'Fauntleroy' -- a glorious throwback

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What happens when the kid from "The Champ" meets the Earl of Dorincourt? Royal fireworks, that's what happens! And a jolly good time for all in jolly-olde-you-knowe- what: for nasty-turned-softy Grandfather Earl, played by Alec Guinness, for the young all-American-boy-turned- royally-beneficent Lord Fauntleroy, played by 10 -year-old Ricky Schroder, for your Saturday-morning real-entertainment-deprived child viewers -- but especially for you and me, so long denied the saturday-afternoon-at-the- movies-with-popcorn fantasies of yore.

Yes, "Little Lord Fauntleroy" (CBS, Tuesday, 9-11 p.m., check local listings) is a glorious throwback to the days when Freddie Bartholomew reigned supreme. It is still another brilliantly evocative remake of a universal classic by producer Norman Rosemont (you remember his recent "The Man In The Iron Mask" and "The Count of Monte Cristo" as well as "All Quiet on the Western Front." His "A Tale of Two Cities" is yet to come -- in about a week, as a matter of fact.)

Just as in the case of the other period Rosemont productions, this one is lush, kitsch, and location-y. It is the kind of film where Adam's apples inevitably bob when actors sob, where the good people always win and the bad people are simply awaiting their turn to be good.

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Filmed at Belvoir Castle and the surrounding areas in Leicestershire, including the Midlands village of Woolsthorpe, "Little Lord F" stars England as much as it does Guinness and Shroder. But what an unbeatable team all three make!

Adapted from Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic novel addition to Alec Guinness and Ricky Shroder, such superb players as Eric Porter and Colin Blakely , "Little Lord F" boasts the most charmingly self-denying, forebearing Mom of all time, played with infinite other- worldly patience by Connie Booth.

In case you've forgotten the story (and how could you?), impoverished young Cedric Erroll, who lives with his impoverished, widowed Mom on impoverished Hester Street in New York City, is really the offspring of the disowned (because he married one of those awful Americans) son of prune-faced Earl of Dorincourt who, when he realizes young Cedric is rightful heir to the title -- and fortune -- invites the boy to come live on the luxurious estate in Merrie Olde . . . as long as Mom keeps her distance.

Selflessly, she agrees and proceeds to seamstress away in a decrepit hovel kilometers removed while Ceddie yearns for her, even as he befriends grandpa moneybags, who learns to love him, love the serfs (pardon me, tenants), and even learns to love dear olde forebearing Mom as well.

Well, that's life -- at least as it used to be lived at Saturday matinees.

Everybody involved in this gorgeously photographed, splendidly mounted fun-for-old-time's-sake remake deserves royal kudos, if not an actual title. And I hereby award each and every one involved a country estate in the Midlands, complete with tenants waiting out their abject poverty time until somebody, preferably the Little Lord, builds them charming concrete low-income housing facilities.

Seriously, though, "Little Lord Fauntleroy" takes itself only as seriously as a Saturday matinee demands. There is a hint at criticism of British snobbishness and the lack of enough social consciousness in that period (turn of the 19th century, that is). And there is adequate worship of mother love, close familial ties, youthful modesty, and other worthwhile virtues.

As to young Rocky-Cedric, also known as "that cute Ricky Schroder," if you thought "The Champ" was the ultimate in tearjerking, you're in for the pathos-bathos- euphoric electronic adventure of the year. But at least this time around it all ends so well.

Sure, it's corny. But doesn't popcorn always tastes better when made with yummy buttery corn?

So consider allowing the kids to stay up late (why, oh why, is this show being aired at 9 p. m.?) and share a splendid family evening of Adam's-apple bobbing. Life on the Mississippi

And now for a show that takes the classics seriously: "Life on the Mississippi" (PBS, Monday, 8-10 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats).

This Mark Twain chronicle of the coming of age of a young would-be Mississippi riverboat pilot moves with just about the same speed as the Delta Queen.

It starts slowly and gently paddles its way downstream, looking tenderly at the banks on both sides, waving with casual friendliness at the watchers on the shore. Painstaking attention is paid to authenticity all along the route, and certainly producer William Perry is to be commended for that.

But this coproduction of Nebraska Educational TV Network and WNET/NY tries so hard to be authentic that it turns into an authentic bore.

Starring Robert Lansing as Horace Bixby, the experienced riverboat pilot, and David Knell as young apprentice Sam, the script by Philip Reisman Jr. is directed with, once again, superb authenticity by director Peter Hunt. But top credit must go to cinematographer Walter Lassally, who has made the Mississippi look like the Mississippi of old.

The film is a triumph of atmosphere and of period in its re-creation of a way of life now lost -- except for occasional package-rate excursions and press tours to celebrate the premiere of "Life on the Mississippi."

It is one way to learn about Mark Twain, about piloting as a career, about life on the Mississippi, about adolescence, about life.

Watching this PBS "Life on the Mississippi" is almost as good as helping an old lady across a street -- it will make you feel virtuous, even though you were going in that direction anyway.

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