Saturday, July 30, 2011

Waltons 2.14: The Triangle

Airdate: 12/20/73

A love triangle, that is. Miss Hunter, ah well – Charlotte, in this episode, is so impressed with John Boy’s essay that she spends many extracurricular hours helping him fine-tune it for an upcoming writing contest. Meanwhile, Rev. Fordwick requests permission to court her, and when she accept, finds herself both consumed and distracted by his presence, to the ultimate frustration, and jealousy, of John Boy. Refusing to admit his feelings, he withdraws his essay from competition, and only the sage wisdom of his father allows him to see that is writing is more important than either his own or Charlotte’s preoccupations.

Two of the main featured players here, Charlotte and Rev. Fordwick, are given center stage here. Mariclare Costello is again understatedly charming in the role as the Walton’s beloved teacher, and John Ritter again depicts the reverend with great compassion and sensitivity. Of course, his character here is the polar opposite of Jack Ritter on Three’s Company: so much so that you desperately want him to break out of this caste shell and indulge some of is trademark ribald antics. Then again, they weren’t his trademark until later on; the world would have to wait five long years before seeing him go to dinner with two girls at once, or misunderstand what Chrissie will do with her date later that evening, or…

Ah yes, forgot about the other storyline – Ben sends away for a Charles Atlas-type get fit quick manual to impress a girl. Turns out the girl likes him just the way he is, mostly because she has a thing for red hair. (Anyone else wonder why the middle kids have red hair and no one else does?)

Friday, July 29, 2011

Waltons 2.13: The Air Mail Man

Airdate: 12/13/73

Olivia wistfully waits for the air mail carrier to fly over Walton’s Mountain like clockwork – but the whole family rushes out to a nearby pasture where the pilot must make an emergency landing, the result of a broken oil line. The pilot, Todd Cooper, stirs everyone’s imagination, except Grandma’s, who accurately senses he has some secrets. It turns out he had left his pregnant wife in Washington when he felt having a child would “trap” him and keep him from his dreams of barnstorming in air shows; only John Walton can talk some sense into him, making him realize the joys of fatherhood don’t have to interfere with life – it is life.

Meanwhile Olivia is having a midlife crisis, looking forward to her birthday like it’s a dentist appointment. But the kids have presents aplenty for her: John builds her a mirror, Jason sings a song, and John-Boy recites a poem, but perhaps the greatest gift is delivered by Todd, who takes her up in his airplane, and helps her realize her lifelong dream of soaring above the clouds.

Olivia’s subtle discontent is once again explored here (echoing “The Bicycle” from season one); this time, it’s an airplane that sets free her spirit. Hmmm… it seems to be modes of transportation that does it. Perhaps in season three we can look forward to her liberation via a steam locomotive.

Todd is played by Paul Michael Glaser of Starsky and Hutch fame. I liked the story here but miscalled the “secret”; I thought Todd was a widower and lost his wife in an aviation accident. Well, this plot is far less tragic, and allows for the standard heart-to-heart between ________ (choose guest star) and ___________ (choose Walton family member). It’s the best psychotherapy money can buy!

Notes: 1) Excellent piano score complements this episode.
2) During one conversation, we learn that in addition to running a lumber mill, John also cuts railroad ties, supplies paper for a pulp factory, and cuts firewood.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Waltons 2.12: The Bequest

Airdate: 11/29/73

Grandma’s left with a bequest when her childhood best friend, Fern, dies. Actually, it’s more like a windfall, as the bequest totals a whopping $250.00. Uneasy with having so much money, she promptly gives it away to the kids, her husband, for John-Boy’s college fund, and for the church’s new roof. All are delighted, but avaricious tendencies cast a past on the merriment, ceasing only when news arrives that Grandma’s bequest has been nullified to pay off Fern’s debt from her hospital bills. Grandma’s in a funk over her embarrassment, but John-Boy raises her spirits will a homily about the things that that really matter in life – those that come without a price tag.

