BR: Sunshine (1973)

January 19, 2019 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Standard

Label:  Redwind Productions

Region: All

Released:  November 20, 2018

Genre:  Docu-Drama / TV Movie

Synopsis: Tender docu-drama about a young mother who recorded an hours-long audio journal for her daughter and husband before dying of a rare cancer at age 20.

Special Features: Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and




Prior to the era of Pay TV and specialty channels, ABC, CBS, and NBC were the three major networks that created and broadcast new programs, plus a longer format that was evolving into a regular staple: the made-for-television film [TVM].

After their original telecast and occasional network rebroadcasts, most TVM’s migrated to syndicated stations, where some were discovered by younger audiences, a few were released theatrically in Europe as feature films, and in later years several were rediscovered on home video, especially when the productions featured actors who’d prospered in feature films and hit TV series.

In terms of DVD and especially Blu-ray releases, the quantity of TVMs on disc is far less, perhaps because outside of a special cult status, most are perceived as too niche, or too old, now featuring actors whose subsequent successes have similarly faded into the ether.

Such is the case with Sunshine, which makes its Blu-ray debut via Redwind Productions.

Based on the published journals by Jacquelyn Helton, Carol Sobieski’s adaptation follows the basic chronology of the young mother’s diagnosis of a rare form of bone cancer, and her decision to dictate personal thoughts, articulate feelings, and provide advice for the daughter and husband destined to lose her at age 20. Some of the words from the transcribed journals were ported into the script, but perhaps because of a need to create a loose docu-drama (and a possible TV series), names were changed.

At 121 mins., Sunshine is unusually long for a teleplay (as part of the CBS Friday Night Movie, it was broadcast in a 2 & ½ hour slot), and the fate of its central character is known after the opening scene, in which ashes are scattered from a mountain top. The drama emerges from watching the family deal with the grim inevitable, and how Kate Hayden (Christina Raines) will ultimately face the end of her life.

Although scenes could’ve been trimmed to reign in the drama to a more standard 97 mins., the measured pacing and gradual introduction of regular characters allows audiences to grow accustomed to Kate just before the the birth of daughter Jill from a prior marriage to ex-husband David (Alan Fudge), her subsequent marriage to Sam Hayden (Cliff De Young), and the strong trust that develops between Kate and Dr. Carol Gillman (Brenda Vaccaro).

The free-spirited nature of the couple goes beyond the painted VW van that Cliff uses to ferry himself and fellow guitarists Weaver (Billy Mumy) and Givitz (Corey Fischer) to gigs at bars and nightclubs: he’s a talented amateur photographer and struggling musician specializing in folk songs for an acoustic guitar trio, and Kate’s a young mother deeply determined to raise Jill outside of the stringent rules, rigid structure, and impatience of her traditional parents and estranged sister.

Sobieski’s script is near-perfect in allowing the relationships to develop without becoming saccharine, and her dialogue is sharp and avoids pungent melodrama; that precision enables Sargent to direct the young cast, with Raines giving one of her best performances in her first major role. The bulk of the songs performed by De Young, Mumy, and Fischer were composed by John Denver, and their rotating iteration is used to deepen the peaks & valleys of the Haydens’ uneven marriage, and sometimes function as counterpoint to the montages of Kate undergoing x-rays and tests – gentle, delicate sounds playing over the sterile hospital environment, and counter-scoring Kate’s solemnity before the gravity of her condition is revealed.

The lack of any score adds to the teleplay’s docu-drama tone, and the songs are rarely heard in complete form; it’s a smart ploy to avoid heavy repetition, but use the lyrics of Denver’s “My Sweet Lady” form an the iron link between the couple, especially when their marriage becomes strained. Early on Sam admits he’s not able to handle losing Kate, but he’s willing to stay by her side, but her decision to stop chemotherapy and heavy medication forces a separation. Sobieski’s handling of Kate’s arguments to live a shorter life than a slightly extended, miserable, less coherent state is elegantly articulated in an exchange that captures the fire, intelligence, and reasoning of the young woman whose will deserves to be respected.

That extended marital break-up may feel a little protracted – it forms the teleplay’s hefty midsection – but it allows Sobieski to add further scenes with Dr. Gillman, and the positive effects (and quality of life) that emerges as Kate finds her groove in recounting eclectic details of life through her lens into the mic a tape recorder. Vaccaro’s subdued performance becomes vital when Kate faces the first x-ray that confirms the cancer has spread to her lungs, and near the end, when Gillman’s the only person entrusted with Kate’s final moments.

