Needed: A kind woman to share a life with a widower and his two young children. To make a difference.
The words “made-for-television movie” strike the same fear into my heart as, say, “Bay City Rollers reunion tour.” “Made-for-TV movie” conjures up visions of wretchedly melodramatic weepies starring Valerie Bertinelli or Melissa Gilbert, targeted at a demographic group whose members would likely buy diet shakes and Bon-Bons (in the same stop at the grocery store) while on the way to pick up the kids from soccer practice in their minivan. So, it was with some trepidation I received Sarah, Plain And Tall to review. Not just one, but three, made-for-TV movies, nestled in a keep case adorned with happy clouds and flowers. While it wasn’t as painful as I imagined, more than once I had to wash my brain out with Con Air and Alien Resurrection.
There’s a reason Sarah, Plain And Tall rises above other made-for-TV fare: it’s cut from better cloth. The series is based upon a novel of the same name by Patricia MacLachlan, published in 1985. According to the production notes with the first movie, she was approached by many parties for the rights to turn the book into a movie, but she was reluctant to give up her characters. That is, until Glenn Close spoke with her. MacLachlan worked closely with the production staffs for all three films to turn the novel and the characters into filmed versions she could be proud of. In a world where authors the likes of Anne Rice and Tom Clancy sell the rights away, then disown productions based on their works, it impresses me that an author had the integrity to hold out for the best possible presentation of her work.
The Sarah, Plain And Tall trilogy stars Glenn Close and Christopher Walken. I would not expect either actor to be in a television production, nor could I picture them in such sedate roles. Glenn Close is an actress with five Academy Award nominations under her belt, one of which is for the role for which I will always remember her: the mentally unhinged mistress in Fatal Attraction. (Now, there’s a movie screaming for a special edition DVD treatment. Test audiences hated the original ending so much that it was retooled, changing the fate of one major character. I’d sure love to see that ending.) Lately, she has done much more family-friendly fare (no doubt due to the fact that she has a thirteen-year-old daughter) such as the First Lady in Mars Attacks! and the voice of Tarzan’s adopted mother in Disney’s Tarzan. Christopher Walken…what to say about Christopher Walken? He is one of my favorites. He’s one of the scariest guys in Hollywood — not buffoon-scary like Dennis Hopper (come on, could anyone take him seriously in Speed?), but seething true menace through his steely gaze alone. If you don’t believe me, take a look at his all-too-brief role in True Romance, when he stares down…Dennis Hopper.
In Sarah, Plain And Tall, Close and Walken are asked to play quiet, temperate characters. Glenn Close is the heroine of the title. Sarah is a strong woman, not quite a feminist but still willing to speak her mind or pitch herself into tasks reserved for men in turn-of-the-20th-century Kansas. Christopher Walken plays Jacob Witting, a widower of few words. He is a farmer, fiercely loyal to the land that provides his livelihood. Close and Walken are joined in all three films by Lexi Randall and Christopher Bell, who portray Jacob’s children, Anna and Caleb. The three movies follow their lives on a small farm on the Kansas prairie.
The series begins with Sarah, Plain And Tall in 1910. Jacob has been a widower for six years, following the death of his wife while giving birth to Caleb. He tends to his land and to his children the best he can, but misses companionship. So, he places an advertisement in the newspaper, seeking a woman to share in his life and “make a difference” in the lives of his children. The ad finds its way to Sarah, living along the sea in Maine. She loves her home next to the ocean, but is looking for other experiences. She makes the long train ride to Kansas for a one-month trial period.
At first, things are bumpy. Young Caleb takes right to Sarah, but Anna remembers her mother fondly and is much more reluctant to embrace a new mother. Jacob does not know how to react to this headstrong woman who is nothing like the mild-mannered wife he had loved. Plus, Sarah feels homesick for the green trees and ocean air of Maine. In time, Jacob and Sarah fall in love, and the foursome becomes a family.
Skylark, the second film of the series, picks up two years later. Sarah has acclimated herself to her new Kansas home, but trouble is brewing. A drought is turning the prairie soil into dry, unusable dust. Water is scarce, and the dry conditions and summer thunderstorms create a constant threat of fire. A blaze destroys the Witting barn and cattle pens. With only a farmhouse left on the arid farm and the well dry, Sarah reluctantly packs up the children and heads east to spend time with her brother and three aunts in Maine. There Sarah and the children spend several months, waiting for rain to bring life back to the homestead. Oh, and Sarah finds out she’s pregnant.
