Arthur Miller’s less-than-major theatrical piece about the effects of the Depression has been turned into a striking TV experience by all hands concerned. Using Miller’s words and ideas, writer Frank Galati, director Bob Clark and the producers bring the immediacy of the 1930s agonies into today’s living rooms; ironically, “The American Clock” has found its appropriate platform through television.
While Studs Terkel’s “Hard Times” served as the play’s original inspiration, John Dos Passos comes to mind with the flowing narratives, character spotlights, anecdotal treatment of families and the effects of the economic downturn on various strata of American life.
The drama centers on dress manufacturer Moe Baumler, his wife, Rose; teenage son, Lee; and Grandpa — respectively, John Rubinstein, Mary McDonnell, Loren Dean and Eddie Bracken, with John Randolph re-creating his Broadway stint as the adult Lee recalling events. The family moves from highfalutin Manhattan life to Brooklyn and tight straits, and the TV movie slips freely among the wealthy in 1929, through their fall in October.
Symbolizing the high dive before the crash, Jim Dale as head of General Electric performs a sublime tap dance; meanwhile, corporate whiz David Strathairn, selling out before Oct. 29, hangs onto his money and finds a sweet-and-sour romance.
Miller’s play and the TV drama take on the nation’s attempts at recovery, the utter poverty, the WPA and reform moves, FDR’s attractiveness to the working stiff, the appeal of socialism and communism and the terror of the landlord.
A comparison to today’s recession is unavoidable. While viewers may think that Andrew Mellon, bank closures and farm auctions may belong in Jurassic Park, government relief, bill collectors, hunger, foreclosures and the homeless are nearer at hand.
Director Clark does an admirable job of pulling the Miller-Galati tapestry together. Also commendable is the acting of Estelle Parsons, Darren McGavin and Kelly Preston (as a deb-turned-prostitute).
The program moves urgently forward, and production designer Vaughan Edwards’ contributions are striking. Paul Zaza’s score, punctuated with timely pop tunes, is a standout.