Little Gloria…Happy at Last (1982)

We’ve already done the “boo hoo, being rich is so difficult thing” with in “Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story.”  We watched her go from ignored infant to destitute old lady, dead with only few thousand dollars.

Gloria Vanderbilt’s story is still going because unlike her fellow debs, she’s still alive.  “Little Gloria…Happy at Last” concerns a very specific episode in her childhood and does not delve into her many marriages, her many careers (yes, the jeans) or even her motherhood (one son would sadly commit suicide while the other would become Anderson Cooper).  Sticking to this one episodes in her life allows for tight rendering, augmented by a wonderful script and truly outstanding performances.  There are also some wildly over-the-top moments, but this is a miniseries after all.

This is an outstanding piece, which is is surprising, because it could have been so trashy.

At a party in 1922, Reggie Vanderbilt (Christopher Plummer) meets Gloria Morgan (Lucy Gutteridge).  The former is, of course, a member of old society, the Vanderbilts having forced their way into society by threatening to buy it a few decades earlier.  The latter is one of the Morgan sisters who are successful society figures.  Gossip columnist Maury Paul (John Hillerman) has led the charges for the girls, of which Lucy is the only single one.  Among the more awkward moments at the party is when Reggie’s daughter dances by saying hello, the exact same age as Gloria.  But, Reggie is so entranced by Gloria that he minds neither that nor Gloria’s incessant and dimwitted chatter.  She’s as shallow as a blow-up pool.

Gloria takes a spin around the dance floor with Maury while Reggie has an attack of some sorts that is calmed by nip from his flask.  “You mean he drinks a lot?” Gloria asks Maury.  “Just close your eyes and dance,” he tells her.

Rushing home to her mother, Gloria can’t wait to talk about her meeting Reggie.  Her sister has already told their mother, Laura Morgan (Glynis Johns), who sees only dollar signs.  Overly-theatrical Laura has only one idea in her ever-spinning brain.  “He’s the wealthiest, most eligible bachelor in the whole country.  Don’t complain how he dances,” the cautions her daughter, her own eyes wide with possibility.

Gloria and her mother are invited to the Rhode Island summer home to see Reggie’s horses and to meet his mother at her own home, The Breakers, one of Newport’s most famous abodes.  The stately mansion is dominated by Alice Vanderbilt (Bette Davis).  Unlike bubbly Laura, who is informal and grasping, Alice is regal.  Also there for the party is one of Reggie’s siblings, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (Angela Lansbury).  “Unlike Reggie, I don’t flourish under the dazzling glare of publicity,” Gertrude says as a warning to Gloria that she’s doesn’t fully approve of his lifestyle.  After all, she’s just an artist with a sculpture studio in Greenwich Village.  She wants to open a museum (and eventually would, The Whitney Museum).

Poor Alice gets it worse, having to listen to Laura go on and on about her South American roots and some fake ancestry, not to mention how she has pushed two daughters into impressive marriages.  Bette Davis has one of her better late career moments when she is able to roll those knowing eyes at Reggie while Laura spins another yarn.

Reggie is summoned to tea by his mother.  “She’s not one of THE Morgans, you know,” she tells Reggie, who says he wishes she were as he’s apparently broke.  Moving on from their differing social stations, Alice is more upset that the Morgan sisters have “been around.”  “How can a girl of 18 been around?” Reggie asks.  Alice tries to battle Reggie a bit, but ultimately the Vanderbilt family’s recently-acquired status cannot be ignored, so the only leg Alice has to stand on is Gloria’s fast reputation.  Gloria takes care of that one and has a doctor verify she’s a virgin, causing Reggie to howl at a lunch and Alice to do the same at her mansion when a letter arrives with the results.