Raines’ natural acting and De Young’s music background add to the actors’ solid rapport. A scene in which Sam drags a reluctant and very weak Kate to the local bar so he can serenade her with Denver’s “My Sweet Lady” is especially touching because Sargent allows the gentle rapproachement to occur in a real bar with cutaways to assorted patrons and staff while Kate is locked onto Sam’s soft & sweet voice.

The weakest element in the film is the contrived aggravated relationship between Sam and fellow guitarist Weaver – the latter’s ire towards Kate feels phony, and Mumy isn’t given much of a pathway to make Weaver’s disliking of Kate wholly believable. (The verbal spat that has him ousted from the Hayden apartment is pretty ridiculous.)

‘Free spirit’ Nora (Meg Foster) appears in the opening scattering scene and doesn’t re-emerge until the midpoint until the Haydens move into their apartment and meet their new basement neighbour. Nora’s a handy babysitter and helper, and perhaps it’s inevitable she becomes a slight rival to Kate, when Sam needs extra emotional and physical support as Kate is fully engrossed in recording her thoughts to tape during every waking moment.

Foster’s often been cast as mysterious or demure characters with monotone delivery, but Sunshine provided a rare role in which she’s giddy and approachable, but Sargent rarely affords any close shots until the very end: she’s given one close-up when she tells Kate of her brief affair with Sam. Sargent may have held back on a close-up for more practical reasons: Foster’s radiant greenish-blue eyes might have distracted from Raines’ performance in their handful of scenes, and by saving the close-up to the end, Foster’s brilliant eyes add to Nora’s genuine contrition, and compliment Kate’s forgiveness. (In later roles, Foster’s eyes were used by directors to render her into an eerie, emotionally sterile figure, as in the daft Leviathan, playing a cold-blooded CEO.)

Shot largely on location in Vancouver, B.C., Bill Butler’s cinematography is quite poetic, with delicate framing, gentle movements, and soft colours beautifully preserved in Redwind’s 4K transfer. Denver’s songs as performed by De Young are quite lovely, and often affecting.

Sunshine was reportedly a ratings hit, and a soundtrack album was released featuring De Young’s vocal performances buffered by short diary extracts by Raines – but the teleplay seemed to slide below the Emmy radar, missing out on any nominations in 1973.

Director Sargent, however, was in peak form, having made the intelligent sci-fi drama Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), the Burt Reynolds drama White Lightning (1973), and the suspense classic The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). His last feature film was the laughable Jaws: The Revenge (1987), but he strode forward with a mass of TV movies and mini-series, including the Emmy Award winning World War II: When Lions Roared (1994), the first production shot in Sony HDC-500 format, an early HDTV format. Sargent’s last film was the 2008 teleplay Sweet Nothing in My Ear.

Although Christina Raines is best known for numerous TV work (Centennial, Flamingo Road), her films include Nashville (1975), Ridley Scott’s debut The Duellists (1977), and the horror films The Sentinel (1977) and Nightmares (1983), the latter directed by Sargent. Cliff De Young’s work similarly favours TV productions, including the mini-series Captains and the Kings (1976), King (1978), and Centennial (1978-1979).

Sam’s final scenes in Sunshine don’t exactly endear the character, but the teleplay’s success enticed CBS to greenlight a TV series in 1975, reuniting De Young with Foster, Mumy, and Fischer reprising their roles. The 13-episode series focused on widower Sam living in Vancouver, B.C., juggling work and caring for 5 year old Jill (Elizabeth Cheshire). The cast reunited one last time for Sunshine Christmas (1977), in which Sam takes Jill to his hometown in Texas, and meets an old flame. Neither the series nor TV movie are available on home video.

Sobieski scripted the teleplay, and an episode of the TV series. Her other credits include the classic soap opera Peyton Place (1967-1968), The Bourne Identity (1988), and the schmaltzfest and ratings hit Sarah, Plain and Tall (1991). Film credits include Honeysuckle Rose (1980), Annie (1980), Winter People (1989), Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), and Money for Nothing (1993).

Finally, a small extract from Jacquelyn (Lyn) Helton’s book Dying is Beautiful is available in the May 1972 issue of The Rotarian, via Google Books.



© 2019 Mark R. Hasan





External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album: A / B
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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