“If you follow the foot-path through the cool, green meadows alive with blue mountain streams, you will soon become aware of the fragrance of sweet pasture land…it is here, at the foot of the majestic Swiss Alps, that you will find the pleasant little village of Dorfli…” So begins “Heidi”, the rarely seen television musical version of Johanna Spyri’s treasured children’s classic. Now available on DVD from “Video Artists International”, there’s an underlying sense of friendliness and amiability running through the entire production of this delightful tale of a spirited little orphan girl’s amazing journey from her gruff-but-loving Grandfather’s home in the Swiss Alps to the city of Frankfurt, Germany (where she’s been delivered to help aid a young invalid,) that makes it appropriate for ALL viewers.
Since NBC is now producing one (albeit very lauded) “Live” theatrical production a year, it’s striking to note that “Heidi” hearkens back to that magical time in TV and pop-culture history when such presentations were practically weekly viewing fare! Produced and Directed by Max Liebman as part of his “Spectaculars” series for the network, “Heidi” was originally broadcast live on October 1, 1955. Based on themes of influential German Composer, Robert Schumann (who was recognized as one of the most influential composers of the ‘Romantic’ Era) the Music is by Clay Warnick with Lyrics by Carolyn Leigh–just after her huge success with the inimitable “Peter Pan”. To be sure, her song “I Love To Ramble” (—sung as a duet between Heidi and Peter,) is a very worthy follow-up to “I Won’t Grow Up” featured in that production. Dances and Musical numbers were staged by James Starbuck, and the book was adapted by William Friedberg and a young fledging “Superstar” Playwright in the making, Neil Simon.
Once the rollicking opening chorus concludes, young Heidi enters led by her “Aunt Dete” looking for the girl’s estranged Grandfather whom the scheming aunt accuses of being “A mean old man whose lost his senses!” Soon they learn from the village pastor that “Grandfather” hasn’t been down to the village for ten years! Undaunted, the pair travel up the mountainside to his cabin, and though he isn’t initially too keen on the idea of taking the girl in, he nevertheless relents. (“Am I gonna stay here tonight or am I gonna live here forever?” she asks; “We’ll see” her grandfather replies. “I hope it’s forever because I like it here very much!” Heidi responds.) Despite the pastor urging Grandfather to send Heidi to school and church, his suggestion is promptly rebuffed: “She will learn more here from the goats and the birds!” he asserts. In fact, the very next day she meets Grandfather’s two goats—a light one named “Swanli” and a dark one named “Bearli”, which Peter, the young goat-herd collects daily to herd on the mountainside. Time passes and Heidi grows to love her mountain home as much as she’s come to love her Grandfather; everything seems to be going along wonderfully until Aunt Dete suddenly reappears: “There’s a widower in Frankfurt who has offered Heidi a wonderful opportunity” She tells them, reporting he has a fine home in Frankfurt where Heidi is to be brought in order to be a companion to the man’s ailing young daughter named “Klara”. “I’ll be back—you’ll see” Heidi tearfully promises her equally distraught Grandfather, “—I’ll be back!” But insofar as Dete is Heidi’s ‘Legal Guardian’, the two have no choice in the matter.
Act Two opens in the house of “Herr Sesseman” in Frankfurt. “The excitement was immense” the narrator details, “all the servants had been busy from early morning in preparation for the arrival of the little playmate from Switzerland.” This inspires a clever number—“Antiques” (“They serve no purpose or earthly need, but throw them out? Oh no—indeed! They’re ‘valuable’ Antiques!”) Longing to see the mountains from the local church-steeple (the only place tall enough that she might catch a glimpse of them, she’s told) Heidi wanders away from the Sesseman household and finds herself on an adventure in the city where she meets a new ally, an Organ-Grinder named “Eric”. Showing her around, he even takes her to a Marionette Theater featuring the “Bil and Cora Baird Marionettes”—many of which are bound to be familiar from their appearance in the iconic blockbuster, “The Sound Of Music”. (Word is their number here, “Oudt Comes Oom-pa-pa”” directly inspired the staging of that film’s “The Lonely Goatherd”.) Unhappily, even as Klara grows stronger, Heidi grows sadder and weaker, so by the time winter blossoms into spring, the answer is obvious: the terribly homesick girl must be returned home, which makes for a bitter-sweet culmination to the act. The third act is also the most abbreviated, as the narrator explains: “Heidi was home again; the days flew happily by, but she could never forget Klara…then June came with its deep blue sky and warmer sun, inviting all the flowers to come out…and one day, a strange procession was seen coming up the mountain…” Thus arrives Klara to visit her much missed comrade, leading to a touching finale that’s as poignant and joyous as they get (—just don’t be surprised if it leaves a little tear in your eye!)
