Film Review of The Homecoming: A Christmas Story
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/23/14
A question hovers in me and over modern 21st Century American television: where has real drama gone? By that I mean films, television, stage plays all made for the small screen and which deal with what it means to be human. Not just doctor shows, cop dramas, spy thrillers, action nor superhero crap but real stories on real people doing real things and having real problems that sometimes bear no resolution.
The 1970s had such shows, be it Lou Grant, on journalists; Family on a modern family, Eight Is Enough- a wry dramady; Grizzly Adams- set in the Old West, about a loner- or Little House On The Prairie- about a family. Other nations’ television has these sorts of shows still- I see them on PBS when English shows air. I see they are still made in Canada- the best example of the last 20 years being Avonlea. Yet, drama, today, is usually thought of as a soap opera like Mad Men, or a horror series like Walking Dead (yawn- zombies), or it’s glorifying criminals like Dexter, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos- or their corrupt pursuers- the CSI and Law & Order franchises. Or it’s soap medical dramas like ER or Grey’s Anatomy. Or superhero silliness- take your pick.
But where is REAL drama, as I described above?
I ask because until such reappears, American television cannot really and seriously be considered an art form. Drama is, as Woody Allen once said, ‘sitting at the grown ups table.’ And the best of the ongoing American dramas ever made was The Waltons- a 1972-1981 show written by Earl Hamner, a man most well known for his The Twilight Zone scripts, and his novel, Spencer’s Mountain, which was later made into a film starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara. The show followed a Virginia family, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, during the Great Depression and on through World War Two.
The Waltons were de facto the Hamner clan, and Walton’s Mountain was the fictive mountain and village that bore the same name. The star of the television series was young actor, Richard Thomas- an acting wunderkind of the 1960s, who played John Walton, Jr., better known as John Boy. He had 6 other brothers and sisters (the 1970s was replete with large tv families- from Eight Is Enough (8 kids) to The Brady Bunch (6 kids) to the relatively spare The Partridge Family (a mere 5 kids). The show ran for 9 seasons- the first 5 of which starred Thomas, whose character then left for the big city of New York to become a writer, and was lighter replaced by Robert Wightman.
I don’t want to get into the actual series that much, suffice to say the first five seasons with Richard Thomas in the role, and especially Seasons 1, 2, and 3, are probably the finest example of pure American television drama ever made. That it was made, at all, is a testament to the excellence of a television movie made a year earlier which was amongst the first of the new breed of that 1970s staple: a Made For Television Movie. That 1971 film is often called a pilot for The Waltons series but it was not. The Homecoming: A Christmas Story (98 minutes), adapted from Hamner’s same titled novel, was a stand-alone Christmas special that, a year later, was seen as the loam for a possible series. Thomas was not the star of this film, but second billed, under Patricia Neal, as mother Olivia Walton. Neal was replaced by Michael Learned in the series. Two other key adult roles were played by different actors in the film and series. Olivia’s husband, John Walton, Sr., was played by Andrew Duggan in the film and Ralph Waite in the series, while grandfather Zebulon Walton was essayed by Edgar Bergen in the film and Will Geer in the series. Only Ellen Corby was in both, as Grandma Esther Walton. The rest of the Walton children were all played by the same actors in the film, the series, and also the later reunion shows. In descending age order, they were Jon Walmsley as Jason, Judy Norton as Mary Ellen, Eric Scott as Ben, Mary Elizabeth McDonough as Erin, David W. Harper as Jim-Bob, and Kami Cotler as Elizabeth.
Now, with the basics done, let me rhapsodize, a bit, on The Homecoming as a Christmas classic, because, the 1930s saw the dawn of Christmas films that became a staple of early television with the release of Laurel And Hardy’s classic, Babes In Toyland. The 1940s saw, among others, the release of It's A Wonderful Life and Miracle On 34th Street. By the 1960s, television got into the act with Christmas cartoon classics such as Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and other Rankin-Bass productions, as well as stars like Bing Crosby and Perry Como hosting annual variety shows. By the 1970s, however, Christmas films for television started to be made. The Homecoming was the best of them, but other notable entries include The House Without A Christmas Tree, starring Jason Robards, and The Gathering, starring Lou Grant’s Ed Asner. These were, at the very least, good films, and some, like The Homecoming and The House Without A Christmas Tree could be argued as great. While the latter work can be argued as great, I think a far stronger case can be made for The Homecoming, and I will make it.
