Last Monday night Charles and I watched the next-in-sequence item in the James Dean on TV boxed set: Forgotten Children, a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation originally aired June 22, 1952. Having grown up thinking of the Hallmark Hall of Fame as a show that presented feature-length movies especially filmed for television, it was startling to see an episode that ran just half an hour and was shown on a Sunday afternoon rather than in prime time — though the narrator, Sarah Churchill (Winston Churchill’s daughter, who had a brief career in movies and whose best known credit is as Fred Astaire’s British girlfriend in Royal Wedding), boasts at the end that starting the next week the show will be moving to Sunday nights and she will be playing Emily Brontë in a show about the Brontë sisters. Churchill’s narration takes up valuable time on this program that could better be used telling its surprisingly compelling true story: Martha Berry, a Southern belle born right after the Civil War (in 1866) in Alabama — though when she was still a child her family moved to Rome, Georgia, where she lived the rest of her life (my online source for information about her is from a Georgia history project, http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/education/martha-berry-1866-1942) except for less than a year in Baltimore which she spent at a finishing school. As a girl, she was taken on horseback rides by her father and there met the young children of the mountain country surrounding her family’s plantation. She developed an interest in helping them that lasted her adult life.
The show opens on the eve of a barbecue, seemingly for no better reason than Gone With the Wind had opened with a barbecue and that had set a pattern for stories about the South’s 1-percenters, and just as Martha Berry is declaring her intention to do something with her life instead of just hang out on a front porch, go to dances and eventually marry James Dean, her life’s work shows up in the person of Ingaby Carpenter (Nancy Malone, an electrifying actress who had a long career but acted mostly on television and didn’t get the chance to break out into feature films the way Leachman did in the 1970’s) and two of her brothers. They’re followed to the Berry property by their dad, Talbot Carpenter (Steve Pluta), who angrily insists that he’s not going to allow any of his kids to learn how to read and write because he doesn’t want them to know any more than he does. Eventually Martha gets the property on Oak Hill (though scenarist Echkardt changes the name to “Lavender Hill”) and, despite the objections of Carpenter père, she builds her school (whose exterior is represented by a matte painting of such obvious phoniness Charles joked that they probably just used a Hallmark card!) and finally has a purpose in life.
Forgotten Children isn’t much of a James Dean item — he’s off screen after the first four minutes since his character symbolizes the superficial rich Southerners’ life style Berry rises above — but Leachman and Malone are absolutely electrifying and, despite the smarmy tone of Churchill’s narration (which makes this more of a tear-jerker than director William Corrigan and writer Echkardt clearly intended) and a bit too much of the High Seriousness for which Hallmark Hall of Fame was both hailed and reviled over the years, it’s a genuinely moving and impressive story, well told and nicely acted within the sometimes overpowering limitations of live TV. While many of the items on the James Dean: The Lost Television Legacy box are of dubious value in documenting James Dean — either because they only exist in fragmentary form or, like here, his part is too short to get a “fix” on how good an actor he was then — and at least two major Dean TV shows that are known to exist aren’t included in it (“The Enemy Within,” a quite fascinating episode of the pioneering science-fiction series Tales of Tomorrow with Dean as scientist Rod Steiger’s assistant; and Dean’s last TV show, a Schlitz Playhouse episode called “The Unlighted Road” he made between Rebel Without a Cause and Giant) — the box is still a welcome addition to a DVD collection, not only for showing Dean’s short but rather tortured path to stardom but also giving us a rare glimpse into what was considered “quality” television in the early 1950’s.