Christmas review: The Gathering (1977)

The holidays are usually thought to be about family. But what if some families no longer get along.

The made-for-TV special “The Gathering,” which aired on Dec. 4, 1977, on ABC, takes a look at a man who wants to spend the holiday with his family, fully knowing they may not want to see him.

Ed Asner plays Adam Thornton, a man successful at business but not successful in his personal life. He and his wife are separated, and he hasn’t seen most of his children in several years — and they don’t want to see him either.

He also just found out that he’s dying and running out of time.

Maureen Stapleton plays Kate, his estranged wife, who sets aside her hurt feelings to arrange a homecoming so Adam can have one last Christmas with his family.

Since their parents separated, many of the children don’t want anything to do with their stalwart, business-focused father. They all live across the country and haven’t seen Adam in some time:

  • Tom (Lawrence Pressman) and his wife (Veronica Hamel) live a lavish metropolitan life in New York. Tom, who is hardheaded like his father, tries to be the opposite of him. For example, he insists on a white Christmas tree, because Adam always insisted on green.
  • Peggy (Gail Strickland) is a successful reporter in Washington, DC, whose work drives her life.
  • Julie (Rebecca Balding) is married to George (Bruce Davison), who has been unemployed for several months. Julie loves her parents, but George is bitter towards Adam. He feels that Adam will mock him for his failures and chide him for not joining the family business. Julie has the only two grandchildren, Tiffany and Joey (Maureen and Ronald Readinger).
  • Bud (Gregory Harrison) and Adam had a fight years ago, because Bud disapproved of the Vietnam War. Since then, Bud lives in Canada under various assumed names while he dodges the draft.

Many of the children aren’t interested in coming home for the holidays but also hope that their parents have reconciled. They change their plans and head to the Thornton family home to support their mother.

Maureen Stapleton and Ed Asner in “The Gathering”

Before renting “The Gathering” from DVD Netflix, I heard my parents talk about the film. They recalled watching it on TV when they were first married, and it was a Christmas tradition to watch it for the first few years of their marriage. Once they had children, they drifted away from the film, so it was special to get to watch this film with them. It was the first time either of my parents had revisited the movie in nearly 40 years.

I wasn’t sure what to expect of “The Gathering.” Since I knew the premise was about a dying man wanting to spend one last Christmas with his family, I was worried it would be overly maudlin, or feature lots of shouting and fights (like “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” or “All in the Family.”)

However,  was pleasantly surprised. The movie is certainly sad, but also rather heartwarming.

There are a few shouting matches, but nothing is overly dramatic. The story focuses more on realizing what’s important. Ed Asner’s character realizes he was a foolish stubborn bull. All of his children, who had also been so bitter and angry about their family for so many years, remembered how much they enjoy being together.

While you know Adam’s time is brief, you also know that everyone found piece and comfort. Only one child understands that he is losing a father, and it’s never spoken to the family.

Thankfully, the end of the story isn’t this abrupt, pie-in-the-sky ending. The cracks in the relationships are still there, but the holiday brought everyone closer and helped them relive old times. It shows that the holidays can be hard, but there is a way to make peace and enjoy your time together, especially when time is running out.

While the film has a somber tone, it also feels cozy and homey. As Adam and Kate set aside their differences and prepare the home for a holiday reunion, it reminded me of Christmases gone-by —maybe had by myself as a child or what my parents experienced growing up.

Adam rewires the electricity of an old dollhouse for a grandchild and repaints an old toy train. He hammers together a Christmas tree stand and puzzles over tree lights that won’t work. Kate goes through old ornaments, and the separated couple decorates the evergreen tree together.

Their cheerful and nostalgic Christmas preparation scenes also serve as a stark contrast to how their children live now. The scenes almost serve as a “now vs. then” way of storytelling: Adam and Kate preparing to relive their homespun holidays of the past, and their four children muddling through their chaotic and complicated adult lives.

To add to the homey setting, “The Gathering” was filmed in Chagrin Falls and Hudson, Ohio in February 1977. The film opens showing the town decorated for the holidays with colored lights, bright store windows and the streets and houses coated with snow.

Composer John Barry, known for his James Bond themes, scored “The Gathering” with both a lilting but somber sound. The score is filled with harpsicords, flutes, strings and piano.