Arrgh! How frustrating is it that the perpetually poor Waltons can’t even cut a break in the form of two-hundred fifty big ones? (Pocket change by today’s standards.) Then again, it’s another example of our old friend in TV-land: nothing can change (also known as “Status Quo Is God” on TV Tropes). But of course, that is the point, right? Who would learn any lessons if all the kids got to keep their money?

Speaking of TV tropes, the show’s subplot involves Mary Allen wanting dye her hair blonde, but practicing on Jim Bob, who winds up with poofy blonde locks and bright red highlights. My question is – what did she expect was going to happen?

Best scene: John Boy shows Grandma around at the college in intends to go to next fall.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Waltons 2.11: The Substitute

Airdate: 11/22/73

When Miss Hunter must take a family emergency leave, the class at Waltons Mountain School gets a substitute, Miss Pollard, an aloof, pedantic woman who’s as intellectually brilliant as she is emotionally repressed. When she offers to critique John-Boy’s rejected manuscript, she derides it for being mawkish and not following the rigid rules of formal writing (I think she wrote that boring textbook introduction that Robin Williams rips out in Dead Poet’s Society.) After heavy student absenteeism and parent complaints, the school board calls together a meeting about her; frustrated, she resigns the position, but when Olivia has a heart to heart talk with her (or, more accurately, therapy session) she reconsiders, and finishes out the remainder of her assignment.

As a teacher, and former substitute, I definitely enjoyed this one, especially seeing how Miss Pollard did everything wrong when she takes over. (I was even tsk-tsking when she is heedless of a hard-of-hearing girl’s request to sit up front; thank God for accommodation plans!) But as it turns out, it’s not her teaching skills that are problematic, it’s unresolved issues with her deceased father, who was also a cold fish. Now as we all know, no cold fish are allowed in the Waltons’ household, so you could bet the Baldwin sisters recipe that Miss Pollard will not only warm up to everyone by the end but also become the best teacher ever this side of Mr. Chips.

Great performance by Catherine Burns as Miss Pollard; she earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Last Summer (1969).

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Oprah... Just Oprah - Not Awful

Oprah on her final show
Those who know me well probably also know that I’m not the biggest fan of Oprah Winfrey. The reason for this can best be exemplified by the penultimate and third-to-last episodes of Ms. Winfrey’s show, broadcast in late May. Taped from the United Center in Chicago, the two-part event was the epitome of the mega-idolatry Oprah’s fan base is noted for. In this case, one celebrity after another was paraded to the center of the filled-to-capacity amphitheatre and proceeded to sing her praises – in a few cases, quite literally. As the camera hung in close to each star’s anguished face, and as that star read a carefully scripted tribute on the monumental difference Oprah has made on nearly every female life form on the planet, reaction shots of Oprah’s audience of “ultimate viewers” validated nearly every word with their mix of grief, frenzy and euphoria, seen before only when the Beatles landed in America.

I think it’s this last part that gets my goat the most: the notion of Oprah as a demagogue, someone who has indeed changes lives, but for those who are changeable only by a TV personality. What does it say when a megapixelled image must impel you into bonding with your friends, family, even yourself. Isn’t this Orwellian manipulation, albeit for an ostensibly positive result? Just how close is this to another another dystopic warning knell, A Clockwork Orange? Oprah has been called, not inaccurately, “the most influential woman in the world,” but such a superlative, female or not, should be more than a bit worrisome for those who espouse individual thought and the freedom to express unique, sometimes unpopular, ideas.

But the Oprah who hosted the final show made me realize that she is also an extremely skilled pop psychologist. This is not a put-down; her gift, by her own admission, is the ability to communicate directly with her audience and impart in them a philosophy of self-betterment and self-esteem. Her recurring directive is too heed your “calling” and to make your life’s work the response to that calling. She delivers this message firmly yet compassionately; her sangfroid is balanced perfectly by genuine emotion- and genuine is the key word here. Parts of her philosophy, particularly those dealing with spiritual energy, but her prescription for life is hard to argue with. In other words, laid out flat, without all the idolizing and genuflecting from her legions of followers, celebrity or otherwise, she’s not bad.

