The Vanderbilt family fortune is legendary, passed down over the generations from the immense wealth built by 19th century railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. The story begins circa 1923, and concerns three Vanderbilt family members: elderly widow Alice (Betty Davis) and two of her children, Reggie (Christopher Plummer) and Gertrude (Angela Lansbury), both now middle aged.
A drunken fool, Reggie has squandered his share of the family fortune, and lives off a trust fund stipend. Gertrude, a patron of the arts in Greenwich Village, retains her vast wealth. Reggie marries vivacious teenaged brunette beauty Gloria Morgan (Lucy Gutteridge), the daughter of cunning golddigger Laura (Glynis Johns). Reggie's pickled liver finally surrenders, but not before his wife delivers a healthy baby girl, also named Gloria.
Born in Europe, Gloria Morgan continues to spend most of her time there, and enjoys a life of luxury and leisure from little Gloria's trust fund. She hires a nurse, Emma (Maureen Stapleton) to care for the infant. The obsessively smothering Emma conveys her fears and prejudices into the impressionable child. By age seven, the girl is terrified that she will be kidnapped and murdered like Charles Lindbergh's baby.
Little Gloria's anxiety is intentionally misdiagnosed by several cynically opportunistic doctors, who send the bills to Gertrude, since she can afford to pay them. Antipathy between Gloria Morgan and Emma leads Emma to turn little Gloria against her often-absent mother. Gloria Morgan also becomes estranged from her freeloading mother Laura.
Laura and Emma convince their new patron, Gertrude, to sue Gloria Morgan for custody of little Gloria. Gloria Morgan hires experienced lawyer Burkan (Martin Balsam) to plead her case in court. Also on the side of Gloria Morgan are two of her sisters, Thelma (Rosalyn Landor) and Consuelo (Leueen Willoughby). The trial is overseen by aged Judge Carew (Barnard Hughes), a conscientious but excitable and opinionated man who sneaks drinks on the sly. Newspaper society columnist Maury Paul (John Hillerman), a longtime advocate of Gloria Morgan, reports on the case, which becomes the most famous in the country.
Little Gloria... Happy at Last is blessed with a stellar cast for a made-for-television feature. Betty Davis ranks among the most celebrated actresses of Hollywood's Golden Era. Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music), Angela Lansbury (Gaslight), Glynis Johns (Mary Poppins), Martin Balsam (Psycho), Maureen Stapleton (Airport), and John Hillerman (Paper Moon) are also plum additions to the supporting cast. Jennifer Dundas plays little Gloria.
How others will see it. Since Little Gloria... Happy at Last never played in theaters, it lacks the prestige of the most popular films from that year, e.g. E.T. the Extra-Terrestial and Tootsie. Festival interest was minimal, though Lucy Gutteridge received the film's sole Golden Globe nomination (Best Actress in a TV Movie) despite being surrounded by many more famous names in the cast. The Emmy Awards was also kind, bestowing six nominations including acting nods for Lansbury and Davis, as well as a writing nomination for William Hanley.
It was the first Emmy nod for Hanley, but not the last. Hanley, who died in 2012, would receive four additional Emmy nominations for his screenplays, winning twice for The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank (1988) and the notorious Something About Amelia (1984). Despite the remarkable cast assembled for the present film, and the efficiency of veteran made-for-TV director Waris Hussein, primary credit likely belongs to Hanley for the substantial quality of Little Gloria... Happy at Last.
Today at imdb.com, the movie has a paltry 637 user votes. But on YouTube, the movie (broken into two parts, since it was originally televised over two nights) has a combined 719K views. The user ratings are very high at 7.9 out of 10. I expected that women would enjoy the movie more than men, and that older audiences (who would be familiar with the celebrated names in the cast) would grade the film higher.
But my expectations were wrong. The user ratings are almost identical for men and women, and older viewers grade the movie moderately lower (7.5) than do those viewers under age 45 (7.9). I also anticipated that the film's few user reviews would extol the many stars in supporting roles, but there is equal interest in the scandalous story that captivated newspaper readers during the 1930s.
How I felt about it. It's pretty good. The characters are less exaggerated than is usual for historical fiction. Only the cantankerous and unpredictable judge proves a stereotype. Plummer and Balsam are likable. Glynis Johns plays an amusing scoundrel. Gutteridge manages to be sympathetic despite the immaturity of her indolent character. Davis is barely present, but has a few entertaining bon mots, mostly at the expense of Johns. Stapleton is utterly convincing. And events play out as one might expect, with the Vanderbilt wealth and prestige overwhelming young wide-eyed Gloria Morgan.
Although her adult story is excluded from the film, the child Gloria eventually became famous for things other than custody case. By the late 1940s, she was a fashion model, and later established herself as an artist and clothing designer, still famous for her designer blue jeans. Among others, she married conductor Leopold Stokowski and movie director Sidney Lumet. One of her sons is CNN personality Anderson Cooper. Another son jumped to his death from a high-rise balcony. Gloria died only last year, 2019, at the ripe age of 95.