Randal Kleiser, who also directed the made-for-TV film “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” (1976) and “Grease” (1978), directed the film. “The Gathering” was also one of the few live-action films produced by Hanna-Barbera Productions, known for their cartoons like “Yogi Bear.”

Where some made-for-TV shows and films of this era sometimes try to sucker punch you with hard emotion, “The Gathering” is subtle. This is probably largely due to Asner and Stapleton in the lead roles, who are fantastic actors and make the setting and relationships feel believable.

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Musical Monday: New Orleans (1947)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
New Orleans (1947) – Musical #602

Studio: United Artists

Director: Arthur Lubin

Starring: Arturo de Córdova, Billie Holiday, Dorothy Patrick, Marjorie Lord, Irene Rich, John Alexander, Richard Hageman, Jack Lambert, Joan Blair, Shelley Winters (uncredited)
Themselves: Louis Armstrong, Woody Herman and His Orchestra, Charlie Beal, Kid Ory, Zutty Singleton, Barney Bigard, George ‘Red’ Callender, Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis, Bud Scott

Plot:
Set in 1917 New Orleans, jazz and ragtime are growing popularity on Basin Street. Opera singing socialite Miralee Smith (Patrick), falls in love with casino owner Nick Duquesne (de Cordova) and jazz music. However, her mother (Rich) disapproves of both loves, even though she is a patron of Nick’s casino.

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Watching 1939: What a Life (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

Betty Field and Jackie Cooper in “What a Life” (1939)

1939 film:  What a Life (1939)

Release date:  Oct. 6, 1939

Cast:  Jackie Cooper, Betty Field, James Corner, John Howard, Janice Logan, Hedda Hopper, Sidney Miller, Vaughan Glaser, Lionel Stander, Dorothy Stickney, Kathleen Lockhart, Sheila Ryan, Janet Waldo, Marge Champion (uncredited)

Studio:  Paramount Pictures

Director:  Jay Theodore Reed

Plot:
Henry Aldrich (Cooper) is a flustered teenager who always gets blamed for what other people do and is considered the worst student at school. He also gets accused for stealing musical instruments. Barbara Peterson (Field) likes Henry, though he is oblivious. Barbara isn’t popular or considered pretty because of her braces and flat hair. When she gets a permanent and her braces off, Henry’s enemy George (Corner) asks Barbara to the school dance first.

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Musical Monday: Porgy and Bess (1959)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
Porgy and Bess (1959) – Musical #601

Studio: Samuel Goldwyn Studios

Director: Otto Preminger, Rouben Mamoulian (uncredited)

Starring: Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr., Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters, Diahann Carroll, Clarence Muse, Claude Atkins

Plot:
Set in 1912 Charleston, SC, in a black fishing community, Crown (Brock) kills a man and when he flees, his girlfriend Bess (Dandridge) is left behind. Scorned by most of the community because of her past with drug abuse, Porgy (Poitier), who is a crippled beggar, takes Bess in. Bess and Porgy fall in love and she tries to turn her life around, but is tempted by Crown and drug dealer Sportin’ Life (Davis Jr).

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“Must See Musicals” Book Giveaway

If you can’t tell, Comet Over Hollywood loves musicals. To celebrate TCM’s Mad About Musicals event in June, we’re rounding out the month with a giveaway! You can win a copy of ‘Turner Classic Movies: Must-See Musicals: 50 Show-Stopping Movies We Can’t Forget” by Richard Barrios.

All you have to do is enter the below form by July 1 and names will be drawn at random on July 2. You must be 18 or older to enter and live in the United States or Canada. Good luck!

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Edith Fellows: Tossing pennies from heaven

Another star faded on Sunday, June 26.  Child star Edith Fellows died at the age of 88.

Her name may not as familiar as child stars like Freddie Bartholomew or Virginia Weidler, Fellows was still popular with audience, but usually was type cast as a brat.

She played a spoiled little pill in “She Married Her Boss” that Claudette Colbert whipped into shape.  She later played a homeless child fleeing a truant officer with the help of Bing Crosby in “Pennies From Heaven.”

Edith Fellows getting the spanking she deserves in “She Married Her Boss” with Melvyn Douglas and Claudette Colbert.

Her favorite film roles were as Polly Pepper the “Little Peppers” series because she got to play a nicer, well-behaved characters.

I will say, I did find her a little annoying in “Pennies from Heaven” but I really enjoyed her performance in “She Married Her Boss” as Melvyn Douglas’s daughter.  Since Douglas had ignored his child, he gave her whatever she wanted making her a spoiled brat. Claudette Colbert marries him and straightens her out.