Leading a thoroughly likable, A-Plus cast, is Jeannie Carson in the title role. Reminiscent of a young Mia Farrow, she effectively inspires a near-instant sense of empathy from us, the viewers, which is distinctly important for the character she’s playing. In addition, Carson has a crisp and expressive voice which she puts to great use early on in “Pick Yourself A Star” ; later, her handling of the Act Two closer, “Pastures Of Your Home” ends the act forcefully but with a sense of hope (and both tunes similarly demonstrate Ms. Leigh’s often under-appreciated talent for a clever turn-of-phrase.) As her Grandfather, Broadway veteran Richard Eastham gets his chance to shine with “I Go My Way” wherein we learn how came to be a brusque, embittered man who remains suspicious of the outside world (“I go my way, even though I go my way alone!” he sings.) Eastham has a sumptuous baritone and he especially impresses with it here. His other solo, “Greener Pastures” is another awesome accomplishment, delivered as Grandfather desperately tries to console himself upon losing his now beloved grand-daughter: “You dream beyond some distant hill lies the answer to a dream you must fulfill…young and restless you are bound to roam until you’re old enough to know–there are NO pastures that are greener than the pastures of your home!”
On the verge of film stardom herself with “Rebel Without a Cause” (released, literally, just weeks after this telecast,) 17-year-old Natalie Wood plays “Klara”. Although at the time of its original airing critics argued against the comparative ages of Carson and Wood, considering the “heightened reality” involved, and the viewer’s ‘suspension of disbelief’ (–they do, after all, tend to burst into song here and there,) this really isn’t a problem, and they actually do come off as fairly plausible in their individual roles. As seen here, Wood’s “Klara” is lonely but good-natured, basically facing her disability but still eager to find a friend in the unusual little mountain girl. While perhaps a bit more abbreviated in this tele-play than it arguably should have been, thanks to Wood’s indelibly appealing performance, it nonetheless loses none of the impact giving us a “Klara” who is much more warm and sympathetic than has been seen in other interpretations as well. This in turn, makes it easier to ‘root for her’ and to be genuinely moved by her ultimate ‘recovery’ at the story’s close.
Also making their outstanding mark here are several other performers who themselves went onto to substantial show-business careers–including Wally Cox, who does surprisingly well as the goat-herd “Peter”, and the delightfully puckish Robert Clary (perhaps best known today from his role as the diminutive Frenchman “LeBeau” on TV’s “Hogan’s Heroes”.) As “Eric”, Clary interjects the second act with some jubilant energy with “I Love Me” (which also features the show’s best choreography as well!) Moreover, legendary character actress Elsa Lanchester demonstrates all the appropriate ‘airs’ of haughtiness and arrogance as Klara’s Governess, “Fraulein Rottenmeier”, while never coming off as seriously menacing. Her playful “Etiquette Song” even makes a fun “round”, featuring “Heidi”, “Klara”, “Sebastian” (the Butler) and herself (“Speak but be graceful—never with a face-full” it cautions.) Furthermore, the Academy Award-winning Jo Van Fleet (1955’s Best Supporting Actress for “East of Eden”) is “Aunt Dete”, who does a fine job proving that greed and down-right smarminess truly can be masked by a pretty, smiling face. Not to be overlooked either are the “Schmeed Trio”, who provide plenty of authentic Swiss ‘yodeling’. They too, are given several terrific moments in the spot-light, first leading the chorus (including Peter) in an enjoyable “Yodeling Song”, then with “Yodel-Dee-Hi”—the Act Three opener which also offers up some equally authentic Swiss folk dancing as the whole village ‘celebrates’ Heidi’s return.
Sweet, but never ‘saccharinely’, “pick yourself a star’ and be enchanted by this “Heidi’s” spell–here is old-fashioned “family-friendly” entertainment at its absolute finest. Presented in black & white, V.A.I.’s digitalized transfer from the original kinescope is largely pristine, with the soundtrack particularly profiting from the digital clean-up process. Likewise, as “Oldsmobile” was the sponsor of the original airing, all of their original, vintage commercials (also presented live at the time) are included in this DVD release as part of the “Bonus Materials”. For more information, or to order a copy of this newly rediscovered masterpiece from television’s “Golden Age”, log onto: www.VAIMusic.com .
Special Thanks To Paul Lambert For Assistance With The Vintage Photos And To Foster Grimm And The Staff At “Video Artists International” (www.VAIMusic.com) For Making This Story Possible.