As a play, "Johnny Bull" was a fresh, funny telling of British playwright Kathleen Betsko Yale's humble, hapless arrival as a GI's winsome war bride.
Now "Johnny Bull" has become a made-for-TV movie, and in its journey from stage to tube, Yale's modest comedy-drama has been stretched badly out of shape and lost its spry, self-mocking sense of humor. Starring Colleen Dewhurst, Jason Robards and remarkable British newcomer Suzanna Hamilton, this rather pokey, mopey version of "Johnny Bull" airs tonight at 9 on Channel 7.
Yale's alter ego is 18-year-old Cockney Iris, who steps onto U.S. soil in 1959 with a headful of rosy images of America gleaned from gossip magazines and Doris Day movies. Pregnant by GI husband Joe Kovacs, Iris envisions an idyllic life with a chicken in every pot and a telephone in every room -- even the bathroom. But after Joe collects her at immigration, he takes her home to Willard Patch, Pa., a dreary, down-on-its-luck coal town.
Inside the Kovacses' bleak house, the foreigner finds herself faced with deer meat and pig's feet, a feral German shepherd that guards the outhouse, and a stone-faced family of resentful Hungarian immigrants: father Stephan, a lifetime coal miner who's just been laid off; brooding mother Marie, who harbors a Dark Secret; and bovine, backward daughter Katrine, who promptly tags Iris "Johnny Bull," lower-class slang for a Britisher.
The perpetually chipper Iris grins and bears it all, has her baby and assimilates herself just enough to survive. But her fondest wish, beyond getting out for a spree at the local Woolworth's, is hopping a bus to California.
Yale adapted her own play for the film, and in trying to encompass too much, she winds up flattening it out and loses sight of Iris. Yale has added some colorless and underdeveloped tangents about the unemployed Kovacs men looking for work and a muddled glimpse of tensions between the town's black and white miners. Things begin to pick up about an hour into the film, when Marie reveals her Dark Secret, but the infusion of energy comes too late to salvage much interest.
Fresh, freckled Suzanna Hamilton makes an impressive and appealing television debut as Iris, a plain-pretty English sparrow with a screen-warming presence. The Kovacs family, however, comes off as a kind of cranky "Waltons." Mama Marie is played with jaw-jutting Dewhurst dignity, which plays just fine in Marie's silent-suffering scenes. But when she speaks, Dewhurst saddles herself with a ludicrous pidgin English.
Papa Stephan is a walk-through for Robards, who has little to do but look weary and beaten down behind his walrus mustache.
Several funny and touching moments remain in this "Johnny Bull," but Yale's life story remains best told on the stage, where it retains its compassion, complexity and flavor. You can still catch it at Washington's Horizons Theatre, where it has been extended through June 1.