Success in television means never having to say you're sorry that you got away with murder. Tonight's CBS movie, "Missing Children: A Mother's Story," at 9 on Channel 9, is as shamelessly, but not as artfully, melodramatic as anything ever put before the cameras 75 years ago by D.W. Griffith, and hokey as all get-out. Nevertheless, in some Never Never Land way, it works.
The film is completely negligible and quite engrossing.
Mare Winningham plays an illiterate 23-year-old mother of three living in poverty in post-World War II America; her loutish husband abandons the family and her wee ones are then swindled away from her by a Bible-quoting wicked witch who operates an adoption mill (if this character were a man, he could twirl his mustache and people sitting at their TV sets could hiss him). Winningham is such an appealing performer that she wins one's sympathy immediately, and keeps it, even though the character she plays is something of a ninny, and an ignoramus besides.
But ignoramuses deserve protection, too, and after she places her children in what she believes to be a rescue mission, only to have them disappear when they are auctioned off into adoption, the young mother seeks the help, or rather stumbles onto the help, of a pretty and ambitious novice at a local law firm (Kate Capshaw) and her merry little office pal (Peter Scolari, of the late "Bosom Buddies").
For some reason, writers Nancy Sackett and Jim Lawrence make the law clerks sitcommish types, and director Dick Lowry has them cute it up as much as possible -- right in the midst of this old-fashioned potboiler, this searing expose' of something that didn't really happen once upon a time. But even these characters are outcamped by Polly Holliday as the evil Miss Tyler, who runs that nasty mission. Holliday (Flo, of "Alice") plays the part along the lines of Lily Tomlin's proper Judith Beasly, except she's not supposed to be funny. Oh, but she is.
Odder still is the casting of Jane Wyatt, so long the perfect mother on "Father Knows Best," as Miss Tyler's partner in crime, a woman judge who has secretly been splitting the adoption profits with her. The case goes to Wyatt's court, and all looks lost for our poor heroine but then, presto, a deus ex machina appears from out of the blue: Scatman Crothers, as the custodian at the mission, with incriminating ledger book in hand. Thank heaven crooks keep careful ledgers or where would our heroines be?
On Nov. 9 CBS announced that the film "Rosie: The Rosemary Clooney Story," originally scheduled for Dec. 7, would be seen instead Dec. 8 and that "Missing Children" would air Dec. 7. Then on Nov. 10, CBS announced that "Missing," previously scheduled for Dec. 7, would air instead Dec. 1, and "An Invasion of Privacy," previously scheduled for Dec. 1, would be rescheduled for a date to be determined later. Oh to be at a network strategy session where Machiavellian decisions like these are hammered out!