Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Littlest Angel - A Tele-film review by Robert Steven Mack

Fred Gwynne became known, even to this day, as the actor who originally played Herman Munster, a lovable, childish "monster" on the television series, The Munsters (1964-1966). When the series failed to renew itself in a crowd-pleasing way however, it was cancelled and Fred Gwynne ended up looking for a job. As any actor getting out of a highly successful television series, Fred Gwynne was to suffer cruel, indignant type-casting. But to get to the point, Gwynne was cast in a role that though probably largely unknown today, shows that he was more than a Munster.

Part of the reason Gwynne's portrayal of Herman Munster in the television series was so incredibly successful and memorable was because his character, along with many other characters in the series, was so tempting and "easy" to imitate. Yet, it takes a good actor to play a character as silly, innocent, and childish as the great Herman Munster; and as the case with most great character actors, they don't get one darn bit of credit. If you have seen Fred Gwynne in The Munsters by the time you see him in The Littlest Angel, his performance is so pleasing you will be utterly shocked.

The Littlest Angel is a 1969 TV film produced as a part of the Hallmark Hall of Fame anthology series. It follows the giddy adventures of a playful, outgoing, and mischievous eight-year old shepherd named Michael. Michael is living in the country side with his parents near Bethlehem but dies when he accidently falls off a cliff when chasing a dove. Michael then journeys to Heaven were he learns from a host of other both welcoming and all-business-like angels that he too is to be an angel. A typical boy who knows what he wants, Michael insists he is a shepherd and only wants to go back to his life on earth. Convinced he's not wanted, he seeks a way to fit in to life in Heaven. With a little help from Patience, his guardian angel, Michael truly does find himself when Jesus is to be born one night and all of Heaven are to prepare gifts for the holy child; Michael must decide what to give. A truly classic story!

Johnny Whitaker (TV’s Family Affair, Tom Sawyer) plays Michael and Fred Gwynne plays Patience. Please note that this is not about a little boy dying but rather a charming coming of age story about a little boy ultimately finding himself.
This 90-minute musical television film is more like a play aka musical than anything; or perhaps you could say a television play which is what it really is. The special effects are often flawed and the sets are often simple but blend in perfectly allowing you to focus more on the actors. This only adds to the charm of this wondrous family delight and would not do any other way.
You can almost imagine the curtain coming up to the opening number, the set change. The end of act one and the beginning of act two –which, I suppose, could vary as our imaginations do, but probably right after Michaels first flying lesson. Right from the start I couldn't help thinking "this is very well done".

The songs are uplifting but vary from humorous to heartfelt and emotionally satisfying. The numbers are big and done with care. Furthermore, this film has one of the best casts ensemble I have ever seen. This includes, of course, Johnny Whitaker, Fred Gwynne, John McGiver, E. G. Marshall, Tony Randall, Connie Stevens, James Coco, George Rose, Cab Calloway, George Blackwell, and Evelyn Russell. The cast ensemble together creates such a performance and such entertainment that would please perhaps even the darkest and coldest of souls, warming you up to such a pleasurable content.

John McGiver played the Patience’s "boss" with such great skill, James Coco is memorable as the father as Evelyn Russel is the mother, George Blackwell will be fondly remembered as the driver, and Cab Calloway brings a divine charismatic air to his own supporting role as Gabriel as George Rose does with his rather brief but steady appearance. E. G. Marshall was perfect for the role of god and Tony Randall gave one of the funniest, cleverest cameos I have ever seen. He played Democratis, also a new comer to Heaven who crosses paths with Michael. His character is definitely one of the most memorable and his song is a comic delight. Connie Stevens also gave a great performance as the flying instructor aka wing maker and her number was just dandy. I couldn't go about not mentioning Johnny Whitaker because his performance really drove the whole thing while everyone else made up the rest of the truly delicious cake. His performance as Michael is really the kind that you can take with you. His acting was excellent and his singing really superb.

Fred Gwynne was never really given a chance to show off his charisma when doing the Munsters. But after seeing this I can only conclude that he was a truly superb actor. In the Littlest Angel he brings both a touching and comic appeal to his role as Patience, the Guardian Angel. He sings and/or joins a number of songs quiet well - all with Michael. In one he tries to account for Heaven's loss of blue and green, in another he tries to cheer a saddened Michael up and in perhaps the most memorable he sings of what life was like when he was on Earth. He certainly had a lot of charisma.
While each one of the actors must have had some stage experience or other, the camera and editing were that of a live production but photographed the actors well.

If I were to make out a list of ten or twenty greatest musicals then this would definitely be on it. The Littlest Angel is my Number One Holiday Film Of the Year. With vivid friendly characters, a clever story, a good steady script, a marvelous cast, uplifting songs and numbers this is a holiday winner!

Copyright 2011 by Robert Steven Mack (all rights reserved!)

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