Christmas with the Comet: “The Homecoming” (1971)

homecomingApplesauce cake, decorating the tree and a blooming Christmas cactus.

All of these are characteristic of the Walton family Christmas, but one thing is missing.

John Walton, the father, hasn’t returned from his job 50 miles away. It’s snowing and the Walton family heard over the radio there has been a bus accident.

On Christmas Eve in 1933, it’s John Boy Walton’s job to find his Daddy.

This isn’t an episode of “The Waltons” but the made-for-television-movie “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story” that aired on Dec. 19, 1971.

The 100 minute movie became the pilot for the television series “The Waltons” that aired from Sept. 1972 to 1981.

The television film is set in Virginia on Waltons Mountain and introduces the Walton children, grandparents and mother as they wait for John Walton to return on Christmas Eve.

Mary Ellen wants to decorate the Christmas tree with a bird's nest and Olivia Walton agrees it makes the tree look nice.

Mary Ellen wants to decorate the Christmas tree with a bird’s nest and Olivia Walton agrees it makes the tree look nice.

We see the growing pains of 13-year-old Mary Ellen, Erin as a young tattle tale, Jason’s desire to become musician and the youngest children’s excitement about Santa Claus.

As it gets later, Olivia Walton (Patricia Neal) gets anxious about the return of her husband and sends her oldest son John Boy (Richard Thomas) out to find his father.

During the search, John Boy runs out of gas and stops at an African-American church and gets help from Hawthorne Dooley (Cleavon Little).

Hawthorne and John Boy visit the Baldwin sisters (Josephine Hutchinson, Dorothy Stickney), known for their bootleg whiskey, for help during the search.

As John Boy searches for his father, we get a glimpse at how he wants to be a writer, how he feels like a “mother duck’ to his brothers and sisters, and wants to be like his father, but isn’t good at farming and doesn’t like to hunt.

The Walton family originally appeared as the Spencer family in the film “Spencer’s Mountain” (1963) starring Henry Fonda, Maureen O’Hara and James McArthur.

The film was inspired by a book written by Earl Hamner, Jr. about life in Virginia.  Hamner was not directly involved in the filming of “Spencer’s Mountain” like he later was with the 1970s TV show, according to “The Waltons: Nostalgia and Myth in Seventies America” by Mike Chopra-Gant.

The family again appears in “The Homecoming,” but the name was changed from Spencer to Walton to avoid legal problems with Warner Brothers, according to Chopra-Gant’s book.

Hamner said “The Homecoming” was a story he planned to write for many years based on his childhood and he also wrote the screenplay and narrated the film, according to the Chopra-Grant book.

Lines in the film such as “What a woman I married” and “All my babies are thoroughbreds” are part of Hamner’s childhood. They were said by his father Earl Hamner, Sr, according to the book “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow: a Biography”  by James E. Person.

The popularity of the television film spawned the television series.

“The Homecoming” gives us a glimpse at a Southern family living in the Blue Ridge Mountains during the Depression.

All Elizabeth Walton wants for Christmas is a doll.  When she receives one from a missionary, it's broken.

All Elizabeth Walton wants for Christmas is a doll. When she receives one from a missionary, it’s broken.

Olivia Walton can’t afford toys for the children and only plans on giving them hand-knitted scarves for Christmas. The family doesn’t have a phone and buying the sugar for the applesauce cake was an extravagance.

All little Elizabeth Walton wanted for Christmas was a page of dolls from the Sears-Roebuck catalogue.

There are several funny scenes as the children bicker or as we meet the Baldwin sisters.

John Boy and Hawthorne stop at the Baldwin sister home for gas.

John Boy and Hawthorne stop at the Baldwin sister home for gas.

We also see the family’s strength and love through moving and heart-warming scenes such as when John Walton finally returns home and recognizes John-Boy’s yearn for writing through his Christmas gift of writing tablets.

It is the perfect mix of drama, comedy and heart.

