Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Spencer's Mountain

Coming up at 10:00 PM tonight as part of the last night of Maureen O'Hara movies is Spencer's Mountain.

O'Hara plays Olivia Spencer, wife of Clay Spencer Sr. (Henry Fonda) and together the parents of a large family out in Wyoming earning a living partly by running a farm on the titular mountain, and partly by dad working in the local quarry. The oldest of the children, Clay Jr., called Clay-Boy (James MacArthur), is graduating high school, and is more than smart enough that he could go on to college and make big things of himself. The only problem is, where is this poor family going to get the money to send him to college? Clay-Boy, for his part, is also feeling the first stirrings of falling in love with a young woman....

It's just the latest money problem for the large family. Clay Sr. has always been trying to build Olivia the house she always wanted up at the top of the mountain, but something in terms of money has always come up to slow down the building of the house, and that provides the other plot of dramatic tension running throughout the movie. They've never been rich, but there's always love and the money always seems to come from somewhere eventually.

Other than that, there's not really a whole lot to the story. It's written by Earl Hamner, Jr., and if that name sounds familiar -- and especially if you find the movie starts to look famliiar -- that's because it should be. This is the same story that several years later was moved to West Virginia, and back in time a couple of decades, for what became the long-running TV series The Waltons. There's even a scene in Spencer's Mountain in which everybody says good night to each other, just the way they did on the TV show.

Although the movie's plot seems a bit threadbare, the movie itself is not uninteresting. It's filled out with a bunch of homespun vignettes providing gentle humor, such as when free-thinking Dad, who doesn't have much use for religion, goes fishing with a man he doesn't realize at first is the new preacher. And then imagine Clay Sr.'s shock when he finds that although there's a place for Clay Jr. at the college, it's in the theology department. (You'd think students even back then would have been able to choose their majors.) There's also drama and sadness, as when Grandpa (Donald Crisp in his final film performace) dies. By the end of the movie, though, generic Christian values -- not so much the God stuff as the "do unto others as you'd have done unto you" or "be kind and honest" stuff -- win through. The movie's values are really fairly inoffensive even for non-believers.

In fact, Spencer's Mountain, like the later TV show The Waltons, is good for the whole family, except maybe for teenagers who will probably retch at the material only to have a change of heart when they get older. Henry Fonda generally isn't thought of as a comic actor, but he was more than capable of providing a few laughs when a movie called for it, and does a wonderful job here. Maureen O'Hara is sturdy enough as the loving mother, but nothing spectacular. The younger kids are kids, for better or for worse. Overall, though, the cast gives a nice ensemble performance.

If this post hasn't come far enough in advance for you to see the TCM showing, don't worry; it's been released to DVD.


Tom said...

The movie sounds as if its as sentimental and the show, which I was a fan of.

Were/are you a fan of the television show?

Ted S. (Just a Cineast) said...

I was only eight or nine when the show was cancelled, so I wasn't exactly as big a fan of it as older people would have been. I do recall watching it as a familiy, although I have better memories of watching Little House on the Prairie since I was a few years older for that.

And you're right about "sentimental" being a good word for the movie.