I remember watching this made-for-tv movie the first time with my grandmother, Lottie, in her chilly trailer in Rugby, North Dakota during a particularly chilly Dakota November. I loved it then watching with Grandma, and I love it now. I watch it whenever it's on, and just in case it doesn't come on television this year--it's gotten really hard to find in these more jaded reality-tv times--I just ordered my own copy from Amazon.
I believe this is the movie, or one of the two including Spencer's Mountain, that preceded The Waltons television series. I enjoyed the series as a kid--of course, wanting to be a writer, I identified with John-Boy--but this Christmas special is heads and shoulders above the regular t.v. series. It's grittier, harder-edged, and it more truthfully depicts poverty in Appalachia during the Depression or anywhere in rural America, including my own home state of North Dakota.
The best thing about it is Patricia Neal as Olivia. I love Patricia Neal in everything, and I especially love her here, where she brings such a tough sturdiness and an admirable lack of sentimentality to the role while Olivia's obvious love for her family burns bright within her. But she's tough because she has to be, they all have to be, for death and destruction are just beyond the timbered door. And when her husband, John Sr., played by the great Andrew Duggan, doesn't make it home when expected from the city where he's had to take work to support their family, she sends her oldest son, John-Boy played by Richard Thomas, out into a snowstorm looking for him.
Cleavon Little is also terrific as the preacher of a black church who brings John-Boy in out of the storm and gives him a big dose of spirit just when his own is beginning to wane.
THE HOMECOMING is great story well-acted with a heartfelt and not overly sentimental message about spirit, pride, faith, toughness, and the bonds of family. I have a knot in my throat just thinking about John-Boy opening up his single Christmas package under the tree and finding a whole passel of Big Chief writing tablets!
I can hear Grandma sniffing into her tissues even as I write this, and feel that hard knot in my own throat...
[Stay tune for more of this sentimental sap's holiday favorites...]