When I worked in TV news, I was told that you couldn’t address the camera and cry at the same time. Some fragile newscasters found this out the hard way. One in particular had to deliver a tragic story on the news and broke down, ultimately regaining her composure but “let go” for losing that all important journalistic stoicism. But Oprah did it on that final show, speaking about her harsh upbringing in Mississippi. She is so comfortable, in front of millions, that those millions each feel like her closet friend.

No doubt that is why she has endured for 15 years, but I frankly believe you could have saved most of that time simply by watching the final show. Her opening speech conveys her mantra sufficiently; no need for all those hours of redundancy. How many times do you need to be told about your own personal energy?

Every day for 25 years, according to 23 million women, apparently.

Post script: Amidst all the lauding I have for for the final episode, I do have one bone of contention: the neglect of mentioning Phil Donahue. This man invented the format that drove Oprah to power, but from viewing this show, you'd have thought she did. Shame, shame, the divine Miss O - give credit where credit is due.

Waltons 2.10: The Thanksgiving Story

Airdate: 11/15/11

Another rough holiday for the Waltons! In this two-hour episode, John Boy is struck in the head by a pulley belt at the sawmill, and he gradually suffers from blurred vision and difficulty with balance and motor skills. Fine timing, especially when he is about to take a scholarship exam for a major college and is expecting a Thanksgiving visit from his girlfriend, Jenny. When he finally sees the doctor, he is told he may have a blood clot pressing against his optic nerve, and must undergo a risky observation else face the possibility of blindness or even death. John-Boy pulls through, but is persistent in retaking the exam, against the admonitions of his doctor and family – not only does he pass, but also makes it home for the big family repast.

The other stories: Jason goes to work for the Baldwin Sisters, helping to make the “recipe”; he wisely only tells his father, but when the sisters call on Olivia to ask her permission to adopt the boy (so the “recipe” has a male heir), her fire and Baptist brimstone erupts and she terminates all goings on between Jason and the Baldwins, whiskey-related or otherwise. Ben wants to be the one who shoots a turkey for the feast – solo, but when he flubs a shot, Grandpa saves him from embarrassment by allowing him to buy one instead; and Mary Ellen gets the plum role of Pochahontas for the school Thanksgiving play.

Well, they spent Easter praying for Olivia’s recovery from Polio, now the Waltons are having another blast doing the same for John-Boy’s head injury. (I’d be worried if I were John come Christmas.) Philip Leacock, the director of the episode, was nominated for an Emmy for Best Director, and Joanna Lee won an Emmy for best teleplay. Some great support here from semi-regulars John Ritter as Rev. Fordwick and Mariclare Costello as Miss Hunter, the teacher who inspires John-Boy to retake his test. Sian Barbara Allen also returns as John-Boy’s love interest (she was previously featured a few shows back in “The Odyssey), and she and Thomas really do have a palpable chemistry together. He most likely agreed; the two actors dated for several years in the early seventies.

Who says The Waltons wasn’t educational? Homespun Lesson #1: How to run a real ham smokehouse!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Waltons 2.9: The Fawn

Airdate: 11/8/73

John-Boy takes a job collecting rent from tenant farmers; his boss is a callous bloodsucker who refuses to pay him when he fails to get everyone’s money. Noticing that many tenants complain about the condition of their homes, John-Boy finds a way of getting his wages back and representing the plight of these exploited farmers, becoming wiser for the wear in the process. Meanwhile, Erin finds a lost fawn and keeps it as a pet. Mr. Hennesey soon arrives and, representing the law, orders that the animal be returned to the wild. When Erin, seemingly telepathically, senses the deer is in danger, she and her father stop poachers from killing it, and as a compromise, Hennesey offers to let her set in free in a wildlife refuge. After a crisis of conscience, she decides the fawn should return to the unprotected wild, where it would be a happiest.

