‘The Waltons’: Iconic show’s 1973 Thanksgiving story revisits old romance

It’s Thanksgiving on Walton’s Mountain, so pass the turkey gizzards and hold off on the back-sass, mister!

[Reviewer’s note] I originally told my editor that I would be reviewing The Homecoming, the 1971 CBS made-for-TV special that introduced audiences to Earl Hamner, Jr.’s splendid Virginian mountain family, the Waltons. Now for some reason, even though I knew The Homecoming’s subtitle was A Christmas Story, in my increasingly hazy memories I thought CBS re-ran that beautiful little telemovie during subsequent Thanksgiving seasons, after its initial December 19th, 1971 broadcast. Well, apparently, I was wrong. So…I’ll save my review of The Homecoming for the coming weeks, and instead offer up something a little more calendar-appropriate: The Waltons’s second season episode, The Thanksgiving Story.

By Paul Mavis

Speaking of memories, I don’t think anything takes me back faster to the recollections of childhood TV viewing than those first tentative strains of composer Jerry Goldsmith’s lovely theme for The Waltons. It was a show I never missed as a kid, following its story arc of a tight-knit Virginia mountain family surviving the Depression and WWII through 9 long seasons (1972-1981).

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Structured around John Walton’s reminiscences of his childhood on Walton’s Mountain (narration from series creator Earl Hamner, Jr. bookended each episode), The Waltons was for me an early, powerful melding of personal and professional yearnings that then became locked into my own childhood memories. Wanting to be a writer since I was a boy (which happened, in a way), as well as wishing that my family back then was as close and loving as the one depicted on the small screen (which unfortunately didn’t happen), The Waltons became required viewing for me right from the start of its run.

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Viewed so many years later, admittedly through my veil of nostalgia, The Waltons still plays well today. A show that many snooty critics dismissed as either a kids’ show or a hopelessly backward-looking fantasy, The Waltons’ beautifully modulated tone often uncannily expressed the gentle hopes and sometimes heavy disappointments of everyday life, a grounded vision immediately responded to by viewers weary of all the cop shows, detective series, and medical dramas that back then flooded network television.

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I’ve read a lot of criticism of The Waltons that found fault with its deliberately cleaned-up picture of rural Virginia life in the economically ravaged 1930s, as if creator Earl Hamner, Jr. was somehow being artistically dishonest in taking out much of the grit from those harsh memories. Of course, that view doesn’t take into account the realities of network TV censorship in the early 1970s. Nobody from CBS was going to let viewers see what it was really like out in the hills during the Depression. Nor does that critical carping allow for writer Hamner’s deliberate use of nostalgia as a vehicle for dramatic intent.

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Hamner’s marvelous 1971 telemovie, The Homecoming, which was not originally intended as a series pilot, was perhaps closer to reality in depicting the economic hardships of the Depression, as well as the rather earthy, pious people that inhabited those hills at the time. And yet still, that telemovie, according to the network brass, had to be “toned down” for mainstream audiences.

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Except for the kids watching The Waltons at the time, most of the adult viewers had first-hand accounts of the Depression from their own parents (if they hadn’t actually lived through it themselves). My parents were born during the Depression, so their childhood memories were certainly shaped by it, and they knew The Waltons wasn’t a “true” depiction of those times—at least in terms of showing the actual hardships that people went through (the poor of Walton’s Mountain are not the poor of Walker Evans’ photos by a long shot).

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In fact, growing up myself during the hard recession of the early 1970s, I distinctly remember thinking the Waltons had it pretty good compared to us: their own mountain, plenty of game to hunt, plenty of land to plant crops, their own business (a saw mill), and a huge house (I don’t remember the Waltons ever going without a meal, which happened to me more than once). Hamner knew what he was doing: no one would have tuned in to The Waltons to see people starve (that’s why today’s network television—obsessed with showing only the seaminess, despair, and gritty “truth” of life…as their liberal writers see it—is losing more and more viewers every year).

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What my parents did see as very true were the more modest, restrained moments in The Waltons, ones that resonated with their own experiences. The feeling that life must have its quiet moments, moments to just live and experience life as it comes. The feeling that families had to stick together to survive the harsh, outside world. The feeling that one could be in accord with one’s natural surroundings—all feelings that were increasingly under assault in 1970s American society.

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The Walton family may have looked too well-scrubbed and fed, and their teeth too white and perfect, and they may have always had the money to pay the electric bill…but when they gathered around the radio, enjoying a program together as a family, that fictional moment had a decidedly real impact for my parents—they had experienced the exact same thing as children. Which of course leads to the rather reflexive experience for me as an adult, remembering watching The Waltons as a child with my parents, gathered around the TV set. It’s a fairly layered experience, then, for a former viewer to watch The Waltons today (especially if you add in your own kids watching it on DVD…which just adds another mirror reflecting another mirror back on itself).