The final installment, Winter’s End, takes place in 1919. World War One has called young men of fighting age off to Europe. Anna is now old enough to move off to town by herself, where she assists the town doctor and pines for her boyfriend, off at war. Caleb is a young man, and serves well on the farm. Jacob and Sarah’s new daughter, Cassie, is just as precocious and stubborn as her mother. Winter is coming to an end in Kansas when a strange old man appears at the farm. It is revealed that the old man, John (Jack Palance), is Jacob’s long-lost (and presumed dead) father. Jacob bears much animosity toward him, for John abandoned his wife and son when Jacob was very young. The two must work through their bitterness to restore John as a member of the family.
I must say, I enjoyed the series much more than I thought I would at the outset. Sarah, Plain And Tall reminded me of a classic movie that starred Robert Mitchum, William Holden, and Loretta Young, named Rachel And The Stranger. It that film, a mail-order bride comes to live with a rough-and-tumble widower and his son on the Western frontier, and is wooed by a family friend. Sadly, it’s not available on video or DVD at this time, but you may be able to catch it on the classic movie networks. While I enjoyed Sarah, Plain And Tall, I was disappointed by the second two installments. Sarah, Plain And Tall developed interesting characters, but they were given little to do in the next movies other than stumble through contrived melodrama. Winter’s End was the least offensive of the two, though it also wasted too much time manufacturing tribulations, such as Jacob breaking his leg or Sarah becoming lost in a freak blizzard. Neither contrivance serves much purpose story-wise, other than to advance time and create tension during commercial breaks. Skylark drags through its story with very little to do. There’s no rain…the water has run out…do we leave or do we stay…they leave…rain comes…story’s over. There’s very little character development, and what little there is is wasted upon the paint-by-numbers story. The only small joy was a cameo by grand character actor James Rebhorn, who was fantastic as Headmaster Trask in Scent Of A Woman. He is seen briefly in the film’s third act as Sarah’s brother, William.
The three films are presented on two discs. The first two movies are provided on a double-sided disc, while Winter’s End is presented on its own disc. All three movies are presented in their original full-frame aspect ratio. The first two films are plagued with dirt and scratches on the negatives, and appear soft almost to the point of fuzziness. At several points (and technical terms fail me here), large sections of the print took on a greenish tone for seconds at a time. Winter’s End is sharper and has far fewer annoying defects. The first two films feature Dolby Surround audio, but Winter’s End only has stereo sound. However, Winter’s End has the most pleasing audio of the series. Many scenes in the first two films take place outdoors, on the open land. It sounds as if the on-set dialogue was left intact, along with the distracting sound of the wind whipping past the boom mikes and the chirping of insects. It leaves a harsh buzzing sound that ends abruptly when action moves indoors. The movies with surround tracks make little use of any channels other than the center. Each movie has cast and crew biographies (the same set with each movie, other than the inclusion of Jack Palance with Winter’s End and the different directors) and production notes. Winter’s End includes a short making-of featurette detailing that particular production, and a brief set of interview snippets with Glenn Close. No subtitles were recorded, though the movies are close-captioned.
Here’s where I play the part of picky reviewer. Artisan chose to package the two discs in a keep case that is the depth of a standard keep case with a swinging mount inside for the second disc. However, the mounting hub has a triangular button at the center that is meant to be pressed to release the disc, and it hold the disc far too firmly for frequent use. I’m afraid that cracks will form along the center hole of the disc after regular removal of the disc (and upon closer inspection, it looks like they already have!). It would have been much better for consumers if the wider two-disc packaging used for discs such as The Abyss had been used. I would have packaged the movies with the first installment on its own disc, and put the sequels on a separate disc. The movies’ scant running times could have even allowed for two films on a single side of a dual-layered disc.
The Sarah, Plain And Tall collection would make excellent entertainment for anyone looking for something suited for viewing by all members of a family. It’s an interesting slice of early 20th century Americana, a time when life was simpler, yet much more difficult.