The latest example of a movie that didn't need to be remade for television (and scarcely needed to be made in the first place) is Norman Rosemont's dull, bland and mummified production of "Little Lord Fauntleroy," at 9 tonight on Channel 9, Rosemont specializes in launching big empty balloons made from the scraps of old movies that in turn were based on old books; he raids the public domain like a fatty stampeding an icebox.
Rosemont's windbaggy past includes TV versions of "The Count of Monte Cristo," "Les Miserables" (which had already been a movie not just once but twice), "Miracle on 34th Street" and "Captains Courageous." In only one case, last year's "All Quiet on the Western Front," was the Rosemont edition in any way comparable to the Hollywood original.
"Little Lord Fauntleroy" was never much to begin with, but Freddie Bartholomew, the child star of the '30s, certainly stood head and shoulders above icky Ricky Schroder (of "The Champ," another remake), who plays the hero of the new CBS version. Schroder is one of those Tinsel Town tykes who could bring out the misanthrope in anybody. In ageboy blond tresses, and twinkling to beat the band, he looks a lot like a young Doris Day.
Alec Guinness, so disarmingly world weary in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" on PBS earlier this season, doesn't have to do much but stand around in his role as the boy's wealthy British grandfather. In fact, for the first half of the film, Sir Alec doesn't even have to stand. Grandfather conveniently enough suffers from the gout, and this gives Guinness the chance to deliver most of his lines from a chair or a carriage.
But when Little Lord Fauntleroy is brought over from America to claim his British title and live in a mammoth castle, Gramps' gout clears up pretty quickly. In fact, everything clears up. Even a smelly old ditch in the poor section of the local village is filled in. Schroder runs around banishing the glums and comforting codgers the way Shirley Temple did in the '30s, but darn it, Shirley could sing and dance. That kid had talent.
American viewers who saw the Thames Television import "The Naked Civil Servant" will find it hard to believe that the same director who made that snappy, inventive film, Jack Gold, also directed "Fauntleroy" in a manner so stodgy and stiff that the people in the cast barely seem capable of human movement. When Guinness says to one of his servants, "Well, shall we get on with it, Havisham?" you wish the director would take heed and follow the advice.
Perhaps Gold's working philosophy was, "Why bother exerting myself? This is only for American telly."
Children might get some mild hoots from the film, since it shows a little boy taken from a grubby tenement in 19th-century New York and plopped into lavish affluence. He not only gets a roomful of toys but every kid's wish, a pony, as well. How odd then that CBS scheduled the program for 9 p.m. in the East and West (8 in the Midwest) when the tinier tots who might be impressed will be hard pressed to stay up.
The disturbing thing is the utter absence of narrative oomph or even the merest hint of style in most of these Rosemont zombies -- and in most TV movies, for that matter. Fiction is being stripped all resonance and made as primitive as stick-drawing. People become so accustomed to this kind of skeletal entertainment that they reject distinctive stylistic flourishes in theatrical movies as well. Everything is starting to look and sound like everything else.