“When a family’s divorces begin to outnumber its marriages, we must question the intelligence of its romantic choices, but in this case, there are no questions to be asked,” Alice says at the head of a very long table of expensive-dressed extras.  She then takes her pearls off and gives them to Gloria, as “all Vanderbilt women must have pearls,” and Reggie can’t afford to buy her any.  In a car home, Reggie lays out his true financial status: he doesn’t have one.  He’s living off the generosity of his mother.  As long as he’s alive, they are fine.  But, when he dies, his wife will not get a penny, all of his trust fund going to a child from a previous marriage, unless Gloria can produce an heir, in which case, that child will get half of the fund.  “I don’t care about you or about the future as long as I can have you now,” Gloria tells him, in one of those only-in-a-miniseries lines that dooms poor Reggie to death only 30 minutes into the movie.

Gloria’s sisters and mother discuss the upcoming nuptials.  All three have had lousy marriages, both daughters on the verge of divorce and Laura living a separate life from her husband.  In one breath, Laura is deluded about who wins with this marriage (she feels the Vanderbilts are lucky to be marrying into a family of bogus Spanish nobility), but then understands practicality and hopes that Gloria produces an air before Reggie dies.

In the next scene, said daughter is born.  Laura takes control in the hospital room, launching into one of her long-winded monologues about how difficult the birth was.  “Out Little Gloria,” she notes as the nurse takes the baby away to be fed.  Laura, rushing up the stairs at top volume, has found a nanny for Little Gloria, Nurse Emma Kieslich (Maureen Stapleton).  They need someone, because Reggie uses the twinkling of ice in his glass as a sort of rattle.  With Gertrude as godmother, Little Gloria is christened, which does not meet the approval of arch-Catholic Nurse Emma.  She and Laura sit in the car on the way back and rip into the Vanderbilts for allowing a Episcopalian service.  Nurse Emma intends to pray for her soul.

At 18 months old, Little Gloria still has Nurse Emma living in the same bedroom with her.  Gloria thinks it’s odd, but apparently she hasn’t yet figured out that Nurse Emma is a certified loon.  Reggie stumbles home drunk early in the morning, coughing uncontrollably, but pays a visit to the child, blowing out the candle that  Nurse Emma has put near Little Gloria for religious protection.  With Reggie dying on the sofa, Gloria is summoned by Laura to go with her and visit Laura’s own dying mother in Chile.  “I wish I were going with you.  I’ve never been to Chile,” he ruefully says.  Reggie has never been, and he knows he’ll never go.

The dying husband takes precedence over the dying grandmother (whom she’s never met anyway), but Gloria does not make it in time before he dies.  “He’s gone, my dear,” Alice says simply (she had to deliver a similar line in “Where Love Has Gone,” and has lost none of her I’m-slumming-so-badly attitude about it).  Gloria faints upon hearing it, but Alice nods a servant over to take care of Gloria.

The family and friends gather at Alice’s home, where she and Gertrude discuss funeral plans.  “All local social functions will be canceled, of course,” Alice notes.  “The casino lowered its flag to half mast,” is Gloria’s only addition.

Lawyer Gilchrist (Michael Gross) comes to the Morgan family with the details of the will, which are not pleasant.  As Reggie noted, there is a $5 million trust to be split between Reggie’s two children, and Gilchrist notes that Little Gloria and the trust fund need a guardian.  Laura has another of her outbursts (Glynis Johns is having the time of her life in this role), arguing with everyone in the room and topping it all with this chuckle of a line: “What is going on here is a little infant baby with a fortune of money and a mother who does not have a red cent!” Her daughters and poor Gilchrist can only listen to this hilarious harangue.

Maury notes in his column that Gloria and her lawyers have decided to fight the will, saying that Gloria needs money to take care of the child.  The judge agrees to $1000 a month, an amazing sum in those days.