The basic plot is that the Waltons are home in their small Virginia abode (not the iconic home of the series, but a much smaller digs, and filmed in Wyoming (just as Spencer’s Mountain was), in 1933, and, on Christmas Eve, father John has not yet returned from his job in a larger city, fifty miles away. A blizzard is coming, there’s already snow on the ground, and then word comes on the radio of a bus crash, with one fatality, and many injured, and Olivia sends 15 year old eldest child, John Boy, on a late night trek to find his father. He ultimately fails, but John makes it home anyway.
Of course, these are just plot points and NOT what the film is about. The film is about how people dealt with a certain trying circumstance in a given moment. Now, this essence of the film is not particularly poetic, but it lends itself to poesy in its construction, and many people err when they try to boil a great piece of art- film, poetry, painting, stage drama, down to a single bumper sticker when part of the grandeur of greatness, especially in art, is how complexity can be hewn down to a relatively simple thing without being simplistic.
And one of the best ways a film like this achieves such greatness is in how it mimics reality, especially at core moments that, even if just a few seconds long, allow a viewer a deep ‘in’ to the character, and also the story and art. The Homecoming brims with these moments, and I want to point out something that often confuses art lovers and aesthetes, and that is the very difference between the notions of truth and reality. The Homecoming, like any artwork, is not about truth, but about reality, and this can be seen and displayed with a simple statement. If I assume that you, dear reader, are reading this essay/review, then the fact that ‘Dan Schneider’s essay on The Homecoming is being read online’ is a statement of reality that you are currently experiencing, for however long it takes you to read this essay. But, the statement ‘Dan Schneider’s essay on The Homecoming is being read online’ is either true or false, depending on the fact if it is currently being read at any given moment. Hence, the difference between reality and truth, a pair of terms often conflated, is that reality simply is what is, whereas truth (or its opposite- falseness) are merely conditional comments on any given reality. Reality is therefore phenomenal, and truth is epiphenomenal.
To just go chronologically, let me enumerate some of these moments of depth and sweetness and their virtues:
The film opens (and closes) with Hamner’s direct and wistful narrations, and this immediately (coeval with the hibernal bucolic images shown) sets the reader into a pleasant yearning for the past. We see the children pulling a cow toward a barn near their home, and they are lined up seemingly by age and size. We get a sense of order and rightness with the world. When they get home, we get Olivia explaining why she married her husband, and it flows naturally out of the questions and moment that family life brings. That this family life is multigenerational is brought home by comments from the grandparents of John, as they listen to their daughter-in-law rhapsodize on their son and how she married him despite her family’s own objections. Then, after this recount and delineation of the past and the families, Grandpa Walton demolishes such distinctions by calling his daughter-in-law simply ‘daughter.’
Soon after, we see the children alone in the barn, cracking walnuts for a Christmas cake, and Mary Ellen complains of the tribulations of being 13, even as she belittles her younger siblings, one of whom, Erin, seems to take pleasure in tattling on her. The two youngest children, Jim-Bob and Elizabeth, then go to a hay loft, after Elizabeth is laughed at by declaring she won’t have babies when she grows up, as Erin wishes, but she’ll have puppies, instead. She then determines to stay small, and squeeze her body more compactly whenever she feels a growth spurt coming on. These initial familial interactions are both familiar and realistic- the relations between the sisters, especially, seems real.
We then follow Olivia to Ike Godsey’s general store to buy sugar for the cake, and it’s here where she learns that John has not been seen. We also meet a black father and son, Hawthorne and Claudie Dooley (Cleavon Little and David Livingston). The white Waltons seem to have no racial prejudice, and Olivia’s ire is only raised knowing that Dooley, a preacher, is also working as a driver for the Baldwin sisters (Mamie and Emily)- two spinsters from Southern gentility, who both live in delusions- one of them (Emily) forever yearning for a lost love (Ashley Longworth) to return, only to have rationalized that he must have died in some war. These sisters appeared regularly (played by different actresses) in the series, and they are usually ascribed as merely providing comic relief or local flavor, but they serve as a reminder of the very history of that region of Virginia that cannot let go of the past. They are the yin to Zebulon Walton’s clear-eyed yang. And their bootlegging of their dead judge father’s whiskey, known as The Recipe, to sustain their wealth, is realistic given The Great Depression.
