Arthur Miller’s 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 TV.
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 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 Green and Eddie Bracken. John Randolph re-creates 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 the head of General Electric performs a sublime tap dance; meanwhile, corporate whiz David Strathairn, selling out before Oct. 29, manages to hang 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 Work Projects Administration 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 the current recession is unavoidable. While today’s viewers may think that Andrew Mellon, bank closures and farm auctions 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 from 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.
Stephen M. Katz’s photography and Stan Cole’s editing are first-class, and Betty Madden’s costumes decidedly set the tone.
Paul Zaza’s score, punctuated with appropriately timely pop tunes, is a standout.