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When I sat down to watch the second season’s 10th episode, the special two-hour The Thanksgiving Story (originally airing on November 15th, 1973), I had forgotten that it was, in part at least, a sequel. One of the main subplots involved John-Boy (Richard Thomas) welcoming back his first serious love, Jenny Pendleton (Sian Barbara Allen), who memorably appeared on Walton’s Mountain in season one’s 17th episode, The Love Story (January 18th, 1973). That episode was one of my all-time series’ favorites, but I hadn’t watched it in years, so…it was back down to my vast subterranean DVD vault to retrieve it for some background padding.

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In The Love Story, written by Hamner himself and directed by Lee Phillips, John-Boy experiences the intoxicating—and rather terrifying—pangs of serious first love. Passing the “haunted” Pendleton house one night, aspiring writer John-Boy Walton sees a candlelight moving around the abandoned place before the light is extinguished. Telling his father, John Walton (Ralph Waite), John and his son go to check out what’s happening (9 years before, John had promised the owner, Dave Pendleton, that he would watch over the boarded-up house). Inside they discover Dave’s daughter, Jenny, who has run away from her father’s house in the city because widower Dave has remarried. Invited back to the Walton home, Jenny soon becomes entranced with the loving family…and with an equally smitten John-Boy.

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Opening with an appropriately old-fashioned romantic device (a doomed love walking alone among a darkened, “tragic” house) The Love Story is a perfect distillation of one of The Waltons’ central dramatic structures: a stranger with an emotional problem comes to Walton’s Mountain, and through the healing love and understanding of the generous, kind Walton clan, he or she finds…fill in the blank: love, redemption, honor, courage, etc. Throughout Jenny’s stay, everyone is constantly reassuring her that she’s welcomed and liked, and that she can stay as long as she wishes—was that kind of positive reinforcement happening over on Mannix or The Mod Squad or even Marcus Welby, M.D. (no, not even there—they needed the beds)?

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That welcoming feeling The Waltons always strived to achieve no doubt helped it ride out 221 hour-long episodes over nine years with its loyal fan base. It’s a cliche, but TV back then was still about asking the viewer to come into their homes. As a kid, I felt that even a dick like me would be made to feel like part of the Walton family (and that’s saying something), and The Love Story is a particularly good example of the series’ ability to create that genuinely warm, convivial atmosphere.

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Quietly potent, too, are the gentle, tender love scenes between John-Boy and Jenny, no doubt aided significantly by the added chemistry of then real-life lovers Richard Thomas and Sian Barbara Allen. Having met during the filming of that year’s Patty Duke thriller, You’ll Like My Mother, Thomas and Allen were indeed already skilled performers…but there’s no mistaking an added intensity, a reality to their scenes together here that telegraphs their true feelings for each other (Thomas reportedly insisted on girlfriend Allen getting the part).

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Nicely built by writer Hamner, and sensitively staged by director Phillips, their courtship believably begins as tentative, awkward attraction (the scene where John-Boy plays the dulcimer for her, nervously looking over at Jenny to see if she’s feeling what he’s feeling, is expertly played by both), before it segues into their own Heathcliff and Cathy moment up on the top of Walton’s Mountain, playing children’s make-believe games to hide the fear of stating what they feel is coming…before their emotions overtake them (another delicate, subtle moment for the actors).

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There are other telling little moments in The Love Story that fill out the episode, such as John and “Livie” (Michael Learned) remembering how they grew up together (no syrup for them: he remembers her as “prissy,” and she states he was “the wickedest boy in town,” before they both look at each other with knowing attraction). It’s a smartly written scene (later, “wicked” John of course allows John-Boy to escort pretty Jenny up to the mountain, while “prissy” Olivia subtly suggests John-Boy invite the younger children to come along…).

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But then, The Waltons was almost always smartly written (even the potential for an “evil stepmother” is squashed: kind, loving Eula is searching for a way to reach Jenny, too). And the sad, final goodbye of Jenny and John-Boy is no different: their parting words are direct and to the point, and no less effective for their simplicity (for the dreamers out there who always wish for a cinematic happy ending, even if its only hinted at as a possibility, Hamner the narrator gently puts the kibosh on those yearnings: “Jenny was to come into our lives again, but the promises we made to each other we were not to keep,”).

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Okay. So…where is all of that continued in The Thanksgiving Story? I mean…shouldn’t the return of Jenny be a momentous event for John-Boy that dwarfs everything else? Apparently not….