The scene at the store between them, Olivia, and Ike Godsey is one of tension, admiration, and tightrope walking, as Olivia reviles alcohol and lawbreaking, yet seems eager to tell her husband, upon return, of their offer to employ him, at any cost, to fix their still. Equally compelling is Ike Godsey’s attempted seduction of Olivia, not with sexual charms, but by offering her an 89¢ doll for the wholesale price of 65¢. This is one of the many thematic symbols of desire in the film, and, later on, Elizabeth will win a doll, at a raffle, only to find its face broken, and cry out that it’s dead. Ike’s also provides the plot point that the local county has been hit by a crime wave from The Robin Hood Bandit- a man who steals dry goods and groceries each Christmastime, since the Depression began, only to give it all away to the needy. Ike seems to know who it is, but won’t say so to the local sheriff. All of these minor moments, in television today, are seen as things worthy of whole movies themselves, yet they are clearly best as side moments, moments that paint in a deeper reality, and they add up to a richness and depth that is not equaled today.
Back home, Olivia worries over the bus accident, while Grandpa takes John Boy out to the woods to cut down the perfect Christmas tree. As they walk we get some Thoreauvian thoughts from the old man, who then points to a perfect tree, and schools the younger Walton in the history of life, the land, and the family. We then get a great scene between the two oldest Walton kids of their sexes- John Boy and Mary Ellen, who talk of live, love, kisses, sex, as John Boy milks a cow. The banter is natural, especially for siblings, and being set in that slice of history. We later see John Boy churning butter as the family gathers around to hear Edgar Bergen on the radio! This little breaking of the fourth wall and internal diegesis would not occur through the rest of the series, but it’s a minor acknowledgement of the fictive nature of this tale.
Claudie then stops by to tell all of a Missionary lady giving away presents nearby, to try and Christianize the local heathens. Olivia puts a stop to that, but relents when Grandpa asks for her to do so, but only on the condition that her children don’t accept charity. John Boy then questions why Olivia took a clearly stolen turkey from Charley Snead, the wink-wink nod-nod Robin Hood Bandit, and it’s clear that he senses the hypocrisy, even if he doesn’t get the real depth of his clan’s mouth to mouth existence, and the compromises Olivia must make with her own conscience to 1) accept Charley’s charity while 2) knowing full well the turkey is stolen.
Nonetheless, off go the kids to the Devil’s Parlor, where a slick Missionary woman demands the children fete her with Bible verses before getting what seem to be second rate gifts (like Elizabeth’s won and broken doll). Yet, a nice sly comment on the phoniness of religion and do gooderism is shown when the children are all fed Bible verses by John Boy and Mary Ellen, and the Missionary feels that they have taken them to heart, even though they clearly admit they are clueless as to the meaning of the words. Upon returning home, we see John Boy locks his bedroom door to write a diary in a tablet he hides from all, including his mother, who feels he’s smoking cigarets, when she confronts him, in order to send him off after his father, hoping he will track down Charley Snead, to help him track down John with his car. She even gives him a dollar bill to pay for the gasoline.
John Boy heads off to Ike’s, where Charley was last seen, but it seems he’s been detained by the sheriff, who accuses him of being The Robin Hood Bandit, due to all the groceries in his car. Charley protests, as does Ike (half-heartedly) but Charley lets John Boy have his car keys. As he drives into the night John Boy hears his father’s voice, and it’s clear he admires the man and wants to emulate him. He then runs out of gas near a black church, wherein he meets up with Dooley, who agrees to take John Boy to the Baldwin Sisters’ for gas, after the sermon and small Nativity play the black kids put on. The duo call upon the old ladies, and Dooley charms them, as an impatient John Boy wants to get going. We hear of Miss Emily’s lost love and their father’s relationship with the black folk in town, suggesting that, perhaps, miscegenation was afoot. Dooley then bluntly asks for gas, but they have none, so the four of them use the sisters’ horse drawn sleigh to go in search of John, only to be curtailed after several joyous miles by a downed tree. John Boy wants to go on, but Dooley advises him he’ll be needed at home.
When he arrives, the children think the bells of the Baldwins’ sleigh is that of Santa, and when John Boy arrives home, Grandpa is off to ring in Christmas at midnight for the Baptists. Olivia rages at him that he was out joyriding, then assumes a flask John Boy holds has The Recipe in it, and denounces the old ladies as bootleggers. John Boy tells her it’s egg nog. The crow she eats is short-lived, as John appears home, and spins a tale of tackling Santa and taking a bag full of presents from him- including flowers for Olivia and writing pads for John Boy. Even though John only appears in the last handful of minutes of the film, the earlier interior voice heard by John Boy, and John’s scenes at the end, including his profession of love to his wife, and desire to stay at home, after quitting his job in the faraway town, gives almost as detailed a portrait of him as we’ve seen of Olivia. The final scene between husband and wife, as they sit on a couch, kissing, as John strokes Olivia’s face, contains more love and emotion than any hundred sex scenes I could mention, altogether, from other films.
