Watching "Ellis Island" not only is a trivial pursuit, like watching most prime-time commercial TV, but it's practically a game of Trivial Pursuit, silver screen version. Yes, let's all play guess-what-movie this scene came from and guess-which-movie that line of dialogue came from. Networks think viewers dread the unfamiliar; if so, they can roll up in "Ellis Island" like it was the comforter handed down from great-grandma -- and never sent to the cleaners.
On one level, the seven-hour CBS mini-series that starts tonight at 8 on Channel 9 and continues Tuesday and Wednesday, is an insult to every immigrant who ever immigrated here (maybe anywhere). On another, it's a hootacious, almost endearingly idiotic turkey trot; a saga heavy with risible sog; and yet another artless artifact from television's inexhaustible supply of crash courses in camp.
Named of course after the fortress-like gateway through which masses in the millions huddled into the United States during much of this century, and based on a novel about the fates of new arrivals by Fred Mustard Stewart (who cowrote the patchwork script), "Ellis Island" is ludicrous every step of the way and yet not quite up to the seasonal trash standard set earlier by "Mistral's Daughter." Still, it's a potentially more significant production since it deals, ostensibly, with ingredients that went into the American melting pot.
Unfortunately the mini-series is more crock than pot, an abysmally acted hash tossed together from parts of "The Godfather, Part II," "Hester Street," "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," "Ragtime" and more. The screenplay is the melting pot. There is in the narrative barely a single scene, an exchange of words, that doesn't have a familiar ring. Warner Bros., in fact, covered a lot of this ground in pictures made between 30 and 50 years ago. Maybe "Ellis Island" is meant as a tribute to Old Hollywood. It sees America as one vast bad movie.
Where some may find it insulting rather than amusingly awful is that it uses Americana and the myths we associate with The Golden Door as just another excuse for fairly standard TV sex-and-slush melodrama. The fortune seekers who pass through this "Ellis Island" are involved in male prostitution, lesbianism, rape and murder. A heavily populated fiction about immigrants that recycled more savory, less tawdry cliche's would have been at least an unobjectionable entertainment -- probably a commercially shrewd one, too, for a political environment dominated by optimistic Reaganalia. Why did "Ellis Island" have to be nasty as well as dumb?
The story covers a decade or so in the lives of characters from Ireland and Italy who arrive in New York in 1907 with their accents askew. Faith and begorrah, mama mia, it's not a nice place that greets them. Among those awaiting are a chiseling slumlord, a slave-driving sweat-shopper, brutalizing gangsters, crooked politicians and that naughtylesbian sculptor. After hours and hours of basically aimless sturm, drang und sleaze, director Jerry London has the nerve to rush in at the literally last minute a few incongruous choruses of "America the Beautiful" while the camera zooms in on American flags.
Even for television, expedient hypocrisy this shameless is beyond the pail, and I do mean pail.
Of course, those who feel TV is at its best when it is at its worst will have some fun choosing their favorite awful lines of borrowed or lavender dialogue. When the late Richard Burton (in his last film role), as a rich senator, asks his honeybunch Faye Dunaway, playing a famous actress, if she's given up her young male gigolo for him, she coos and flutters, "Rough country wine can be amusing at a certain time in one's life; it cannot compare with a great noble vintage either in taste, finish or ultimate satisfaction." He smiles. One likes to think that in previous takes he burst out laughing.
Dunaway spends many a scene in white mask porcelain makeup of the "Mummy Dearest" sort that makes her look like a Kabuki ghost. She's the resident Big Star whose bad acting is flamboyant enough to compensate for some of the listless bad acting of the laggardly nobodies in the ensemble. In her Lady Chatterley turn as a pampered nymphomaniac who goes for the gardener in Sorrento, then hires him as a lover in the States, Dunaway gets to say things like, "You realize I'm not some ancient crone who has to pay for love. I'm a world-famous star!"
Marco the gigolo (Greg Martyn, parading a lot of pec and no acting ability) shouts back at her during one of their spats, "I'm not some piece of meat you buy at the butcher shop!" But a phrase-coiner to be sure. Earlier, in his on-and-off semi-Italian accent, he had rejected her offer of lascivious employment by saying, "Scuza, signora, I makea my own life." As in "Ragtime," real names are thrown in with the fictitious characters, permitting a scene in which a music publisher has a man tossed out of his office and says to his secretary (a dead ringer for Una O'Connor, resident shrieker of the great Universal horror classics), "I don't want that no-talent immigrant in here bothering me any more. What's his name?" The secretary replies, "Jerome Kern."
Claire Bloom, as a wealthy snob, is upset when her daughter falls for young Jewish composer Jake Rubin (the utterly blank Peter Riegert) and tells her, "If it weren't for the war, I'd send you to Europe. As it stands, I'll send you to Cleveland!" Later, when the composer, strapped for backers, vows, "I'll put my own money in the show," the music publisher says, "Are you crazy? You'll lose everything!" Cut to Ruby Keeler and the Golddiggers? No, cut to Melba Moore and one of the mini-series' limp attempts to mimic popular songs of America's teen years.
Others in the large, terrible cast include Ann Jillian as a Broadway floozie who marries the composer (and, in bed, snarls "You immigrant pig!" at him), Judi Bowker as a young Irish e'migre' who goes blind upon arrival and takes to writing silent-movie screenplays (and blindness makes her saintly beyond all movie precedent), and Alice Krige, one of the few actors in the film who hang on to a shred of dignity, as the young woman's fugitive sister Bridget. One of the laddies who was involved with 'em in the troobles back in the old country, dontcha know, shows up one night and tries to rape poor Bridget, but blind Georgiana stabs him in the back with a scissors, saints preserve us. And on a dark and stormy night yet.
Stubby Kaye, now looking more like Oldy Kaye, is the music publisher and Lila Kaye, who played the Italian Mama Malone on CBS last season, is the Irish Mother O'Donnell, with Milo O'Shea as her husband. Kate Burton, daughter of Richard, is wispily appealing as the senator's daughter who falls into a trap set by the sculptress (Cherie Lunghi, given flaming red hair and wicked eyes). We know this child will be trouble when she expresses a fondness for socialism and art, and during Thanksgiving dinner asks up-from-the-slums Marco to "tell us about the stench, the filth, the cockroaches" of the ghetto.
Ben Vereen plays Moore's boyfriend, a pianist who teaches Jake ragtime in about 30 seconds. Jake, born Jacob Rubinstein, leaves Russia in the film's opening scene, a Cossack raid on a Jewish village. The word "pogrom" is not mentioned, but then the scene is only there to give the film a little hard-edged violence in its opening frames anyway. The one contribution of some small distinction is made by composer John Addison, who also wrote the beguiling title tune for the CBS series "Murder, She Wrote."
"I'm gonna have it all, Jake -- money, education and fancy manners -- and then I'm coming back to her!" vows Marco after falling in love. "Ye'd best state yer business and leave," says Bridget to the rapist. "Yer a hard man, Casey O'Donnell!" says his niece. And so on through "Well, I didn't expect this!" to "Go home, Nellie, the show's over!" through "Anything can be fixed in this country -- for a price!" Carol Burnett and company in their heyday couldn't have come up with a riper tomato than this, and they were in the spoof business.
One of the songs written by the composer is called "You're My Cutie-ootie-ootie Sweet Patootie." One of the films written by the blind sister is titled "Blood on the Cactus." Neither sounds any cornier nor any less sophisticated than "Ellis Island." The pity is that it had to be rather ugly as well. To paraphrase Gore Vidal yet again, having no value is no longer enough.