While all the child actors are the same, several of the characters in the television movie are different from the actors on the television show:

The Film:

John “John-Boy” Walton, Jr.- Richard Thomas

John Walton, Sr.- Andrew Duggan

Olivia Walton -Patricia Neal

Zeb/Grandpa” Walton -Edgar Bergen

Esther “Grandma” Walton- Ellen Corby

Jason Walton- Jon Walmsley

Mary Ellen Walton- Judy Norton Taylor

Erin Walton-Mary Elizabeth McDonough

Ben Walton- Eric Scott

Jim-Bob Walton -David W. Harper

Elizabeth Walton-Kami Cotler

Emily Baldwin- Dorothy Stickney

Mamie Baldwin- Josephine Hutchinson

Ike Godsey- Woodrow Parfrey

The Show:

John “John-Boy” Walton, Jr.- Richard Thomas

John Walton, Sr.- Ralph Waite

Olivia Walton – Michael Learned

Zeb/Grandpa” Walton- Will Geer

Esther “Grandma” Walton- Ellen Corby

Jason Walton- Jon Walmsley

Mary Ellen Walton- Judy Norton Taylor

Erin Walton-Mary Elizabeth McDonough

Ben Walton -Eric Scott

Jim-Bob Walton- David W. Harper

Elizabeth Walton-Kami Cotler

Emily Balwdin- Mary Jackson

Mamie Baldwin – Helen Kleeb

Ike Godsey- Joe Conley

It’s difficult to say if I like the casting of the show more than the film. After watching both for many years, each cast has their own special touch.

While I love the television show, Patricia Neal as Olivia Walton has a certain grit and realism to her. Michael Learned is tough and motherly with her children but is glamorous in comparison to Neal.

Patricia Neal and Andrew Duggan play John and Olivia Walton in the Walton TV movie. Michael Learned and Ralph Waite play the parents on the TV show.

Patricia Neal and Andrew Duggan play John and Olivia Walton in the Walton TV movie. Michael Learned and Ralph Waite play the parents on the TV show.

Andrew Duggan is a bigger and more rugged man as John Walton in comparison to Ralph Waite.

Grandpa Walton played by Edgar Bergen and Will Geer are similar characters. Both loveable, kind and constantly scolded by Grandma Walton.

Fun fact: This is a reteaming for Ellen Corby and Edgar Bergen whose characters were married in “I Remember Mama” (1949).

Though the family is struggling during the great Depression in both the film and series, they aren’t poor hillbillies but are working the best they can to stay afloat with little complaint.

I have watched the television show and the film since I was a child, and the warmth that comes from the series feels like you are welcomed into the Walton home.

John Boy receives writing tablets for Christmas from his father.

John Boy receives writing tablets for Christmas from his father.

“We walked a fine line between sentiment and sickeningly sentimentality,” Hamner later wrote about the film. “In the homecoming, Mary Ellen asks her mother if she’s pretty. Olivia replies, without missing a beat of the work she’s doing, ‘No, I think you’re beautiful.’ No tear in the eye, no touching, just a matter of fact statement.”

If you have the opportunity to see “The Homecoming” (and it’s on Youtube), you won’t be drowned in saccharine sweetness but realism and heart. It’s sentimental and welcoming.

Some of my favorite quotes:
Elizabeth: I’m not going to have any babies
Erin: What are you going to have, Elizabeth?
Elizabeth: Puppies!

Mary Ellen: You’re all a bunch of pissants.
Erin: Mama! Mary Ellen is calling us names.
Elizabeth: She said we were pissants. I don’t feel like a pissant.

Missionary: Why look to a foreign country for heathens when the Blue Ridge Mountain are full of them!

Mamie Balwdin: Papa always called them cousins, sister!
Emily Baldwin: Well, they sure dropped out of the family after papa died.

Emily Balwdin: The nice thing about life is you never know when there is going to be a party!

The Walton children in the movie are the same actors as on the show.

The Walton children in the movie are the same actors as on the show.

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One thought on “Christmas with the Comet: “The Homecoming” (1971)

  1. Good grief, I haven’t seen or even thought about this movie in years! If it’s still on youtube, I’m watching it tonight. Great review, as always. I like your style.

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