Saturday, May 20, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Spencer's Mountain (1963) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara star in SPENCER'S MOUNTAIN (1963), a movie predecessor to THE WALTONS, which debuted on TV nearly a decade later. SPENCER'S MOUNTAIN is now available on a lovely Blu-ray from the Warner Archive.

Earl Hamner's novel SPENCER'S MOUNTAIN provided the basis for the film, which was written and directed by Delmer Daves.

Hamner's Spencer/Walton family had a slightly convoluted screen history. SPENCER'S MOUNTAIN kept the character names used in the novel, but Daves relocated the story from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Grand Tetons of Wyoming.

When THE HOMECOMING (1971) was filmed for TV, followed by the 1972 debut of the long-running THE WALTONS, most of the family and character names were changed; Clay and Clayboy Spencer became the names we know better today, John and John-Boy Walton. The number of children was reduced and their names were likewise changed, and the setting was returned to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In SPENCER'S MOUNTAIN Clay Spencer (Fonda) and his wife Livvy (O'Hara), his parents (Donald Crisp and Lillian Bronson), and his children live on the mountain named for their family.

Clay is one of nine brothers, who are played by actors including Med Flory, Victor French, Mike Henry, and O'Hara's brother James O'Hara (aka James Lilburn). Clay also has nine children himself! The eldest, Clayboy (James MacArthur of SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON), is the first in his family to graduate high school. Clayboy wants desperately to go to college, but his family doesn't have the money.

How Clayboy finally makes it to college is the movie's central theme, but more than that, it's a portrait of a community: the kind quarry owner (Hayden Rorke) Clay works for; the teacher (Virginia Gregg) determined to see her star pupil make good; the new minister (Wally Cox) who overcomes an awkward introduction to the town and is there to lend the family a helping hand.

One could say that family and neighbors helping one another is really the movie's main theme, starting with the opening sequence when Clay's tall brothers all arrive for an early morning breakfast before helping him with a construction project on their day off from work. Indeed, Clay himself leverages the many kindnesses he's done for his neighbors to help set things right with how they treat the new preacher in town.

The movie is visually beautiful, from the opening credits shots of the Grand Tetons to the biscuits served at breakfast. Some critics have complained that the community -- especially the lovely O'Hara -- is too pretty for people eking out a hardscrabble existence, but I didn't have a problem with it, especially given how much there is to enjoy in the movie.

I've also read complaints that the film is maudlin, but Fonda's teary scenes, playing a man who lives for his "babies," seemed right on target to me and not overdone.

As a devoted WALTONS fan I used to have more trouble with the movie, particularly unnecessarily "un-WALTONS-like" crass moments which seem out of keeping with the film's overall tone. However, those scenes impacted me less revisiting the film for the first time in many years, while I enjoyed the film's look and its great cast more. I now set aside my WALTONS preconceptions and enjoy the original movie appearance of Hamner's family on its own terms. I've seen the film multiple times, but have never enjoyed it more than I did today.

Kym Karath is particularly adorable as one of the youngest Spencer children, Pattie-Cake, who idolizes her big brother Clay. Later that year she played Doris Day and James Garner's daughter in THE THRILL OF IT ALL (1963). Her best-known screen appearance was as Gretl in THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965). It's fun to note that in SPENCER'S MOUNTAIN Karath's older sister Becky is played by Veronica Cartwright, while in THE SOUND OF MUSIC her older sister Brigitta is played by Veronica's sister Angela.

This movie was filmed in Panavision by Charles Lawton. It runs 118 minutes.

Blu-ray extras include the trailer, footage of the Wyoming premiere, and brief footage of Henry Fonda and James MacArthur being interviewed.

The widescreen Warner Archive Blu-ray is really beautiful. Recommended.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive Blu-rays may be ordered from the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.


Blogger Jerry Entract said...

I really enjoyed your review, Laura. I haven't seen "SPENCER'S MOUNTAIN" in many a year but my wife and I followed THE WALTONS on TV avidly as it movingly evoked strong community feeling and the goodness in most people.
It is only years after the series finished that we discovered the Blue Ridge Mountains at first hand and found the good neighbourliness still feels intact there. We have been back on a number of trips as we love the area (and its music) so much.

9:44 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Always love hearing from another WALTONS fan, Jerry. I love your description of it -- as well as the actual Blue Ridge Mountains. I envy you having visited as it's a trip I still hope to make in the future.

Hope you have the chance to revisit SPENCER'S MOUNTAIN via this lovely Blu-ray. I think you'll really enjoy it.

Best wishes,

9:56 AM  
Blogger Crocheted Lace said...

The original novel is nice. I don't care for the movie.
I am no fan of the Waltons TV series. It's sentimental hogwash, and nothing like real rural life. I think this movie is too mawkish. Apparently Fonda agreed.
From the TCM essay on this film:
"... Fonda had always preferred working in theater, but his new agents insisted he focus on film.
Just prior to taking the role in Spencer's Mountain, Fonda had appeared in a play in New York that flopped. When the play closed, his new agents had turned down another play without telling Fonda, and insisted that he take the part in Spencer's Mountain, although he protested, "the script is old-fashioned corn - it will set movies back 25 years." The play they turned down was Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and playwright Edward Albee had written the role of the henpecked husband George with Fonda in mind. When Fonda found out, he was furious, but he was already committed to Spencer's Mountain, and had to go through with it. He was even angrier when he saw the play after the film wrapped."

Wow, talk about a fascinating missed opportunity for Fonda!

7:06 PM  

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