By 1931, Gloria is primarily living abroad, using the $1000 on herself.  Gilchrist comes to visit her on the Riviera, discussing sister Thelma’s new affair with the Prince of Wales (Lucy Gutteridge had played Thelma in “The Woman He Loved,” which we’ve already discussed.  Gloria herself has a gigolo lover, but Cilchrist is actually there to deliver bad news that Gloria has to move Little Gloria back to New York City because it’s not considered correct for an American heiress to be living anywhere but America.  Having learned histrionics from her own mother, Gloria snaps, “it’s a pretty awful state of affairs when a person’s child becomes a rope around her neck and has to be dragged wherever she wants to go…it’s all Gloria’s fault!”  Gloria loves the society life and refuses to give it up for her child, so she dumps Little Gloria at Aunt Thelma’s in England.  Now it’s Nurse Emma’s turn to get all huffy, filling Little Gloria’s head with only bad things about her own mother.  Nurse Emma reports all of the child’s mother’s antics to Laura.  She is also the obvious hand behind Little Gloria’s letters to Laura, for her own phrases creep into them.  “Read them and weep, Mr. Gilchrist.  READ THEM AND WEEP!” Laura bellows, digging down to the deepest register of her voice to come off like an overzealous Medea.  She’s there to have Gloria and Little Gloria brought back to New York City (Laura is fighting with Gloria, which is her own selfish reason for wanting Gloria’s wings clipped).

A fleet of cars drive past bread lines in a heavy-handed touch that is a bit too much for this movie as mother and daughter arrive back in New York City so Little Gloria can have her tonsils removed.  Gloria buys her daughter a car and driver of her own as Little Gloria sees newspaper clippings about the Lindbergh baby and begins to worry about herself.  Aunt Gertrude is in the middle of one of her Bohemian parties (the kind that Lansbury’s Mame would have approved of) when the Gloria stop by.  She hammers in the idea of protection and advises Gloria to hire a bodyguard.  They hire one, but they hardly need one because Nurse Emma “has never taken a day off” and still sleeps in the same bedroom as her charge.  Good luck getting by Nurse Emma!  Laura makes it worse, by storming in one day and throwing down the newspaper article about the Lindbergh baby’s murder.  She reads the entire gruesome article, which gives Little Gloria horrible nightmares.

Gloria is only somewhat concerned about Little Gloria’s mental state, rushing off to Europe again.  Aunt Gertrude asks to take Little Gloria to her home on Long Island, where she brings a gaggle of doctors to discuss Little Gloria’s condition.  There are apparently no physical issues, but a whole lot of mental ones.  One doctor blames Nurse Emma’s poisoning thoughts, but that is brushed aside because Gertrude says the child is utterly devoted to her and, after all, her own children were raised by nannies.  One of the doctors is Gertrude’s lover and she dashes over to Europe for a tryst with him, little better than Gloria.  Upon returning, Gertrude is a little put out by all of the money Nurse Emma has been spending on doctors.  Gertrude decides to take Gloria to see the doctor with her and he does indeed feel that Little Gloria’s physical issues are the result of emotional distress and that Little Gloria should stay in the country and be pampered by Gertrude.

A year goes by and Gertrude assembles all the lawyers to her mansion to lower the boom.  She starts off by reminding everyone that Little Gloria has flourished under her care, her own mother absent and in the papers for bad behavior, tucking in a apology to Laura, who is seated next to her.  “I’m behind you 1000%!” Laura wails.  Gertrude feels the child should live up to her Vanderbilt name, with her.  She also has Gilchrist wire Gloria in Europe to say that the trust administrator is threatening to cut off the money to Gloria since Little Gloria’s bills are being paid by Gertrude.  When Gloria returns home, she wants to bring Little Gloria back to the city, but she’s “so happy” in the country, as noted by Gertrude and Gilchrist.  The plan is coming together nicely.  They petition the trust administrator to agree to lower Gloria’s monthly settlement from $4000 to $750.  “Can’t something be done for me to get my baby back?” Gloria wonders, just now starting to catch on to all that has already been done to undermine her status as mother.

So, off she goes to another lawyer, Nathan Burkan (Martin Balsam), and a family friend and tells him the whole story.  Nathan admits that Gertrude believes herself “beyond the laws of man and nature,” and the first step in fighting her is to have Gloria appointed guardian now that she is of age (she was only 18 when a surrogate was appointed).  At a court hearing, a lawyer brings a complaint against the petition to have Gloria named guardian, standing up in the balcony of the court room to do so, as dramatically as possible.  So, who should be behind this theatrical display?  “Mrs. Laura Morgan, Mrs. Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt’s own mother,” she says, with the press rushing out the door to go file their stories.

The war for Little Gloria is on.

