'Lady And The Dale,' A 4-Part Series About A 3-Wheeled Car, Is A Wild Ride

Jan 27, 2021
Originally published on January 27, 2021 1:26 pm

The Lady and the Dale, a new HBO documentary miniseries co-directed by Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker, has been promoted by the network with most of its secrets held in check. Tune in to this nonfiction biography series, the promos suggest, and learn the tale of a female automobile executive who took on the Detroit automakers and tried to market a gas-efficient car in the 1970s, at the height of the oil crisis.

But The Lady and the Dale is so much more than that. Yes, the second installment of this four-part series is mostly about the weird three-wheeled car called the Dale. But the first hour of this miniseries is mostly about a small-time but enterprising con artist. The third hour is about a trial for grand larceny, with the defendant doing double duty as her own defense attorney. And the fourth hour is so full of surprises and revelations that I'm not even going to go there.

The promos held their cards close to the vest, but the opening minutes of The Lady and the Dale hint at some of the intrigue to come. It starts with a vintage 1970s clip from The Price Is Right, where one of the prizes being offered is a brand new Dale automobile, and works quickly through some other period TV footage that adds many layers of mystery to the story.

And what a story it tells! It begins as the story of Jerry Dean Michael, who grew up in small-town Indiana and eventually became a con artist, working every scheme from counterfeiting money and checks to selling bogus get-rich-quick schemes door-to-door. Jerry married and had five kids, but kept grifting — and every time the law got close, he'd pick up the family and move. Over one stretch, according to the documentary, the family moved 21 times in three years.

Up to this point, The Lady and the Dale has the flavor and momentum of Catch Me if You Can, that Steven Spielberg movie with Tom Hanks on the trail of a teenage con man played by Leonardo DiCaprio. But before the first episode is over, Jerry comes out as a trans woman and changes her name to Elizabeth Carmichael. The kids are raised to call Liz mom and the series goes on from there, with Liz starting the 20th Century Motor Company and introducing the Dale.

Eventually, Liz is arrested for fraud, and goes on trial to defend the lack of production of the Dale. But in the '70s, with transgender issues so relatively unfamiliar and widely misunderstood, she goes on trial in other ways, too — especially in the media.

Thanks to lots of old clips and some shockingly candid interviews, this close look at the media treatment of her is one of the most valuable aspects of The Lady and the Dale. The narrative manages to name-drop such pioneering transgender public figures as Christine Jorgensen and Renée Richards — but they're far more than footnotes and become part of this story. By part four, when the NBC series Unsolved Mysteries gets into the act, you not only feel for Liz, but get a strong sense of unfair media bias in some very palpable specific examples.

One more thing about The Lady and the Dale. It uses animation more — and more imaginatively — than almost any documentary I've ever seen. When the filmmakers have family members and friends and enemies all talking about Liz, but don't have footage other than those talking heads, stiff but lively animation is used. And while the Duplass Brothers, Mark and Jay, are among this show's executive producers, special credit should be given to the director of animation, Sean Donnelly. Watch The Lady and the Dale, and you'll see why he deserves mention — and why the program itself deserves attention.

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Beginning this Sunday, HBO premieres a four-part documentary series executive produced by the Duplass Brothers. It's called "The Lady And The Dale." Its title comes from the Dale, a bold, new three-wheeled car introduced but never produced in the 1970s, and the person who was behind it. Our TV critic David Bianculli warns that very little about this documentary is what it seems - not the subject, the structure or even the storytelling. And he likes it that way. Here's his review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "The Lady And The Dale," a new HBO documentary miniseries co-directed by Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker, is promoted by the network with most of its secrets held in check. Tune into this nonfiction biography series, the promos suggest, and learn the tale of a female automobile executive who took on the Detroit automakers and tried to market a gas-efficient car at the height of the oil crisis. But "The Lady And The Dale" is so much more than that.