Veteran film/TV actor Charles Tyner gets to chew plenty of scenery here as the loathsome rent collector, Graham Foster. Of course we all remember him as the steely prison guard in Cool Hand Luke and the weaselly informer in The Longest Yard (I think it’s his eyes and jowl-line). His betrayal scene in this episode is a true test of John-Boy’s pacifism; one could see anyone else cleaning this guy’s clock with a baseball bat!

Not to be outshone - another prolific actor, Matt Clark, playing WM denizen Mr. Hennesey. Equally offbeat, he lends some verisimilitude to the cast as he plays a righteous man, but one tinged with a bit of uncertainty. Clark is best remembered for his roles in Westerns and, for me at least, as the bartender in Back to the Future, Part III. He also starred in two episodes of longtime Waltons rival, Little House on the Prarie.

And speaking of Little House, we have here a classic frontier family staple – adopting a wild animal bust having to turn it loose (remember Laura Ingalls doing the same thing with a raccoon?) But here, the deer isn’t rabid, and Erin doesn’t cry nearly as much as Melissa Gilbert. This sort of delineates the differences between the two dramas: if The Waltons was a tear-jerker, Little House was a tear-yanker.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Waltons 2.8: The Braggart

Airdate: 11/1/73

Hobie Shank, a teenage orphan now living on the rails, returns to the Waltons where he spent a summer a few years back. Well-meaning but occasionally overbearing, he rubs John-Boy the wrong way, not helped by his popularity with the Walton girls, and with John-Boy’s girlfriend in particular. John Walton allows the boy to stay until his tryout as a pitcher for a professional baseball team.

After a rocky start, the tryout lands Hobie a contract, boosting his ego even more. When John suggests he return to his orphanage to visit his old friends, he begrudgingly accepts, and loathes every minute of it. Fate steps in when Hobie breaks his arms after falling from a tree; his contract is cancelled, and, after wallowing in self-pity, he comes to realize that his pipe-dream of pitching was his only way of escaping his past and achieving self-esteem. He gives in to participating in the baseball game the Waltons had planned to get him out of his depression, and accepts a job for athletic director at the orphanage.

Baseball, the biggest American sport of the 1930s, finally makes an appearance here, and it’s well-used in this charming fable of the line between dreams and reality – compromise. John-Boy, for a change, plays petulance well (that’s what you get when you make fun of his writing career) and Mary Ellen, again, gets a dreamy crush on another male visitor, prompting the best line of the episode, “When are you going to stop calling everything in pants handsome?” spoken by Grandma.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Waltons 2.7: The Prize

Airdate: 10/25/73

Oscar Cockrell, an old flame of Olivia’s, visits the Waltons’ homestead. Despite his wealth and political aspirations, he’s unhappy with his life and current marriage, eyeing covetously the personal fulfillment now enjoyed by his ex-sweetheart. His visit also sparks John Boy’s speculations of how life would be different had Oscar been his father.

Meanwhile, the Waltons eagerly await the Jefferson County Fair, as Olivia plans to enter her raspberry cake, Grandma her 3-year in the making patchwork quilt, and Ben a swine for the greasy pig catching contest. All come out winners, even Oscar, for the galvanizing, populist speech he delivers for his state legislature candidacy.

Recurrent supporting cast member Peter Donat is aptly cast as Olivia’s former love as he was married to Michael Learned from 1956 to 1972 (a year before this episode aired). From the setup, one would expect the show to focus on a lingering attraction between the two, but it wisely (and appropriately) avoids this and settles for a more comfortable Waltonesque theme: if things were different, would they be better? Any Waltons fan worth his salt knows the answer: no!

