A Christmas Movie to Warm the Heart

Because my “Smart” TV is a whole lot smarter than I am, it sometimes points the way to a show I didn’t even know I wanted to watch. That’s how I stumbled upon the “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story” last week. The description said this: “On Christmas Eve 1933, the Waltons prepare for the holiday. However, John Walton, who was forced to take work in another part of the state, has not returned home yet and his family is becoming increasingly worried.”

Though I haven’t watched “The Waltons” in years, I was a big fan when it was on TV in the 1970s. The made-for-television movie is considered the pilot for the series, which ran for nine seasons. I couldn’t recall ever having watched “The Homecoming.” Why not now?

I wasn’t surprised to see Richard Thomas, forever John-Boy even though he’s 71 years old, in the opening scene. He was surrounded by his siblings—Mary Ellen, Erin, Elizabeth, Jason, Ben and Jim-Bob–each portrayed by the same actors who were in the series. Likewise, Ellen Corby portrayed Grandma Walton in both the movie and the series. But because she also played Mrs. Lesh in “Barney’s First Car” on The Andy Griffith Show, it’s always been hard for me to shake the image of her as a crooked little-old-lady car dealer when I see her in anything else. Even “The Waltons.”

Patricia Neal portrayed Olivia Walton in the movie. Though a fabulous actress, in my mind she’ll always be the sadder-but-wiser housekeeper in the 1963 movie “Hud” and not a mother hen with a brood of seven chicks. Ralph Waite wasn’t John Walton in the movie and Will Geer wasn’t Grandpa and by the time I finally got into the groove of figuring out who was who, the movie was halfway over.

As to whether I’d recommend it, the jury’s still out. While some old Christmas movies stand the test of time—I’m thinking of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the original version of “Miracle on 34th Street”—this one has its shortcomings. I’m not exactly sure what “digital remastering” means, but I don’t think it’s been done to “The Homecoming.” It’s hard to see and hard to hear. The story jumps around a lot and drags in places. Christmas Eve on Walton’s Mountain seems to last a long, long time. And the ending’s sweet but totally predictable.  No matter how worried Olivia and the kids and the grandparents are, we know that John Walton wasn’t the passenger killed in the bus wreck and that sooner or later he’ll make it home, safe and sound.

Despite its faults, “The Homecoming” has one big thing going for it it:  Earl Hamner, Jr. He wrote both the screenplay and the novel it was based upon, but before we get into that I must mention that Hamner also wrote “The Hunt,” perhaps the most unforgettable episode of “The Twilight Zone,” which had more than its share of unforgettable episodes.

Fans of “The Waltons” know Hamner as the over-voice whose narration began and ended each episode. Fans also know that “The Waltons” was based on Hamner’s growing-up years. He was the real John-Boy, the oldest of eight children raised on a farm in rural Virginia during the Great Depression.  Hamner knew from an early age that he wanted to be a writer, which is the part of “The Homecoming” I liked best. Much to his mother’s consternation, John-Boy often locked himself in his bedroom to write undisturbed and then hid his writing tablet under his mattress so he wouldn’t be found out. But he was found out anyway and someone told Santa Claus. When John-Boy unwrapped his gift on Christmas Eve, he found a tall stack of Big Chief writing tablets.

I cry happy tears just thinking about it. So I guess “The Homecoming” must be a pretty good movie after all.

(Jennie Ivey is a Cookeville writer. E-mail her at jennieivey@gmail.com)