The message is easy to take in 'Story Lady'


December 09, 1991|By Michael Hill

In "Miracle on 34th Street," Kris Kringle proves that his Christmas spirit is genuine by telling those visiting Santa Claus in Macy's that they can find a certain toy at Gimbel's.

NBC must be searching for a similar validation of its seasonal sincerity as "The Story Lady" touts the purity of public-access cable when compared to the commercial claptrap put out by the rascals who run the networks. It will be on Channel 2 (WMAR) tonight at 9 o'clock.

Jessica Tandy stars in this easy-to-take heart-charmer as Grace McQueen, an elderly woman who, in the opening scene, is moving into the New Jersey home of her daughter and son-in-law.

They encourage her to attend sing-alongs and quilting bees at the local senior citizens center to keep herself active. She takes one look at the lunchroom full of toothless crooners and decides there are better ways to spend her days.

Resenting being put out in this new pasture, she finds herself grazing with the remote control one day and comes upon the local cable system's amateur hours. Intrigued, she goes down there and signs up for a session, taking along a bunch of children's books. She sits down in front of the camera and proceeds to read them, just as she used to do to her own kids.

Well, as you can imagine, Jessica Tandy can read a pretty mean JTC children's story, and she quickly becomes an underground hit among the kids of New York, who find the worlds created by Hans Christian Andersen far superior to those made by Nintendo.

Enter Stephanie Zimbalist as a yuppie go-getter of an advertising executive. She's dynamite at the office, but at home, where she's a single parent, she means well but barely has time for her daughter, Alexandra, nicely played by Lisa Jakub.

Alexandra is one of those enchanted by the Story Lady she discovered on cable during her lonely latch-key afternoons. When Mom catches the show one day, she's got an idea for her firm's toy company. A couple of phone calls and a signed contract later and the Story Lady is on her way to the network.

But, of course, she can't go there as the unadorned Story Lady. She's got to be turned into Granny Goodheart, all decked out in costumes on an ersatz-enchanted set, the better to sell some toys to the little boys and girls, my dearies.

And, just as inevitably, in this transformation -- complete with an impatient director, precocious child actors and, the producers hope, a new set of whiter, straighter teeth for their star -- the Story Lady loses the simple charm that was her essential appeal. Grace manages to find an inventive and amusing way to get out of her deal.

Along the way "The Story Lady" manages a pretty amusing sendup of local-access cable. It stumbles occasionally -- a nice relationship between Grace and her local-access producer is never developed, for instance -- but, in no small part due to Tandy's incredible talent, remains consistently enchanting. Richard Masur is also his usual fine self as the son-in-law.

There's more to the sending-Macy's-customers-to-Gimbel's subtext to "The Story Lady" than heralding the virtues of unadorned, under-produced television versus its over-produced network counterpart.

The second half of the film is about the driven yuppie mother discovering she needs to do more for her daughter than occasionally putting her name down in the Fil-o-fax. While this ad executive seeks to bring the nation's children a kindly lady to tell them stories, she never sits down to read any to her own daughter.

In fact, "The Story Lady" is a cautionary tale for our dispersed times. This Story Lady on cable has such a magnetic appeal because, even though she's an electronic image, the children have much more access to her than they do to their real grandmothers, who are probably a plane flight and a lot of logistical problems away.

So, even if your extended family isn't around, you should sit down with your kids and read them books, connect with them on a personal, human level. Even if it means throttling back on the career and -- egads! -- turning off the TV.

You're not supposed to notice that you had to watch TV to get this message.

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