The state fair is a fun omnibus story, allowing for a patchwork (no pun intended) of family vignettes, interesting if none-too-subtle historical references, and a pig catching scene that would never survive PETA scrutiny. Oh, and an odd message: Olivia wins for a cake made of rye whiskey icing, and the Baldwin sisters for jelly made from “the recipe.” There you have it – to win a food contest in the South, liquor it up!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Episode 2.6: The Chicken Thief

Airdate: 10/18/73

Good ol’ boy Yancy Tucker seems to have a mysterious job, but it becomes all too clear one night when John-Boy sees him stealing two chickens from a neighbor, Mr. Potter. John-Boy approaches Yancy about it, who explains his actions by telling him that he steals from the haves to give to the have-nots, but that he would return the two chickens the next night. When Mr. Potter blames Yancy on another act of thievery and, this time, shooting, it’s up to the Waltons to clear his name. Subplot: Ben thinks he plagiarized John-Boy’s poem after being inspired by his idea, rounding out the episode’s theme of honesty as the best, if not always easiest, policy.

Robert Donner returns in the role of fun-loving Yancy, and the Robin Hood story he’s a part of is most likely borrowed from one of the subplots of the Waltons pilot, The Homecoming, in which a goose thief is making rounds on Christmas Eve. Subplot here gives a Ben a moment in the spotlight, and when John Boy finds out his brother won a writing contest, his reaction is one of both praise and repressed envy. Irony: Ben’s award-winning poem, called “A Winter Mountain,” is, actually… not so great.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Episode 2.5: The Roots

Airdate: 10/11/73

Verdie Grant (the African American woman John-Boy taught to read in episode 1.21) returns, with her eye on an itinerant farm worker named Harley Foster. But Harvey, and his son, Jody, have always lived on the road, and he believes the best experience is to be had traveling from one town to the next. Staying with the Waltons a few days bends his attitude somewhat, and so, along with Verdie’s urgings and a well-paying mechanic job, he decides to set his “roots,” as firmly as those of a small peach tree the family tries to grow.

Lynn Hamilton reprises her role of Verdie in this one, and it has the usual amount of heartstring tugging – and this time, none-too-subtle symbolism.

Verisimilitude alert: The Walton men, in one scene, are tarring wood planks. I don’t know why they are doing this, and it’s not explained, but it adds such realism to the moment – and a sense of workmanship that defines the program’s time, place, and ethos.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Waltons 2.4: “The Theft”

Airdate: 10/4/73

It’s tough times for the Waltons, and John has started doing local repair work to make ends meet. After finishing a job for some affluent neighbors, the Claybournes, he is blamed for the disappearance of two of their silver goblets, and because he won’t clear his name by revealing where he went after he left the home, suspicions, and family tensions, mount. Doing some detective work, John-Boy and Ben discover that the Claybournes may not be as wealthy and they let on, leading Mrs. Claybourne’s son to confess that he hocked the goblets, hoping to keep his mother believing that the family fortune is still intact. John clears the air by confessing to Olivia that he had sold his wedding ring for money to get new tires for the car.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, or so that’s what everyone thinks about John Walton, the epitome of nobility! We all know the truth, but partially because we’re tipped off, too early I think, that he is going to sell his ring. Without knowing this, we might be inclined to believe the worst about our beloved patriarch! Another good confrontation scene between John and John Boy comes about midway through the episode.

Good supporting players here: Diana Webster as the icy and unapologetic (even though she apologizes) Mrs. Claybourne, and Dennis Dugan as her earnest but misguided son, Stuart Lee. You may know Dugan as an extremely prolific film and TV actor and director. I best remember him in an episode of M*A*S*H as Colonel Potter’s son-in-law who confesses to him his infidelities. (Perhaps there’s a required confession scene in his contracts.)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Waltons 2.3: The Separation

