details of what he said to her, Eunice is left bitter and shocked with her son’s manners.
The fourth act is in 1978. Mama has passed away and the funeral just concluded. Eunice, Phillip and their sister Ellen (White) return to Mama’s home. Eunice drops word that her other son Billy is in jail. Ellen and Eunice fight over Mama’s possessions. Ed returns to pay his respects, but Eunice is left cold when he reveals he has remarried and is visited to seek money from Phillip to open a new hardware store. Phillip invites Eunice to go to Hollywood with him and pursue her life’s dream of acting. She initially agrees, but in a phone call with an elderly aunt it becomes obvious she will never leave her small Southern town.
Does any of this sound even vaguely amusing? Actually, none of it is. Oh, there are some exaggerated glances and flights of Dixie-fried vowel chewing that drum up giggles here and there, but “Eunice” could easily have been done as a straight drama and the effect would be the same. As with “The Family” sketches from “The Carol Burnett Show,” whatever comedy is laced through these characters is overshadowed by a deep and frequently disturbing examination of human cruelty. Eunice and her family are foolish, selfish and melodramatic personalities who play sado-masochistic and passive-aggressive games. Eunice is constantly browbeaten by her mother, yet she clearly enjoys being the victim (her grand talk of becoming an actress is a blatant flow of hot air). Mama is rude and endlessly irritated by those around her, yet it is difficult to imagine her banishing the family for time alone. Phillip, arguably the sole force of logic, is masochistic in returning again to a family where he doesn’t fit in and which only embarrasses him. Ed and Ellen are one-dimensional – he’s a dope and she’s a bitch – yet their returning to Eunice suggests they also secretly enjoy the dystopic family environment (why else would anyone put up with that?).
It all culminates after Mama’s passing. Eunice begins to destroy Mama’s bedroom when she discovers that years ago her mother was responsible for having her beloved childhood pet rabbit killed for a family dinner. Eunice smashes Mama’s framed photograph and knocks her belongings apart, but then falls on the wreckage she created and begins sobbing “I want my Mama.” It is a pathetic and chilling moment, and Burnett (who was never the most subtle dramatic actress) brings out the pain and suffering of this sad, silly character. When Phillip tries to empower her with exhortations that she can be anything she wants to be, his words are a waste. Eunice can never be anything than what she is – someone who thrives on a constant state of strife and grief. She may be a clown thanks to her careless drinking and she may be a failure as a wife and mother, but there is no evidence she’s been ashamed of what she’s made of her life. When it is obvious she won’t be following Phillip to Hollywood, it’s no surprise – she really a satisfied resident of her self-constructed prison.
“Eunice” was broadcast on CBS on March 15, 1982. The ratings were very strong for this one-time offering and Vicki Lawrence received an Emmy nomination for her performance. Based on this reaction, it was decided to create a new series with these characters. “Mama’s Family” resurrected the recently deceased Thelma Harper as the center of a new series of half-hour sitcom adventures. The character was decidedly softened for this run (the mean spirited menace she presented in “The Family” sketches became more of a grumpy curmudgeon) and new members of her extended family served primarily as the butt of the show’s gags. Burnett, along with Betty White, only made a few guest appearances on “Mama’s Family,” and Ken Berry was cast in a new role as her son Vinton. “Mama’s Family” enjoyed a successful run on both NBC and in syndication (CBS, oddly, passed on the show) and can still be seen in daily repeats.
But “Eunice” did not turn up again after its one-time airing. It was never mentioned in any of the reunion specials featuring “The Carol Burnett Show” cast and it has never been issued on home video. Bootlegs of the production are primarily offered by private collectors (check eBay and there’s a good shot of finding a copy).
Fans of Carol Burnett and her ensemble may enjoy the curio factor of “Eunice.” I can’t say that I enjoyed it, yet I am glad to have rediscovered this long-forgotten little offering.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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