It’s entertaining to see her as a brat, but hilarious when Colbert threatens her into being a good girl.

Newspaper clipping

I never knew much about Edith Fellows-except I always enjoyed seeing her in films-until I read her obituary today.

Like several child stars, Fellows was pushed into stardom. But this time, it wasn’t by a stage mother. Fellows had a stage grandmother.  Fellows had been abandoned by her mother when she was born and was taken by her grandmother.

Conveniently, Fellows’ mother reappeared once she started to make it big in the picture business.  Her mother wanted to take her child back.

Fellows said her grandmother was a tough woman, but her mother seemed worse. She stuck with her stage grandmother instead.

Looking lovely in 1941

Unfortunately, Edith Fellows suffered the same fate that Shirley Temple and Jackie Coogan did financially.

When Fellows was 21 she tried to retrieve the $150,000 that had been placed in her trust fund during her career. Through the Jackie Coogan Bill, child actor’s money goes into a trust fund so guardians don’t spend all of the earnings-such as Coogan’s parents did. Fellows was given only $900 of all the money she earned.  The rest was missing. She felt like her mother was probably responsible for it, because her grandmother had died several years before.

Fellows grew up to become a beautiful young girl.  I was just watching “Pride of the Bluegrass” (1939) last week and was surprised at how pretty of a young lady she had become. I feel like if she hadn’t been dropped from her Columbia contract and had the desire to further her career, she could have maybe turned into a glamorous star.

Though Edith Fellows wasn’t in too many movies she made a lasting impression on me in the ones she did make.  Now Fellows can send down those pennies from heaven that her character Patty Smith and Bing Crosby hoped for.

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The tears are on us: RIP Jackie Cooper

Cooper looked the same his whole life

Jackie Cooper was one of those people who looked the same all his life.  He was an adorable child, a handsome young man and then adorable again as an older man.

He had that round face that was almost too big for him as a child and large chubby cheeks which plumped up with a grin or perfectly reflected his flowing tears.

Cooper successfully went from playing the wise cracking child into being able to a adult actor; something many other child stars failed to do.

He won our hearts in “The Champ” as he steadfastly loved his alcoholic father Wallace Berry. He then tugged at our  heart-strings when tears rolled down his face when The Champ dies at the end.

Cooper later showed he could play a romantic young man to pretty actresses like Deanna Durbin in “That Certain Age.” I have to admit I thought he was rather cute and was crush worthy as a teenager.

Jackie Cooper crying

Like Margaret O’Brien and June Allyson, Jackie Cooper was famous for his crying scenes.  Once when Cooper didn’t want to cry Norman Taurog, his uncle and director of the movie “Skippy” threatened to shoot Cooper’s dog.  Joking aside about the multitude of tears, Jackie Cooper was a pretty good child actor and had a sincere childish way about him.

He acted in an era where children were allowed to be children in movies, unlike today where they seem to be little adults.  Other male actor children followed in his footsteps like the adorable Bobs Watson who cried better than any other child I’ve ever seen.

As cute as Jackie Cooper was, he also was a sort of odd-looking kid. He was pretty stocky and had a huge head.  Look at

Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Cooper and Paulette Goddard

the photo of Jackie, Paulette Goddard and Charlie Chaplin. He’s nearly as tall as both of them, and wider than either.

I always thought Jackie Cooper seemed like a genuinely friendly man from interviews and had a really good career.  I have to admit, I wish he was the one who played Ted Nickerson in the 1930s Nancy Drew series. He seemed closer to the book character than Frankie Thomas.

Rest in peace Jackie Cooper. I hope he is able to be with his wife Barbara Kraus who died in 2009.  You will be missed, Mr. Cooper, the tears are on us. You are our Champ this time.

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Attractive Stranger: RIP Farley Granger

Farley Granger in 1953

In the shadows of Elizabeth Taylor’s death, Farley Granger died on March 27, at age 85.

Sometimes I think that Farley Granger was forgotten. He wasn’t as dynamic as other 1950s actors like Marlon Brando, and he was pretty awkward compared to suave Cary Grant, but Mr. Granger was one of my passing crushes when I first dove into classic film at the age of 14.

I’m not sure what attracted me to the tall, lanky and usually angry Farley Granger, but he was one of the many random actors (along with John Kerr, Peter McEnery and James Darren) that I had fleeting crushes on.