Airdate: 9/27/73

The Waltons get their electricity shut off for nonpayment, and Zeb takes it upon himself to make some money by doing some repair work for the Baldwin sisters. When he goes with them to Charlottesville to pay the bill, it turns into an all-day affair, and upon his return home he’s read the riot act by his wife. He responds with resentment that she has so little trust in him, and so both parties, too stubborn to clear things up, are at a détente. Olivia decides to invite both to the county dance, and stir up Zeb’s jealousy by informing him that Esther’s old flame will be there. It works: the two dance together to their old favorite, “My Wild Irish Rose.”
Zeb in the doghouse... on a pool table
Zeb and Esther, heretofore supporting characters, are finally front and center here, and their marital spat is definitely a highlight of the season. My favorite scene is when Zeb can’t take it anymore and storms out of the house, only to spend the night on the pool tsable at Ike’s general store! The teleplay was written by Richard Carr, from a story by Grandma herself, Ellen Corby.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Waltons 2.2: The Odyssey

Airdate: 9/20/73

Guest star Sissy Spacek returns in this episode, playing Sarah Simmons, a wide-eyed girl with dreams of love, marriage and starting a family. When a frustrated John-Boy decides to go to a secluded cabin to spend the night (to get some quality writing time), he discovers Sarah there; she had run away from her adopted parents’ home and reveals that she is pregnant and married to a young man who left to find work at the WPA. She is also ill with a severe fever, so John Boy nurses her back to health and even delivers her baby. Returning to the Waltons’ homestead, they find Sarah’s biological mother, who finally makes amends with her daughter. Sarah tells her that she is rightfully married, but an inconsistency in her story implies that she actually isn’t.

Spacek once again demonstrates her acting chops in this episode (particularly in the childbirth scene), and another supporting character, Granny Ketchum (played by Frances E. Williams), has a nice, meditative speech on aging and dying, and making room for the newly born. Subplot about a contest in which the whole family takes part offers more of that warm, Waltons verisimilitude. Jim-Bob endures being called a sissy when he enters the family’s classic tomato preserves recipe. Here it is!

4 c. tomatoes
4 c. sugar
2 sm. pkgs. or 1 lg. pkg. gelatin
Prepare your canning jars for canning. In large Dutch oven pan or 4 quart saucepan puree in blender 4 cups of stewed tomatoes. Pour into saucepan. Pour in 4 cups of sugar. Cook on high heat. Bring to a roaring boil. Stir occasionally and constantly for about 30 minutes. Once you're sure all is dissolved and mixture has boiled for a good 30 minutes, pour in packages of gelatin; stir in well and mix. Cook about 15 minutes. Take off stove, heat and pour mixture into canning jars. Seal canning jars, and store.

Viola! Who says you can’t live off the land anymore?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Waltons 2.1: The Journey

Airdate: 9/13/73

John-Boy eagerly awaits the school dance Saturday night, and has asked Marcia Woolery to be his date. As he spends his last few dollars on brand new trousers for the occasion, he befriends an elderly widow named Maggie McKenizie when she asks him to fix her car. Browsing through her photo album, he learns that she and her deceased husband were Scottish immigrants who married at sea, and spent every wedding anniversary dancing by the shore near the site of their nuptials. Ill and near death, Maggie is committed to driving to the coast by herself to continue the tradition, until John Boy decides that he will take her, foregoing the school dance and his long-anticipated date. After the two return home from a night of dining, dancing and reminiscing, Maggie dies, thanking John Boy for the experience and passing down an heirloom: a solid gold coin she received as a wedding gift from the ship’s captain.

Lovely second season opener has all the trademarks of a solid Waltons episode, and the predictability of the show’s finale doesn’t keep it from being an enormous tearjerker. The subplot, involving a wayward sea gull that needs to be nursed back to health in order to fly back home to sea, has some obvious but poignant symbolic parallels to the main plot. That’s show creator Earl Hamner Jr. as Maggie’s husband in the dancing flashbacks. Best scene: Maggie regales a rapt John-Boy with the story of her marriage, all orally and evocatively, with glimpses of sepia-toned daguerreotypes in an album.