The film concludes with another narrative exit by Hamner on the fact that his family got not tokens of love, but love itself, before he proceeds to briefly summarize the decades since that Christmas and this retelling of it. The last image is of the family home, at night, covered in snow, and smoke exiting the chimney, before the Goodnightings begin. This ritual of the clan telling each other good night, before sleep, would become a cultural hallmark that resonated through the 1970s and 1980s, and a symbol of familial love for anyone who would utter words like ‘Good night, John Boy, Goodnight Jim-Bob.’
Aside from these key moments, Jerry Goldsmith’s score (he was seemingly musically ubiquitous in the Hollywood of the 1960s and 1970s, it seems) is superb in evoking time and place, while the cinematography (often in real night scenes, with a few day for night scenes added in) is excellent, and many a postcard is not as beautiful as some of the scenes of the countryside laden with snow. The smaller nature of the Walton digs gives this film a grittier. More kitchen sink Depression Era reality than the later series would, and the acting is superb all about. From Andrew Duggan’s late scene to the marvelous depth of Cleavon Little’s preacher and William Windom’s Charley Snead, to Dorothy Stickney’s and Josephine Hutchinson’s Baldwin sisters, to Woodrow Parfrey’s Ike Godsey, to all the Walton kids, there is nothing but kudos. Edgar Bergen’s Grandpan is seen by most as a lesser one than Will Geer’s series’ portrayal, but I rank it equal, albeit different. Geer is more over the top yet lovably paternal, while Bergen brings a gravitas to the role that Geer lacked. The only role that was notably lesser than the series’ equivalent was the only major role (other than John Boy) in which no change was made, and that is Ellen Corby’s Grandma. Only in the series would her role gain depth, although a brief hint of such is seen in her staredown with Snead over the provenance of the turkey he brings the clan.
But, the film is dominated by the twin towers of the performances of Neal and Thomas. Neal, recovering from some recent strokes that had stalled her Academy Award winning film career, is back in her element, as a Southern woman of grit and passion contained in the false wrap of religion and propriety. She truly seethes onscreen, in a way Michael Learned’s character never did. Her scenes in John Boy’s room, and the glances exchanged between mother and son, are among the finest the medium has produced. She won a Golden Globe for the performance. Yet, as grand as her performance is, Richard Thomas’s is arguably better, as his is an even more inward role- that of a teen coming to grips with himself and his future. In the scene in his bedroom, the range of emotions displayed is impressive, and mostly wordless- from guilt over hiding his tablet in the bed, to relief over his secret’s outing to pride over his ability with words to humility over accepting that he has no right to expect to not work a trade and then to be hit with the notion that, after that night, he might just have to become the man of the family. There’s little doubt why Richard Thomas was the Golden Boy of American television in the 1970s. He was that damned good!
And The Homecoming: A Christmas Story is a damned great piece of television Americana. The most frustrating part of that acknowledgement, though, is that television, these days, does not even attempt to produce such quality. As example, a quick scan of the Emmy Awards of the 1970s shows such remarkable things as 1974’s top 4 nominated comedy series were M*A*S*H (which won), The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All In The Family, and The Odd Couple. Every one of these is an all time Top 20 comedy show! Yes, that was comedy, but the point is that one might have to go every ten years now to get just one show of that quality nominated. In 1972, as example, the 4 actresses nominated for Best Actress In A Single Performance, aside from Neal’s Olivia Walton, were Susannah York in Jane Eyre, Glenda Jackson in Elizabeth R. (2 nominations for two different episodes), and Helen Hayes, in Do Not Fold, Spindle, Or Mutilate. Just mull over these lists and compare them to the shows and to the actors of today.
Now, to return to my opening posit: where has real drama gone? The answer is simply away. Whether it will return is open for serious debate.
But, we fortunately live in an age where the past is mostly reclaimable, and because of outlets like Youtube, where I rewatched this classic of television, such great works can now be preserved to be watched, enjoyed, understood, and appreciated at any time of the year, in any year. The Homecoming: A Christmas Story has now made its way back into the American collective psyche. Glad tidings for all!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
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