16 September 2003 | thommytiger
Maybe maudline, but a classic thanks to Fonda and the cinematography.
Before The Waltons, there was Spencer's Mountain. Based on the autobiographical novel by Earl Hamner, Jr, this heartwarming family drama fathered the beloved TV series and features all its familiar ingredients-poor family with nine children struggling to make ends meet, rural setting, live-in grandparents, gifted oldest son, mother named Livvie, coming-of-age crises-the list goes on and on. Even the famous (and corny) "good night" ritual debuts here; the names may be different (there's no Mary Ellen, Jason or Jim-Bob), but the indelible long shot-darkened house with one lamp burning in an upstairs window-is framed exactly as it would be on television nine years later.
Along with the similarities, though, come some changes. Instead of Depression-era Appalachia, the Spencers confront their problems in contemporary Wyoming, affording a more dramatic backdrop and the ability to deal with modern mores. And instead of John-Boy, we have Clay-Boy (James MacArthur), the oldest son of Clay Spencer (Henry Fonda) and his wife (Maureen O'Hara). While Clay-Boy is not an aspiring writer like his TV counterpart (and flaunts a decidedly more beefy physique), he does win top honors in his high school class and harbors a potent desire to attend college and escape his sheltered mountain life. Clay-Boy's efforts to meet the university's academic and financial requirements, as well as Clay Sr.'s burning wish to build his dream house, are among the everyday issues the Spencers must face.
Maybe if The Waltons never existed, Spencer's Mountain would better stand the test of time. But so ingrained is The Waltons in our collective conscience, it's difficult to divorce Spencer's Mountain from it-and from the elements that have prompted merciless parody over the years. The folksy, homespun attitudes that permeate Delmer Daves' production alternately provoke charmed smiles and withering cringes, usually depending on who is speaking the lines. And while the film benefits from breathtaking location shooting in Grand Teton National Park, even the majestic snow-capped peaks can't dilute the sugar coating that drips from many scenes.
Unfortunately, the younger actors bear the brunt of the blame. MacArthur tries his best, but often is sabotaged by the annoying Mimsy Farmer (yes, Mimsy) as Clay-Boy's sweetheart Claris, whose hormones rage so ferociously she practically eats Clay-Boy alive during their breathy love scenes. Such frank treatment of blossoming sexuality is commendable, but seems laughably inappropriate in such a family-oriented film, at times transforming Spencer's Mountain into a watered-down version of A Summer Place (interestingly enough, also directed by Daves).
Fonda and O'Hara, on the other hand, make an ideal couple, acting with an ease and familiarity that gives their relationship a warm, comfortable feel. Fonda especially embodies the uneducated, hard-drinking, heart-of-gold Clay Sr., always willing to fight and sacrifice so his brood can enjoy a richer, more prosperous life. Without a doubt, Fonda is the soul of Spencer's Mountain, and his natural, beautifully shaded portrayal keeps the film from descending into a maudlin mess.
Despite its shortcomings, Spencer's Mountain is tough to knock. Featuring forthright, salt-of-the-earth characters, timeless family themes and lovely cinematography, it wiggles its way into the heart and, like the noble Spencers, we graciously forgive its faults.