Now that the fare on the commercial networks is composed almost totally of repeat sitcoms, second-time-around made-for-TV-movies, and failed piliots, it's an even better time than ever to experiment with public broadcasting, which broadcasting, which tends to air specials that mihgt seem just a bit specialized in the regular season.
During the upcoming week, two unusual programs make fascinating viewing for adventurous TV-goers.
"Molders of Troy" (PBS, Monday, 8-9:30 P.m., check local listings) is an impeccable fictionalized history of the Irish ironworkers of Troy, N.Y., in the mid-19th century. It is instructional-informational programming at its absolute best, with a fine cast of unheralded but skillful actors, authentic locations in upstate New York. And it is brilliantly directed by producer-director Jack Ofield.
Presented through WMHT/Schenectady, "Moulders" manages to reconstruct a time and a place with exquisite precision, laced with valid emotional conflict.
The mid-1800s was a time of skilled workmen, of family tradition, of upwardly mobile immigrants, of rabid unionizing and unionism. It was a period when industrialization was beginning to eliminate many of those industries dependent upon skill and tradition. Thus the decline of the iron-stove craftsmen of Troy occurred almost simultaneously with the growth of production lines and changing urban life.
With grace and beautifully photographed intensity, "Molders' records the evolution of industrialization, unionism, Irish immigration, the temporary demise of the city of Troy (which might be any of thousands of similar towns), the life of one family as it grew, scattered, and started the struggle all over again in different locales . . . different societies.
And, of course, the changing patterns in the growth of one young immigrant. If there is one thing missing, it is a bit more of the beautiful cast-iron stoves mentioned so often, but seen so seldom beautifully crafted film.
In effect, "Molders of Troy" is the unembellished tale of America in transition -- which is what, one hopes, America will always be. 'The Lunts'
Meanwhile, there is a rare opportunity of seeing actress Lynn Fontanne. Her appearance is in a WMVA/Milwaukee -- originated program : "The Lunts: A Life In The Theatre" (PBS, Saturday, 8-9 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats).
Try to ignore the fact that, although the special was videotyped at Ten chimneys (the legendary Genesee Depot home of the Alfred Lunts), there is no tour of the house. Ignore the fact that director George Schaefer, who conducts the interview with the surviving Miss Fontanne, may be a fine director but turns out to be a slight and somewhat simpering interviewer.
Be glad that the video cameras have managed to capture even the hint of the overpowering personality of one of the great stars of the modern theater. An be thankful for the stills from old triumphs and segments of old TV shows in which Lunt and Fontanne appeared, which manage to reveal to those who may have forgotten (or, alas, never even knew) the glory of their life in the theatre.
Unfortunately, Mr. Schaefer was only able to elicit superficial advice from Miss Fontanne to aspiring actors. But there are enough examples of the acting talents of the fabulous twosome to make up for the present disappointments of a lovely elderly woman. The major secret of the success of their 55-year marriage is revealed by the 92-year-old widow: "We'd go to the theater and play two other lovers every night."
"The Lunts" is never as engaging a TV special as any of their on-stage triumphs ("The Guardsman," "Idiot's Delight," and "There Shall be No Night"). But what may prove to be one of the last appearances before the public of the kind of theatrical personality fast disappearing from our culture is something nobody with any interest in theater can afford to miss.