American? I'm tell you what America is. America is popular songs and short stories. And television.
Beginning tonight and for five more weeks, short stories and television get together, and not only is it about time, it is about the most promising and provocative thing to happen on TV this spring. "The American Short Story," starting tonight at 8 o'clock on Channel 26 and other noncommercial stations, is a celebration of our native contribution to the art form and conceivably the most important public television series since "The Adams Chronicles."
The premiere, which consists of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" and Sherwood Anderson's "I'm A Fool," isn't just good viewing. It's the kind of thing that reawakens one's dormant excitement for the possiblities of television. There is no choice but to encourage it and the people who made it and paid for it.
The National Endowment for the Humanities funded the series and hired Robert Geller as executive producer. At about $2.4 million total, "Stories" isn't the biggest NEH investment yet in a public TV series (about $2.5 million was contributed toward the $6.5-million "Chronicles"), But it's the first public TV series to be entirely funded by NEH.
Considering recent White House criticism of "elitism" at the Endowment, the timing of "Stories" could hardly be better. It is for everybody.
"Bernice," a 46-minute film written and directed by Joan Micklin Silver. ("Hester Street") is the more treasurable of tonight's two stories, adapted from what is considered the best of Fitzgerald's "flapper" tales, first published in 1920. If it is not an absolutely perfect transliteration of Fitzgerald and his style, it is - and this is the important part - as good a film as the story is a story.
The story is casually extraordinary. It is filled with such deft little nifties as, "There was a moment's silence while she did unimpressive things with her fan." That couldn't really be transferred to film without a cumbersome voiceover narration, but Silver does preserve such choice dialogue as "Bernice, you have an awfully kissable mouth" and Bernice's declaration, "I want to be a society vampire."
Bernice, when we meet her, is a plain thing, a bit of a drag, a stranger in the midst of her jazz baby peers and a virtual deserter from what Fitzgerald saw as the world-wide conspiracy by which women turn men into pets, slaves and fools.
But Marjorie, the cousin Bernice is visiting, simply won't have her summer ruined by this ninny, so she takes Bernice in hand and shows her how to tease and torment the boys, so that before long, the once ignored Bernice is reclining on couches saying glib and giddy things like, "Oh Charlie Paulsen, you devil! I bet that you could make a girl believe almost anything."
What Silver has done is to find an ideal visual style for telling this story and preserving its sweet pungency, a few mischievous pans among the camera techniques she uses with intuitive skill. As Bernice and her prime target Warren McIntyre, Shelley Duvall and Bud Cort are magificent innocents, and Veronica Cartright has the perfect merciless debutante tone for Marjorie. The cast is full of interesting young actors in terribly clever control.
And they inhabit a charmingly detailed Midwestern summer, a privileged rich world of rakish boaters, shared porch gliders, croquet on the lawn and gilded mirrors in the hall.
The authenticity of ambiance is all the more impressive considering that Silver shot the film not the Midwest at all but in two grand mansions in Savannah, Ga.
The Anderson story. "I'm A Fool," is compatible with "Bernice" chiefly in that it is also set in a Midwest summer of 1919. Ron Cowan's screenplay is not as shrewd or efficient as Silver's, however, and the direction of Noel Black ("Pretty Poison") is unobtrusive almost to the point of being chilly.
In addition, Ron Howard, of "Happy Days", has learned how to restrict whatever serious range he may have, and the part of a young rube imitating a gentleman hasn't exactly taxes his presumably latent resources. Santiago Gonzalez as rowdy old Burt, however, brings a lot of life to the 35-minute film, and Howard promenading down Main Street and tipping his newly bought derby to the ladies is a lovingly captured American village image.
It's the Fitzgerald story that gives the premiere of this series its distinction. Silver's perfect little movie was shown at last fall's New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center and will be made available to nonprofit "adult community groups," along with other films in the "Short Story" series, as part of the NEH grant.
Other authors to be represented over the coming five weeks are Flannery O'Connor, Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, Richard Wright, Ambrose Bierce, Henry James and John Updike. Participating directors include Arthur Barron, John Korty and Jan Kadar. Actors still to be seen include LeVar Burton (of "Roots"), John Houseman, Fritz Weaver, Irene Worth and Salome Jens.
"The American Short Story," in addition to every other good thing about it, could be a promising setback in what many believe to be television's campaign to eradicate literacy in America. It's hard to think of a sweeter revenge.