In 1934, 10-year-old heiress Gloria Vanderbilt (Jennifer Dundas, Mrs. Soffel) becomes the subject of a fierce custody battle between her mother, socialite Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt (Lucy Gutteridge, The Last Tycoon) and powerful aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (Angela Lansbury, Bedknobs and Broomsticks).
Reaction & Thoughts:
“If the child is left in Gloria’s clutches, her very life is in danger.”
The name Gloria Vanderbilt means different things to different people. If you ask my baby-boomer parents, they will tell you that Gloria was a jet-setter whose face often graced the cover of numerous beauty and lifestyle magazines. We Gen Xers remember her as the businesswoman and fashionista behind a jeans brand. Millienias probably only know Gloria as the mother of CNN’s anchorman Anderson Cooper.
But Gloria first became famous as the 10-year-old child at the center of a lurid custody battle between her flaky mother and her powerful aunt. Based upon Barbara Goldsmith’s best-selling book of the same name, this elegant miniseries re-creates not only the explosive court case, but also the events leading to the 1934 trial.
Little Gloria… Happy at Last could have been just another glitzy docudrama. Instead, the miniseries uses the well-publicized ’30s scandal to examine many sociopolitical issues. I have to give credit to writer William Hanley (The Gypsy Moths) for not making it into just what happened in the court of law. Hanley does a truly impressive job looking at these events within the larger context of American history.
Director Waris Hussein’s (Melody) work is praiseworthy as well. Despite Little Gloria… Happy at Last‘s extreme length — the three-hour limited series covers a period of twelve years (from 1922 to 1934) — the director never allows the pacing to sag. Hussein also manages to extract wonderful performances from a top-notch cast.
This is a true ensemble piece. The miniseries is divided into two sections and Christopher Plummer (Beginners), who plays Gloria’s alcoholic father, Reginald Vanderbilt, dominates the first half. Plummer is warm, funny, and a little pitiful. Even though his character dies before the end of part one, you never forget him. Plummer has nice chemistry with Lucy Gutteridge, who plays Gloria’s absentee mother.
Dame Angela Lansbury walks away with the second half. She received an Emmy nomination for playing Gloria’s super-wealthy aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Kudos to Lansbury for transforming a cliché character, the all-too powerful dragon lady, into a real human being with both big flaws and good qualities.
And there is Bette Davis stealing a few scenes as Gloria’s paternal grandmother, Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt. The cast also includes Maureen Stapleton (Cocoon) as Gloria’s nanny. Glynis Johns (Mary Poppins) is hilarious as Gloria’s eccentric maternal grandmother. Barnard Hughes (The Hospital) plays Judge John Francis Carew. Martin Balsam (A Thousand Clowns) plays Gloria’s mother’s lawyer.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Little Gloria… Happy at Last is Hollywood filmmaking at its classiest. The TV miniseries is overloaded with talent, which is why it never ceases to be engaging and entertaining. Color, 180 minutes, Not Rated.