Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Waltons Homecoming: A Christmas Story

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...]


  1. I agree with you, Pete. This is an excellent film. I liked the TV show, too, but it was inconsistent. I remember a two-hour episode about moonshining that was great, with lots of action, something the series was often lacking.

    I remember reading a novel by Earl Hamner called YOU CAN'T GET THERE FROM HERE (or something close to that) that was really top-notch. I ought to try to find a copy and see if it holds up.

  2. I haven't seen this one in years, though I'm a big fan of the series. This summer, I reread my old paperback of Hamner's THE HOMECOMING and it's a fine book. Thanks for the reminder of the film, Pete--I believe I'll put this on my Christmas list.

  3. Oh, yeah. This is a good one.

    For me it ranks right up there with the one everyone loves to hate (or won't admit to liking); you know, with the kid who is lusting after that Red Ryder BB Gun. Now that one I can really relate to; decoded messages, tongues sticking to flagpoles, pesky younger siblings.

    And finally beating the sh** out of the neighborhood bully. Makes for a very Merry Christmas!!

  4. My parents both remember watching this on TV on Thanksgiving when they were kids, so we got the DVD and made it part of our own family tradition. The TV series is one of my favorite shows, but I think the earliest seasons had the most realistic feel - the Depression hardships gradually faded out as the show went on. One area where The Homecoming certainly has the advantage is snow - the TV series only did a couple winter episodes, and the effect was never the same.

  5. My reactions are much the same as your own, Pete. Was an annual ritual to watch this each holiday season. It does not run on TV as much anymore, but hopefully the Hallmark Channel will air it this year given they are currently running the TV series in the late afternoons.