A missionary lady gives used toys to children who can recite a Bible verse. Since Mary Ellen has been forbidden to take charity, she whispers verses to other, even poorer neighbours:
MARY ELLEN: "What has man profited if he gains the whole world and loses a soul?"
CLAUDIE: Too hard to remember.
MARY ELLEN: "Jesus wept."
Later, somewhat mischievously, she feeds a different child a racy line from The Song of Songs.
Earl Hamner, Jr. chronicled the adventures of the rural Spencer family, loosely based on his own, in two novels: Spencer's Mountain (1961) and The Homecoming: A Novel About Spencer's Mountain (1970). The first was adapted to film as Spencer's Mountain in 1963, with Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara as the parents. The second found new life as a play (in dramatic and musical variations) which remains a seasonal mainstay of many community theater troupes. However, many more recall its adaptation to the small screen, a production with better-than-average acting and Currier and Ives winter scenes. The Homecoming, subtitled, A Christmas Story, first appeared on television in December, 1971, and gave rise to the long-running 1970s series, The Waltons.
MARY ELLEN: I'm hungry enough to eat a horse!
GRANDMA: This Depression gets any worse, you may have to.
The family's name changes due to rights issues related to the Spencers film and (for less established reasons) Clay and his eldest, Clay-boy, become John and John-boy. The story takes place on Christmas Eve, 1933. The family sees Clay, Sr. on weekends, because the only job he can find is in another city. He has not yet returned for the holiday, and his wife waits in quiet anguish, because she knows from the news a bus accident has claimed one unidentified man's life.
The writing and acting carries most of the film, which has little developed plot in the first hour. The family prepares for Christmas, and we see several sentimental-- but not overplayed-- scenes depicting family life. They betray their stage origins, but they have a ring of truth that would elude the show with increased frequency as the later seasons wore on. Elizabeth doesn't want to grow up, and she wants puppies, not children. John-Boy tries to assert himself as the eldest. The grandparents bicker lovingly: old Zeb wants to ring in Christmas at midnight for the Baptist Church, but Esther believes he should attend to his health. A patronizing missionary comes to town. Ma oversees a hundred minor crises and wonders about the secret John-Boy keeps from the rest of his family.
Finally, John-Boy reveals his truth, and Olivia tells him about the bus accident. She sends him out into the night to see if he can find their father. The fifteen-year-old heads to Ike Godsey's store in the hope of picking up a ride. Unfortunately, the sheriff is drunk, and the only other man present with a vehicle, Charlie Sneed, is handcuffed to a chair, under arrest for distributing stolen food to the poor. However, Sneed quietly lends John-boy the keys to his truck, an act with decidedly mixed motives. The boy can now drive along his daddy's expected route-- and drive away with the evidence, still stowed in the truck.
Inexperienced John-boy doesn't get far in the winter weather, and he experiences many delays on his little, snow-driven odyssey. He receives assistance from the other colorful characters on Walton's Mountain. These include the geriatric, moonshine-brewing Baldwin Sisters and the local Afro-American preacher.
Cleavon Little as the preacher functions as the film's true moral center. He shocks Olivia Walton by doing work for the Baldwins, because he doesn't see the point in letting his family go without. He provides John-Boy with assistance and guidance that suggests we sometimes need to bend the more rigid guidelines espoused by the God-fearing Olivia. The Waltons' relationship with the preacher's family also exists to show that, while this may be the U.S. South during the Great Depression, our central characters aren't racists.
The conclusion features a curious and rather amusing allusion to Jacob wrestling with the Angel, complete with a moral that suits this family. Charity they reserve for the less proud and more impoverished, but you're allowed to "rassle" a blessing from the universe. The film concludes with the first of many "Good-night, John-boy" scenes that would be repeated and referenced throughout the 70s.
Comparisons with The Waltons series are inevitable. While hardly controversial, The Homecoming has a few more rough edges. The Christmas pageant at the Black church is charming, all the more so because the costumes look like they were thrown together by people with almost no funds. The Walton house, a small, rustic place in the film, becomes a more impressive, slightly gentrified structure in the series, as does Godsey's Store.
The same actors continue to play the children and their grandmother in The Waltons, but all other roles were recast. Ralph Waite and Michael Learned work well as the weekly parents, but Andrew Duggan and Patricia Neal played the parts with more conviction. They seem like the sort of people who came of age in rural America in the early twentieth century. Duggan did not want the part; Neal did, but she had suffered from stroke in the 1960s, and producers had concerns about her continued health. Health reasons also kept The Homecoming's Edgar Bergen out of the running for Grandpa, a recasting which perhaps worked for the best. Bergen was fine, but Will Geer brings a memorable spryness to the part, the only character to seem (gently) edgier in the show. You didn't doubt that he'd been a mountain man. As a tribute to the original grandfather, the first episode of The Waltons included a brief scene where the family gathered around the radio to hear Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, and Bergen's 1930s broadcasts could be heard in other episodes.
As for The Homecoming, it continued to be a holiday mainstay for many years, until being (largely) pushed out by later specials aimed at younger audiences. It still can be seen, now and then, and it made the transfer to videotape and DVD. I watch it now, in part as nostalgia for nostalgia, for a time in my childhood when we gathered 'round the tv to watch the film because my parents, like John and Olivia, had grown up in large, working-class families during the Depression. Relic though it may be of two bygone eras, The Homecoming holds up surprisingly well.
Director: Fielder Cook
Writer: Earl Hamner, Jr.
Richard Thomas as John-Boy Walton
Patricia Neal as Olivia Walton
Cleavon Little as Hawthorne Dooley
Edgar Bergen as Zebulon "Grandpa" Walton
Ellen Corby as Esther "Grandma" Walton
Andrew Duggan as John Walton
Judy Norton as Mary-Ellen Walton
Dorothy Stickney as Emily Baldwin1
Josphine Hutchinson as Mamie Baldwin
Woodrow Parfrey as Ike Godsey
William Windom as Charlie Sneed
Mary-Beth McDonough as Erin Walton
Eric Scott as Ben Walton
Kami Cotler as Elizabeth Walton
David W. Harper as Jim-Bob Walton
David Huddleston as Sheriff Bridges
Sally Chamerline as missionary
1. This was Dorothy Stickney's final performance in a lengthy career; Mary Jackson took over the recurring role for the series. However, the recasting did not result from her death. Stickney died in 1998, days short of her 102nd birthday.
Earl Hamner, Jr. Interview by Scott Holleran, December 22, 2006. Box Office Mojo. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/features/?id=2222&p=.htm.
The Homecoming: A Christmas Story. Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0067209/.
"The Waltons." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Waltons