The Hallmark Channel takes pride in providing “quality family programming,” a welcome antidote to the age of irony. But if you scratch the belly of their latest feel-good movie, you’ll find a barely disguised contempt for the very audience they want to reach.
Ladies of the House is an ensemble piece of no small complexity. In a cinematic tradition that reaches from Stagecoach to The Jane Austen Book Club, characters from diverse backgrounds - in this case, from middle to upper class - come together to meet a common goal, and learn something about themselves in the process. The ladies, Rose (Florence Henderson), Elizabeth (Donna Mills), and Birdie (Pam Grier), are led house-ward by their pastor, who calls a meeting of his best donors and asks them to give not their money but their time - and their hearts. Their charge: to fix up a run-down house to raise funds for the church’s day care center.
Florence Henderson has long been an icon of family entertainment, but her activities outside the Bunch have frequently revealed a sensuous side. Who can forget the sultry chanteuse-in-black whose “That Old Black Magic” brought sexy back to The Paul Lynde Halloween Special? What Brady Bunch-admiring pre-teen did not blush when she took off her blouse for Robert Reed in a very very special episode of The Love Boat? Now in her golden years, Henderson still keeps a touch of vixen underneath layers of pancake makeup, and lets it shine straight through her characterization of Rose. She takes a line like “I think an older body is more interesting than a younger one” and embraces not only the words but herself, literally, caressing her torso as she coos, perhaps at the memory of a very special cruise. Rose’s marriage to Frank (Lance Henriksen) is the most nurturing of the ladies of the house, and the best relationship for a Baskin Robbins product placement — which makes their ultimate fate that much more bittersweet.
Pam Grier has come a long way since Coffy and Jackie Brown, and her Birdie fully laments the salad days - “I used to have tone and muscle!” As the movie opens, she celebrates the retirement of her husband Stan (Richard Roundtree). He worked long and hard towards days which he thought he’d be spending with his wife, but now that he’s retired he finds Birdie thoroughly absorbed in a new project. Birdie also happens to be a textbook example of what I call “get-downism”, as she not only teaches her white sisters to get down with the rap “buy it fix it sell it!” but goes so far as to coax out of a boom box the rousing sheet-rock-laying groove “Get on down.”
With Elizabeth, Donna Mills plays to her prime time strength: the spoiled rich girl. But this time she’s got a heart of gold. Her wealthy husband Richard (Gordon Thomson) gives her everything but love and respect. Elizabeth has the farthest to go to find herself, and designer dresses soon give way to flannel shirts and jeans - she even trims down her manicure! Alone among the ladies’ husbands, Richard does not encourage or support Elizabeth’s efforts. In fact he treats her like an idiot who doesn’t know a hammer from a handsaw.
Therein lies the problem with the film. Richard’s estimation of his wife is exactly the filmmakers’s estimation of the Ladies — they’re not called Women, they’re called Ladies. As the women struggle with their assignment, we’re treated to scenes of infantilized women who can barely take care of themselves. Sure they learn and grow into their roles and find a kindly Latino hardware store salesman who treats them with respect, unlike the burly white permit office clerk who laughs them off when they ask for help. But when it comes time for the final exam, Birdie enlists the help of a strong (but soft-spoken) African-American to softly browbeat the burly permit clerk into scheduling the inspection. Sisters doing it for themselves? Not if the filmmakers can help it. Ladies of the House promises empowerment, but if the inner strength of the lead actresses finally evokes great pride in their accomplishment, it’s no thanks to the script. See the Hallmark Channel Original Movie Ladies of the House, premiering Saturday, October 18 (9/8c).