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Warner Home Video presents
Spencer's Mountain (1963)

"I guess I get a little heaven about every day. Maybe it's just haulin' off and kissing my wife or having one of my babies snuggle into bed with us at night. Maybe it's just doing a good day's work on my house up on Spencer's Mountain. Naw, I don't have to wait for it, Mother Ida. I got heaven right here."
- Clay Spencer (Henry Fonda)

Review By: David Krauss   
Published: July 14, 2003

Stars: Henry Fonda, Maureen O'Hara, James MacArthur, Donald Crisp, Wally Cox
Other Stars: Mimsy Farmer, Virginia Gregg, Lillian Bronson, Veronica Cartwright
Director: Delmer Daves

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (suggestive sexuality)
Run Time: 01h:58m:19s
Release Date: July 08, 2003
UPC: 085392752621
Genre: family


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B B+B+A- B+

DVD Review

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.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.77:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: On the whole, Warner has fashioned a slick-looking transfer, fully indulging the lush Technicolor photography and picture postcard vistas. The anamorphic widescreen treatment seems a little dark at times, with shadows slightly dense, but colors remain true and vivid throughout. Age-related speckles crop up now and then, but never enough to distract, and edges look crisp but not doctored. On the negative side, a few scenes exhibit an annoying shake, and some log cabins shimmer slightly, but these are minor quibbles.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishno


Audio Transfer Review: No deficiencies could be detected on the Dolby Digital 1.0 track. Dialogue is clear and possesses good range, and Max Steiner's string-laden score enjoys presence and depth, even though all sound is funneled through the center channel.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 31 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Snapper
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. "Spencer's Mountain and The Waltons" essay
  2. Henry Fonda Interviews
Extras Review: As usual, Warner has compiled some interesting extras to compliment this classic release. First, an informative essay details the connection between Spencer's Mountain and The Waltons by discussing the life of author Earl Hamner, Jr., whose fictionalized memoirs spawned both projects. While brief, the report does present a cohesive timeline that bridges the gaps between Hamner's novel, film and TV series.

A seven-minute black & white documentary examines how the film's location shooting influenced the residents of Jackson, Wyoming. Many townspeople are interviewed, including a few who appeared in the film, and they offer anecdotes and perspective on the Hollywood invasion. Clips from the premiere (also held in Jackson) round out the documentary short.

Most interesting are three television interviews filmed during a promotional press party that feature Fonda with different local news reporters. Totaling almost 10 minutes, the interviews display a relaxed, joking Fonda who tolerates the tried-and-true questions with typical grace and good humor. James MacArthur appears with Fonda in the first clip, but the most memorable exchange occurs in the final interview when the reporter quotes the Christian Science Monitor review of Spencer's Mountain that terms the film a "marshmallow version of Tobacco Road." With delightful honesty, Fonda laughs and agrees with the assessment.

A nonanamorphic trailer for the film and a cast and crew listing (sadly, no bios) complete the extras package.

Extras Grade: B+

 

Final Comments

Despite dated aspects and an overly saccharine tone, Spencer's Mountain remains the quintessential family film, preaching solid values and featuring positive role models. Its story may be small, but its heart is as big as the Tetons.

 


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