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In this extremely busy episode, John-Boy’s excitement at seeing Jenny again is overshadowed by his all-consuming desire to gain a scholarship to Boatwright College. Without it, John-Boy can’t attend college, and without college, he knows that his raw skills as a writer won’t be honed into a usable or meaningful artistic commodity. Unfortunately, while helping his daddy and Grandpa (Will Geer) cut some lumber, the belt on the saw breaks, whacking John-Boy a good one in the head. Soon, he’s suffering dizzy spells and shaking hands, both of which spell doom for his taking the scholarship test.

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As well, John-Boy’s resumed courtship of Jenny is initially rocky…particularly since he’s been dating other girls in her year-long absence. Brother Jason (John Walmsley) has a sticky problem: the wealthy Baldwin Sisters, Miss Mamie (Helen Kleeb) and Miss Emily (Mary Jackson), want to send a jar of moonshine “the Recipe” to FDR (as thanks for extending handling the Depression), and they need Jason to help run the still. They also want to adopt him. Middle brother Ben (Eric Scott) wants to bag the family turkey by himself…with Grandpa’s help. And perpetually crazed sister Mary Ellen (Judy Norton-Taylor) is hoping to land the lead as Pocahontas in the high school Thanksgiving play.

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Granted, The Thanksgiving Story was a longer 2-hour special, allowing more characters to have their own subplots, but it’s curious how the scripter, Joanna Lee, short-changed the reunion of Jenny and John-Boy in favor of a storyline that smacks of Medical Center, not Love Story.

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Of the side plots, Mary Ellen’s, unfortunately, is the weakest. I always loved Judy Norton-Taylor’s fractious, anxious, growin’-pains portrayal of Mary Ellen. Whether growling, “Grandma!” at the episode’s opening, or self-importantly proclaiming, “I am never going to be a wife. I am going to pursue a career in the theater,” Mary-Ellen was a wholly believable evocation of a smart, emotional, frequently hilarious teen girl at war with everyone who irritated her…which was everyone. Too bad, then, that the Pocahontas play angle was treated as merely filler (every time you think the character is going to rev up…they cut away to John-Boy falling down somewhere).

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Ben’s desire to grow up too soon, and Grandpa’s willingness to let him fail, was better developed, and nicely played by Geer and Scott. How many parents out there today are delivering up the much-needed lesson Grandpa gives Ben? Damn few. Ben, spending all that time making a wooden turkey call, blows his one and only chance to bag his prize when he too-excitedly blasts his shotgun before sighting it…something Grandpa knew he’d do. When a dejected Ben asks him why he let him fail, Grandpa simply states, “How are you going to learn if I don’t let you try?” Even better, when Ben realizes people may laugh at his story, Grandpa wisely states, “When you take on a man’s challenges before you’re ready, you gotta learn to take on the risks.” He offers Ben an out—Ben has to barter his own hard labor to get a turkey farm bird—but Grandpa says they’ll tell the truth of what happened: Ben did get the turkey.

And Jason’s subplot with the adorable Baldwin Sisters is a particular highlight of The Thanksgiving Story. The delightfully daffy Baldwins were my favorite Waltons characters bar none: Helen Kleeb and Mary Jackson could effortlessly switch from hilariously clueless to touchingly sweet in seconds, as they do here. Watch their expert interplay as they sit on Livie’s couch, trying to sell their outrageous desire to adopt Jason; it’s a master class in comedic timing (Walmsley’s kind stillness is used to good effect against the actresses). There’s an additionally fine follow-up to this scene for Waite and Learned, where John apologizes and then charms Livie into forgiving him for allowing Jason to bootleg whiskey (it’s only the second season, but pros Waite and Learned act like they’ve been doing this together for 20).

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What a shame, then, that the nominal main plot line—John-Boy’s head injury and renewed romance—is so…blah. The injury angle is as old as the hills (and plays as such), while his romance with Jenny seems as truncated as the Thanksgiving dinner that the director doesn’t show (a big cheat for this kind of episode—I want to see those kids digging in). I get that the John-Boy character has initially moved on to other interests—new girls, college—but if they prime our expectations by making it look like things are right back on track with Jenny (as they do, with a lovely scene back up on the top of Walton’s Mountain, where John-Boy lays out his view of humanity, and Jenny makes it clear she wants to get physically involved)…why do they just drop the whole thing at the end? The episode’s fade-out is John-Boy whooping about college—not Jenny. Did she stay? Did she go? Did she get the wish bone? Who knows…because Jenny and Sian Barbara Allen were never seen again on Walton’s Mountain (that tends to happen when you’re not dating the series’ lead anymore).

Luckily, there are more than enough worthy scenes in the other subplots—with a Thanksgiving theme threading through each—to make up for the fact that what drove me to The Thanksgiving Story in the first place—to see more of John-Boy and Jenny from the beautifully crafted The Love Story—is mysteriously ignored.

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PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.

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