Gloria’s sisters go to Laura to tell her she’s being ridiculous and that no mother would do this to her child.  Laura argues that Little Gloria has been neglected.  “You’d think she was Little Orphan Annie,” one sister chirps.  Plus, Laura traveled around the world and left her own daughters.  The sisters are wise to Laura’s reasons, that she’s never gotten over the fact that Gloria refused to let her live with her.  “She threw me out on the street, her own Mama!”  Oh, and as for the money her daughters send her every month, she is fine losing that because she has a benefactor.  “I could not face my God if I did not do this,” she rants to her daughters.

Dying Alice Vanderbilt is filled in on all that’s been going on by Gertrude, who is only too happy to run down the list of Gloria’s faults (she’s dating a man “of the Hebrew persuasion”), though Alice reminds her Gertrude’s only life has not been scandal-free.  The difference, according to Gertrude, is that she’s always kept her life private, not “lived in front of the news reels.”  Alice still intends to leave Gloria money in her will.

“I’m not happy with my mother,” poor Little Gloria tells Aunt Gertrude, who tells her indeed she does have to pay her mother a visit.  Between Nurse Emma, Laura and Gertrude, they have made Gloria out to be a an uncaring mother.  Even Nathan agrees that Gloria has botched motherhood, so Gloria is determined to change all of that.  A montage shows Little Gloria having fun her with mother, trying on all of her jewels an learning to balance a checkbook.  Gloria takes a further step in renting a house in the country to combat Gertrude’s notion that Little Gloria is better off there.  For all of her faults, Gloria may be genuinely sorry for them and intends to right the wrongs.

Little Gloria is horrified at the prospect at having to live with her mother, fearing she’s being kidnapped away from her current life.  Gloria fires Nurse Emma, saying Little Gloria doesn’t need a nurse, so Nurse Emma puts in a call to Gertrude (busy making a statue of a nude man).  The next thing we know, Nurse Emma is sprinting down the steps with Little Gloria, almost making it to the door when Gloria discovers them.  Nurse Emma lies her way out of it and takes the child to Gertrude’s studio.  Gertrude is meeting with the lawyers when Little Gloria bursts in, screaming that she doesn’t want to be with her mother, an event no doubt staged for maximum effect by Gertrude and Nurse Emma so the lawyers can see just how horrified Little Gloria is by her mother.  Actually, she’s been further poisoned.  “I hate my mother,” she tells the doctor.  When Gloria and her sister show up at Gertrude’s, Little Gloria flies into a rage and now battle lines are more like trenches.

Gloria leaves without her daughter (a mistake) and rushes to Nathan, who tells her she’s being followed.  He wants her to come clean with everything about her life so they are not surprised by anything in court.  Nathan decides to serve Gertrude with a writ of habeas corpus.  The press is delighted to see Gloria arrive and then Gertrude with Little Gloria.  Laura is there in court with Nurse Emma, who has gone through a complete makeover and is now sporting jewels and furs.  Judge Carew (Barnard Hughes) gets the court case going, noting from the beginning that the whole case comes down to Gloria’s fitness to be a mother.  In fact, the circumstances will have to be “extraordinary” to get to the point where Gloria would be sent to anyone but her mother.

Up to now, “Little Gloria…Happy at Last” has been relatively free of miniseries goofiness, but now we’re about to dive into the udder of the cow that creates it.  It’s not that the movie is jumping off track, because it will remain a thrilling tale, but with all the acting talent assembled here, no one is going to pass up the chance to give up courtroom melodrama.

Nurse Emma is the first witness, listing all of the people who lived in the house, “all supported by the child, the child’s money.”  Because Nurse Emma starts going with both guns loaded, Judge Carew gives her a speech about using her deep to “clamp down on her tongue.”  Nathan objects to every single question and answer, understandably, since Nurse Emma makes sure it all sounds juicy: bankrupt princes, dirty books and, most of all, that Gloria has never taken her daughter to church!  When Nathan questions Nurse Emma, he suggests that she was the one who made Little Gloria write them.  The testimony is so battering that Maury tells his readers that “it was a blistering tale no skin lotion could sooth.”