Yes, the second installment of this four-part series is mostly about the weird three-wheeled car called the Dale, but the first hour of this miniseries is mostly about a small-time but enterprising con artist. The third hour is about a trial for grand larceny, with a defendant doing double duty as her own defense attorney. And the fourth hour is - well, there are so many surprises and revelations in the fourth hour, let's not even go there. The promos held their cards close to the vest, but the opening minutes of "The Lady And The Dale" hint at some of the intrigue to come. It starts with a vintage 1970s clip from "The Price Is Right," where one of the prizes being offered is a brand new Dale automobile and works quickly through some other period TV footage that adds many layers of mystery to the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

JOHNNY OLSON: These fabulous prizes may go to these people tonight if they know when the price is right.

(APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)

OLSON: And now, here's the ultimate - a three-wheeled car.

(APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)

OLSON: It's the Dale, a whole new concept in automotive design - a three-wheel chassis with a high-impact plastic resistant resin (ph) body, top speed of 85 miles per hour. For comfort and economy, it's the Dale, by Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: A rough-talking promoter named Elizabeth Carmichael. She's president and prime mover behind the Dale.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The miracle is in the mileage - a promise of 70 per precious gallon.

ELIZABETH CARMICHAEL: We've taken a total concept, integrated it and built a whole new means of transportation.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Mrs. Carmichael is no pessimist.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: ...Think you're going to be able to take on GM?

CARMICHAEL: We're going whip GM.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: A couple of nights ago on the television show "The Price Is Right," the grand prize was a three-wheel Dale automobile. That embarrassing show was tapped several months ago, when the Dale was getting reams of publicity. But is the Dale all it's been cracked up to be? Now, state officials tell us that Mrs. Carmichael's fingerprints match those of a notorious con man. Mrs. Elizabeth Carmichael is actually Mr. Jerry Dean Michael. And the secret life of Jerry Michael is the stuff of wildly imaginative adventure novels.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: And what a story it tells. It's the story of Jerry Dean Michael, who grew up in small-town Indiana and eventually became a con artist, working every scheme from counterfeiting money and checks to selling bogus get-rich-quick schemes door-to-door. He married and had five kids, but kept grifting. And every time the law got close, he'd pick up the family and move - over one stretch, according to the documentary, 21 times in three years.

Up to this point, "The Lady And The Dale" has the flavor and momentum of "Catch Me If You Can," that Steven Spielberg movie with Tom Hanks on the trail of a teenage con man played by Leonardo DiCaprio. But then, before Episode 1 is over, Jerry embraces the identity and life of a trans woman. Jerry becomes Liz, and the kids are raised to call her mom. And life in this series goes on from there. She adopts the name Elizabeth Carmichael, starts the Twentieth Century Motor Company and introduces the Dale.

Eventually, Elizabeth Carmichael is arrested for fraud and goes on trial to defend the lack of production of the Dale. But in the '70s, with transgender issues so relatively unfamiliar and widely misunderstood, she goes on trial in other ways, too - especially in the media. And thanks to lots of old clips and some shockingly candid interviews, this close look at the media treatment of her is one of the most valuable aspects of "The Lady And The Dale." The narrative manages to namedrop such pioneering transgender public figures as Christine Jorgensen and Renee Richards, but they're far more than footnotes and become part of this story. And by Part 4, when the NBC series "Unsolved Mysteries" gets into the act, you not only feel for Liz Carmichael, but get a strong sense of unfair media bias in some very palpable specific examples.

One more thing about "The Lady And The Dale." It uses animation more and more imaginatively than almost any documentary I've ever seen. When the filmmakers have family members and friends and enemies all talking about Liz, but don't have footage other than those talking heads, stiff but lively animation is used. And while the Duplass Brothers, Mark and Jay, are among this show's executive producers, special credit should be given to the director of animation, Sean Donnally. Watch "The Lady And The Dale," and you'll see why he deserves mention and why the program itself deserves attention.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of television history at Rowan University in New Jersey and editor of the website TV Worth Watching. He reviewed the new HBO documentary series, "The Lady And The Dale," beginning Sunday on HBO.

On tomorrow's show, Washington Post reporter Craig Timberg considers the impact of President Trump's departure on the QAnon movement and other extremist groups. Followers of QAnon conspiracy theories long believed that President Trump would defeat and imprison the deep state actors and pedophiles betraying America. That didn't happen, and it's shaken the beliefs of some in the movement. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRUCE HORNSBY'S "BACKHAND")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer and technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRUCE HORNSBY'S "BACKHAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.