My favorite scene in “Strangers in a Train.” Farely is in the background holding on for dear life.

Granger was also in two of Hitchcock’s most well known films: the odd film adpatation of the play “Rope” and the thrilling “Strangers On A Train.”

I think the first film I ever saw Granger in was “Strangers On A Train” (1951). It’s funny that Granger has been so overlooked when he starred in one of Hitchcock’s most important and best films. “Strangers On A Train” is one of my all time favorite. I was intrigued by several of Hitchcock’s camera angles, particularly the shot through Miriam’s glasses at the fair.  It’s hard to find a flaw in “Strangers On A Train” because it is perfect-though I would have preferred another love interest over Ruth Roman.

I next saw Granger in “Hans Christian Andersen” (1952) with Danny Kaye. It’s such a quirky, silly movie but I love it. The etherial song “Wonderful Copenhagen” and the adorable “No Two People” had me enchanted.  Granger plays an angry fellow who is mean to Danny Kaye and locks him in a closet!  Granger then goes on to play an equally hot tempered man in “Small Town Girl” with Jane Powell.  I’m not sure why Granger was always cast as a hot head, but he could play a grouch very well.

Farley Granger and Ann Blyth in “Our Very Own”

A few of my other favorite films of his are “Our Very Own” where Ann Blyth finds out she was adopted, and, one of his first films, the war film “Purple Heart.”

Granger’s film career petered off in the mid-1950s and he acted mainly on television and then made a few films in the 1970s.  It’s sad that he entered and exited the film scene so quickly.  He only had substantial roles in half of them, while several of his others were small supporting characters.

Regardless of his screen time, I am sad that yet another star has risen. Farewell Farley Granger, you will be missed.

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Lovely Liz: Goodbye to Elizabeth Taylor

Miss Taylor was gracious enough to sign my photo when I wrote her in 2008.

I got out of yoga this morning around 10 a.m. ET and had four texts telling me Liz died. I have to admit I teared up a bit when I called my mom about it after that. One of my professors even said he was surprised I wasn’t wearing all black today.  No, Elizabeth Taylor isn’t one of my all time favorite actresses.  She isn’t one of the actresses I’m trying to see all of her movies, but only because I don’t care to see most of late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s films. I have seen all of her movies made up until the early 1960s.

I’m not going to go on about how Liz was married so many times.  Or  her work for AIDS, though I admire her work that she did for her friend Rock Hudson. I just plain want to celebrate Liz’s life and career.

She first caught our attention as Priscilla, Nigel Bruce’s granddaughter in “Lassie Come Home” (1943).  She stole our hearts-and kept them for decades- with her sparkling blue-purple eyes, adorable smile and her plead to her grandfather to keep Lassie the collie in his dog kennels. Originally wanted for the role of Bonnie Blue Butler in “Gone with the Wind,” Taylor’s father wanted to keep her out of movies, however, I wonder if he anticipated how big a star she would become.

Liz with her green eyeshadow in “A Date with Judy”

Taylor was one of the few actors who gracefully transitioned from child actor to teenager to successful adult actor. She was allowed to look like a grown up young lady in “A Date with Judy” with green eye shadow, grown up gowns and older Robert Stack. Jane Powell, who was still the same age, said she was a little jealous of this as she still dressed like a teenager in the film.

Miss Taylor grew up quickly. Taylor went from a sophisticated young woman to a sexy, shapely and independent woman in the mid and late 1950s.

I think Liz looked her prettiest in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and then, for me, she started to go downhill. She started gaining weight, the 1960s began and movies started to change.  I start to lose interest in her films once you get past “Butterfield 8.”  “The Sandpiper” is lousy, “The VIPs” is star studded but overly dramatic and I couldn’t even finish “The Comedians” out of boredom.  However, I haven’t seen “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” yet, but I have it taped and plan to watch it when I get the chance.

In her white gown in “Ivanhoe” with Robert Taylor

My favorite movies of Taylor’s are “Giant”, “A Date with Judy,” “Cynthia” and “Father of the Bride,” but there are so many other great ones.   She is a great bratty, selfish Amy in “Little Women” and   looks beautiful in “Ivanhoe,” especially the white dress she wears. “Father of the Bride” and “Father’s Little Dividend” are family favorites at my house. My dad is the only man in our family (3 daughters, mom and our female dachshund) so he sympathizes with Spencer Tracy.

