The Dale was too good to be true. A three-wheeled two-seater, the jaunty, rounded little auto sallied forth at the height of the 1970s oil crisis, with a supposed 70 mile-per-gallon fuel efficiency that rebuked all other automakers. In the new documentary “The Lady and the Dale,” airing in four parts on HBO, we meet the car before its maker, seeing the excitement around the vehicle firsthand as it’s offered as a “Price Is Right” prize on a 1975 episode. The car’s rollout was so rapid that contestants, too, were seeing this odd contraption for the first time.
The clip says it all: The Dale was a triumph not of manufacturing but of the salesmanship and media savvy of Elizabeth Carmichael. The Twentieth Century Motor Car Corp. founder wanted to make waves in the world of business — “I will run the auto industry like a queen,” we hear her say at one point. She might have come close had the car not been a bust and had she not been eventually placed on trial for fraud, among other charges. Amid it all, Carmichael was an unwilling pioneer when it came to her gender identity, garnering unwanted attention for being trans when she sought to put the focus back on her work. The narrow lane “The Lady and the Dale” must stay within is at once telling the rollicking yarn of the Dale, a fascinating con, while keeping an eye on the lady, who really lived and whose story deserves care. Gratifyingly, it succeeds.
Produced by Mark and Jay Duplass and directed by Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker, the show cannily avoids certain true-crime traps. It doesn’t gawk. Though she’s no longer alive to tell her side, Carmichael is given real dimension all the same. Her daughter Candi Michael, for instance, narrates Carmichael’s early years for us in the first episode, bemusedly noting her parent’s facility with shifting identities, with hot-burning obsessions, and with a sort of familial care one might not expect from a hard-driving entrepreneur. Noting her mother’s absence from family life, Candi tells us, “Having my daddy as my mommy was a wonderful thing for me.” It’s a phrasing whose slight clumsiness makes it ring all the more true, and makes Carmichael seem, unusually for a figure in a documentary of this nature, like a whole person.
Which is not to say that the series lets her off the hook; indeed, Carmichael’s dissatisfaction and relentless drive seem more poignant against the backdrop of a serene and affirming home life. But her crimes are, if not absolved, then allowed to exist within the context of the robust national desire for individualism and reinvention — urges that the open road encourages and that Carmichael, in her busy and full existence, embodied. If we weren’t told that the name came from designer Dale Clifft, we might assume “Dale car” was short for “Dale Carnegie,” the prophet of a particularly American sort of self-promotion. “My morale,” Carmichael tells a reporter in footage presented here, “is like a tent revival.”
Carmichael’s belief in herself is especially astounding given that the whole world was set up not to believe in her. Had the Dale disaster never happened — had she lived her life entirely outside the realm of enterprise — Carmichael still would have been seen by some portion of her peers as an impostor. And those who went after her business hardest tended, the documentary argues, to be those who distrusted her anyway: The reveal that her biggest critic in the media was ultimately a Reagan appointee and the father of a contemporary conservative movement leader comes with a shock of recognition, but no surprise.
By contrast to the cynical modern viewer, Carmichael’s seeming innocence is moving: At a time in which the language around transgender rights was unformed, she, for instance, refuses even to acknowledge the premise of a question as to whether she should be in a men’s or a women’s prison. She tells stories of herself growing up a tomboy, an “Indiana farm girl … tearing down tractor engines,” that reflect a childhood she wasn’t allowed to have, at least not openly.
Carmichael came to live a version of life she seemed to want: The latter episodes include not only her trial but her flight from justice and her life undercover as a seller of flowers — not trying to climb any ladder, just existing as a farm girl sharing beauty. There’s a power and potency to Carmichael’s understanding of herself, and, as told through artfully assembled interview footage, she’s allowed moments of grace that make this a story well told, not just a good story. “I don’t want to sound like an egomaniac,” Carmichael, high on prospective success, tells a journalist, “but I’m a genius.” It’s an accomplishment that “The Lady and the Dale” is so clear-eyed in its view of her business but still manages to convince you she was onto something.
“The Lady and the Dale” premieres on HBO Jan. 31 at 9 p.m. E.T.