Gertrude and Gloria each hold press conferences.  Gertrude does it in a large expensive room, calm and choosing every word carefully.  Gertrude admits the case is about Gloria’s fitness as a mother, but Gloria has a different take, that it’s about money.  “$80 million couldn’t possibly be wrong,” she tells the reporters.  With a smile, Gertrude purrs that “money has never been an issue in this case” pronouncing it as iss-you, rather than ish-oo.

Gloria’s French personal maid is next up on the stand, re-iterating a lot of Nurse Emma’s testimony, though Judge Carew gets in some good comedy moments when he says the sex of the people in the dirty books doesn’t matter.  “Homosexual, bisexual, trisexual,” he notes to the delight of the court, is still dirty.  The maid takes it one enormous step further, saying she saw Gloria kissing another woman.  The reporters literally jump over each other to file that one!  Judge Carew decrees that “future testimony will be given in private.”  He then tells everyone that he’s decided to issue his own summaries of each day’s events to the press, which Nathan doesn’t like.

In a cast that includes winners of every major award ever given out, Tony winner Glynis Johns does the most to grab the miniseries and make it her own.  We’ve seen her wild antics before, but nothing compares one for her testimony, a marvel of hysterical scenery chewing that could only come from a great actress.  She takes the stand all in black, a cross around her neck with simple pears, clutching yet another cross to her bosom.  “It is not her fault, but my daughter was not born with a maternal instinct.  She was indifferent to the child,” she starts off rather slowly.  She builds momentum when she claims to have told Gloria to spend time in the US to avoid the “entanglements” of Europe.  “I love my daughter.  It’s for my baby’s sake that I’m doing this, your honor.  It’s the sacrifice of my life I’m making.  I’m going to remain alone in this world, without anybody.  If she had committed murder, I would have taken it on my own shoulders for her.  It’s not for the baby, not if she had murdered the baby!  But I did not know I would be called to go through the Calvary on earth that I have to go through.  How did it come to this?” she spits out, with the crying, the chest beating and then, finally, the raise of the cross to heaven.  How does one not stand up and applaud?

Oh, man, Glynis Johns nails it.  She’s playing a woman even more shallow than her daughter, a woman who has to play both sides, and she does it.  It wild, it’s hokey and it’s everything a good acting teacher would cringe at, but it sure as hell lands perfectly at the center of a courtroom section.  Even the judge can’t follow that act and declares the court in recess until Monday.

Gloria and her sisters go to Gertrude’s house to see Little Gloria, who shrieks in protest upon just hearing they will be arriving.  Shouting, “don’t kill me” from the other side of the locked door, Little Gloria tries to avoid the visit by stealing the key to the door from a servant and throwing it in the fireplace.  When they get in, Aunt Thelma tries a sweet approach, but Aunt Consuela goes for guilt, telling Little Gloria that she’s hurting her mother by acting so badly.  Finally, Little Gloria goes to see her mother and they hug.

Things get worse for Gloria as the butler’s testimony is leaked to the papers.  “Somebody has betrayed my confidence,” the judge yells at those in the court.  Next up on the stand is the doctor, who doesn’t even try to top the performances of the leading ladies.

Speaking of, it’s Aunt Gertrude’s turn on the stand.  Playing the dowager Vanderbilt, she certainly can’t do what Glynis did, but she can deliver the testimony in a different way, going for full seriousness and gravity to steal some thunder.

It’s decided that Little Gloria has to testify, but only in the judge’s chambers with the two lawyers present.  “Couldn’t you learn to love your mother?” Judge Carew asks.  Gloria resolutely says she could not.  She says she wrote nice letter with pictures and such because “I’m afraid of her.”  The judge asks Gloria to say her prayers and she can’t, causing consternation from the judge.  “Girlie, how old were you when you began to hate your mother?” an exasperated judge asks, and Gloria isn’t sure, but remembers people telling her bad things about Gloria.

When Aunt Thelma takes the stand, Judge Carew goes into a religious speech about the sign of the cross, complaining about the “sad state of affairs” regarding religion.  It’s a blowsy speech, one that could question his actual sanity.  But, those around him are all nuts, so he fits right in.