Elizabeth Tayor was the last really big super star of the Golden Era.  Though Doris Day, Lauren Bacall and Esther Williams are still living, they aren’t on the same scale as Miss Taylor. Taylor was Hollywood royalty with her highly publicized life and two Oscar winning roles. No one was quite like her or ever will be.

So I bow down to the last royalty of the Golden Age. Farewell, Miss Taylor. You will be greatly missed.

 I leave you with a funny side of Liz on “What’s My Line” from 1954 when she was pregnant with one of her children:

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Our Kind of Woman: RIP Jane Russell

Jane Russell in “The Outlaw” (1942)

When I watched “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” it wasn’t Marilyn Monroe that I enjoyed watching, it was Jane Russell.  Russell had all the wit, charm and sarcasm that the movie needed to be bearable.

In an era where legs reigned (Betty Grable or Rita Hayworth), Jane Russell made it big with her own assets.  I think its safe to say that she paved the way to accentuated chests during the 1950s.  Just like Betty’s over the shoulder glance and Rita’s bed perching; it was Jane’s photo of her lounging on the haystack with her off the shoulder blouse for “The Outlaw” (1942) that started her off as a star.

But unlike so many other sexy, pin-ups of the 1950s like Mamie Van Dorean, Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield; Jane wasn’t like the rest.  For one she had brown hair and was a big woman. Russell wasn’t fat, but she was tall. Let’s just say, I wouldn’t wanted to make her angry. For another, she seemed to have brains and wouldn’t be pushed around.

Jane Russell in a LIFE photo from 1942 by Eliot Elisofon

In a 1995 “Turner Classic Movie Private Screenings” with Robert Osborne and Robert Mitchum-who frustrated Osborne with his lack of talking-Russell shared stories of publicity photo shoots.  She said the camera man would give her something a watering pail while she was wearing a nightgown and get her to bend over so that you could see her cleavage.

“Sometimes the photographers would pose me in a low-necked nightgown and tell me to bend down and pick up the pails. They were not shooting the pails.”

Her response? “Up your’s buddy.”

Anyone would have to be smart, tough and fun to be able to costar several times with Robert Mitchum. Other actresses like Greer Garson and Katherine Hepburn starred with Mitchum, but didn’t hit it off too well with the well-known tough guy.

But Russell and Mitchum became a well known screen team, starring in “Macao” and “His Kind of Woman” while also being friends. Their friendship to me shows the down to earth, relaxed person that she probably was.

One reason I have always enjoyed Russell’s films are because they are fun and she is usually believable in her parts. As silly as it sounds, one of my favorite movies of her’s is “The French Line” (1953) where she plays a wealthy oil heiress from Texas who goes on an undercover vacation to make sure men love her for more than her money. The plot isn’t very thick, Gilbert Roland is sort of sleazy and the first several minutes of the movies involves her singing in a bathtub, but it is a fun, colorful movie.

Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum in “His Kind of Woman” (1951)

I also really enjoy the Russell Mitchum movies: “His Kind of Woman” (1951) and “Macao” (1953).  She looks beautiful in both, the films are intriguing and exciting, but there are even slightly humorous parts like with Vincent Price in “Macao.”  As a screen team, I never got a mushy, gushy vibe from them either. While you can tell they care about each other in movies, they generally aren’t falling all over themselves.

I also will admit, I have seen her early role in “The Young Widow” (1942) which Russell hated. In 1996, she said “The Young Widow should have died with her husband.”  I didn’t think it was a terrific movie but not as bad as Russell thought.

Up until her death, Miss Russell was still very visible and commenting on movies, her career and politics. It’s encouraging to see a classic movie star who tries to stay active rather than dying silently in their home.

Miss Russell was part of one of the best era’s in Hollywood and I’m glad that she was here to share her experiences with us for so long.

“I really think the 1940s were the best generation for Hollywood. Everybody was patriotic then. Nobody was talking the way they do now, against the soldiers. It was a different era, a different Hollywood then, and we respected our country, our leaders and our fighting men,” Russell said. “Sure, I’ll admit, I’m a mean-spirited, politically conservative old actress. I’m not bigoted against any race, just those idiots who want to spit on our soldiers’ hard work or remove the Ten Commandments from our schools and courtroom walls.”

Jane Russell will be missed, but certainly not forgotten. Rest in peace, Miss Russell.

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