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Case Number 24470: Small Claims Court

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The First Ladies

PBS // 2000 // 400 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Pope (Retired) // September 8th, 2012

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All Rise...

Despite its flaws, Judge Bryan Pope gives this series his presidential seal of approval.

The Charge

These five presidents' wives served the nation as some of the most influential and controversial First Ladies in history.

The Case

How appropriate that this two-disc package, spotlighting some of our nation's most talked about political figures, should arrive just as the 2012 presidential election begins picking up steam. And how refreshing that the political figures in question should be First Ladies, rather than the presidents (not to worry, they get their own DVD collection).

Produced for PBS, The First Ladies is a collection of first-rate documentaries about five women who served as their husbands' ambassadors not only to America, but often to the world, while pushing for social change in their own ways. These ladies couldn't possibly be more different from one another, and these documentaries do a fine job of explaining why. This is fascinating viewing.

Dolley Madison: America's First Lady
From an entertainment standpoint, this program is the set's most successful. Obviously, recording devices were not in existence during James Madison's presidency, so the program relies largely on perspectives from historians and on correspondences read by professional actors in costume.

Thanks to a talented cast (Eve Best, in particular, gives a nuanced performance as Dolley Madison), the effect is splendid, putting a human face on historical figures most of us are familiar with only through textbooks or snack cake commercials. Mrs. Madison is credited for essentially creating the role of "First Lady," and viewers may be surprised to learn that her influence stretched beyond her popular image as a gracious hostess. Her hardships were many, especially post-presidency, and this program doesn't shy away from them.

Produced for American Experience, Dolley Madison: America's First Lady runs 85 minutes. It's given a 1.85:1 non-anamorphic transfer, with a Dolby 5.1 Surround mix.

Eleanor Roosevelt
This is by far the longest program in the set, and it almost suffers from the excess. The doc is packed with audio footage from radio interviews and broadcasts, including some with Mrs. Roosevelt herself. Also included are recollections from family members, most notably a granddaughter who reflects her grandmother's diplomatic good sense when discussing deeply personal matters.

The program runs a whopping 142 minutes, and what keeps it from sinking under its own weight is its fascinating subject. Eleanor Roosevelt has become, in retrospect, one of the most enigmatic and controversial First Ladies our country has known. Yes, there's the public speculation about her sexuality, and the marital discord in the Roosevelt household has become common knowledge. And Mrs. Roosevelt was perceived as an ungainly wallflower.

But consider this: She broke precedent by holding press conferences. She traveled. She lectured. She had opinions that she openly expressed in a daily newspaper column. She was the nation's first transformative First Lady. A lengthy tribute is fitting for a woman who broke so many boundaries.

Produced for American Experience, Eleanor Roosevelt is presented in 1.33:1 full screen format with Dolby 2.0 stereo.

Lady Bird Johnson / Betty Ford: The Real Deal / Nancy Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime
While there's a workmanlike, almost antiseptic quality about each 56-minute program that becomes apparent when the three are viewed together, they do provide insights into the dynamics that shaped each woman's marriage and politics. And that's what really matters.

These women took to the national stage during periods of almost unimaginable political turmoil (Claudia Taylor Johnson played no small role in helping a nation heal following JFK's assassination). Perhaps more significantly, they took the stage as news reporting technology was blossoming, denying them the certain degree of privacy afforded most previous First Ladies, but providing them countless platforms from which to pursue their personal causes. What Gen-Xer can ever forget Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign? Fortunately for us viewers, the ample news footage that was available gives these three docs an immediacy that was lacking in the Madison and Roosevelt programs.

Lady Bird Johnson is presented in 1.33:1 full screen with Dolby 2.0 stereo. Betty Ford: The Real Deal and Nancy Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime are both given a 1.85:1 non-anamorphic transfer with a Dolby 2.0 stereo mix.

The overall video and audio are serviceable if not spectacular. Much of the video is archived footage, so it's unreasonable to set one's expectations high where those are concerned. Regardless, it should not diminish one's overall enjoyment. The package includes English subtitles but no extras. The lack of extras such as additional DVD-ROM content is a shame in a package that could have been an invaluable teaching tool for high school students.

The Verdict

Top-notch docs but a lackluster package. Shame on you, PBS. This is no way to treat a First Lady.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 80

Perp Profile

Studio: PBS
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 400 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Historical
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• None

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