Finally, Gloria takes the stand in a rather simple black ensemble, starting her testimony with a year-by-year description of her upbringing, split between America and Europe.  It’s a lovely travelogue.  Nathan is proud to have scored some points showing that to her, that life seems normal.  Then Gloria says she only physically assault her child once, over unwashed money, and it was only a grab on the shoulders before “sending her off to Nanny.”  Nathan brings up the lesbian affair, which Gloria denies.  Crying buckets, Gloria swears she never noticed that her child hated her and tops it off with a faint.  “A child belongs with its mother,” a sign outside reads as Gloria and her sisters exit the courtroom.  To further drum up public support, Maury even loads hid column with praise for Gloria.

Gloria’s testimony resumes with a cross examination.  Lawyer Smythe (Joseph Maher) shows Little Gloria’s letters to her grandmother, which are full of fear and hatred for her mother.  But, Gloria wins the argument with the lawyer by saying that if the letters Little Gloria wrote to her were forced, maybe these were too.  Aunts Thelma and Consuelo like that one!  Smythe asks Gloria why she thinks her own mother has taken Gertrude’s side over hers.  “She wants the guardianship of the child, so she can have the money,” Gloria says of her mother.  Gloria dissolves into tears when Smythe goes back to Gloria’s constant absences.  “What are you trying to do, break my heart?” she cries.

With testimony over, all everyone can do is wait until the decision is handed down.  Barbard Hughes gets another chance to ham it up in delivering his decision.  He says that he hopes Gloria can have a part in her daughter’s life, but without disrupting the way it is working now.  “Mr. Justice Carew has decied that the child, Gloria Vanderbilt, will not have for the future the life it has had from the death of its father until June, 1932.”  Gertrude has won custody, it seems, but Judge Carew, in talking to the press, seems completely bonkers, so we will have to wait until the final written decision.

When that comes, it is decreed that Gertrude has won custody, must be taught religion properly, that Nurse Emma has been fired and that Gloria has visitation rights on weekends, for July and at Christmas.  Little Gloria has a fit when Nurse Emma is “given her walking papers,” as Nathan so succinctly puts it.
“To Little Gloria…happy at last,” Laura toasts with Gertrude.  However, Maury decides to blame the judge in his column with some colorful language and a great deal of moralizing, though he does note the sad truth of the whole case, “that the victim is the little rich girl herself, Gloria Laura Vanderbilt.”

There could be twenty sequels to this movie, as Gloria Vanderbilt lead a particularly notable life (and is still living it as an author of the kind of erotic books her mother was castigated for supposedly posessing), but anything more than this case would be pure Dominick Dunne-like crap.  It would be an exploitation.  In having to revolve this story around the feelings of a tiny little girl, “Little Gloria…Happy at Last,” by necessity, has to play it straight and not take sides.  Sure, her mother is shown to be a flighty society doll, but also a victim of her time and no worse than any others of her generation.  Solid Aunt Gertrude certainly provided stability, but was hardly a paragon of perfection.  Each person in the story had a motive for wanting Little Gloria: money, power, social position, etc.  The movie is fair to all of them in presenting both sides.

However, it’s the acting that really cements this movie as miniseries perfection.  It is crammed with stars and instead of going for the goofy, they really play their roles as written.  Angela Lansbury is a model of matriarchal decorum, constant and serene.  Glynis Johns has the best role in the film, essentially the comic relief, and though she’s a gorgon, at least there is a reasoning behind it.  Bette Davis and Christopher Plummer excel in small roles and Lucy Gutteridge does her best stacked up against all the pros.

Categories: Historical Miniseries

2 Comments to “Little Gloria…Happy at Last (1982)”

  1. Bigfan 11 February 2014 at 9:25 pm #

    I remember seeing this many moons ago and loved it then and now!!is it on dvd or is there someplace online where I can watch it?

    • Bj Kirschner 11 February 2014 at 9:31 pm #

      Thank you for the note! “Little Gloria…Happy at Last” is truly one of my favorite miniseries. It has never been on DVD and I’m not sure why. They will get around to it eventually.