Speaking of sepia tones, we have a new, and improved, opening to the show now! No longer to we have to experience John Walton bringing the radio home again and again; this is the one we’re all familiar with: a series of grainy shots of the family members, worn to resemble vintage photographs, accompanied by the now-famous Waltons theme. (Who can possibly forget the final image of barefoot Elizabeth walking away with the stick in her hand?)

This is the season The Waltons shot up to #2 in the Nielsen ratings (right behind All in the Family), and ran on Thursday nights at 8:00, where it stayed until it ended its nine-year run in 1981. In May of 1973, it won Emmys for Best Drama, Best Lead Actor (Thomas), Best Lead Actress (Learned), and Best Supporting Actress (Corby), solidifying its reputation as exemplary television.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Waltons 1.24: An Easter Story

Airdate: 4/19/73

The Waltons first season ends with this two-hour stunner in which Olivia contracts polio and collapses on her way home from church one February morning. Bedridden and paralyzed from the waist down, she and the family are terrified by the prospect that she may never walk again. John Boy resolves to learn as much as he can about the disease, and enlists the aid of a doctor at the University of Virginia to explore the work of an Australian nurse, whose controversial yet seemingly effective approach to Polio treatment uses compresses, not splints, to engage brain/nerve communication.

Meanwhile, Olivia’s changed state of mind has inspired other family members to go after their goals, especially Mary Ellen, who overcomes self-doubt to attend a dance formal with a boy, and Jason, who enters a talent competition with a song he had written on his guitar. But as the winter turns to spring, only John Boy seems to believe that, with enough willpower, Olivia can walk again, and, on Easter Sunday, she does.

This first season highlight truly showcases Miss Learned’s often overlooked acting talent. Her battle with what was then an extremely debilitating illness is punctuated with emotional highs and lows, and there is some great discussion toward the end about God’s will and justice in the world, exemplified notably by John and John-Boy’s intense final scene on the mountaintop, which may be the most emotional moment of the series thus far.

I’m still ambivalent about the ending, though; as the episode follows the theme of not fighting adversity but adapting to it, Olivia gets ready to use her wheelchair. But the very next morning, in a Little House on the Prarie-esque ending, she miraculously rises as if nothing happened. I’d call this having it both ways. Still, an exemplary finale to an auspicious first season.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Waltons 1.23: The Townie

Airdate: 3/8/73

A neighbor of the Waltons, Sarah Simmons (Sissy Spacek), goes on a date with John-Boy, and immediately marriage is on her mind. When he rebuffs her strong advances, she sets her sights on a spoiled townie – a real blueblood straight from the pages of The Great Gatsby. When John Boy tries to slow her down and make her see that this relationship is based on her rebelling against her repressive mother, she elopes with the boy, unaware he had stolen his father’s cash and is armed with a gun.

Melodramatic offering has some sharp-witted dialogue by show scribe Richard Felder. Guest star Spacek is of course at the start of her career here, and one can truly see the talent that would later make her a movie star. John Boy’s relationships are emerging as a focal point of the series now, providing some mature subject matter despite its family-oriented nature. Cute subplot involving a young duckling, hatched by Jim Bob, has some parallels to John Boy’s story.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Waltons 1.22: The Bicycle

Airdate: 3/1/73

Living in dream worlds to escape the realities of the Depression is the running theme of this episode, covering two storylines. In the first, a blacksmith named Curtis Norton (Ned Beatty) learns that a woman he had met during their high school reunion in Richmond has accepted his marriage proposal; this problem is, she has fallen in love not with him but with the poetry of his letters to her, which were written by John Boy. A starry-eyed idealist, she is brought back to earth when she discovers the true identity of the letter-writer, and that Curtis’ love may not be glamorous but is genuine. In the other, a frazzled Olivia revisits her childhood with a bicycle from Ike Godsey’s shop: it ignites her long dormant dreams of singing for the opera and she begins to spend long moments away from home with the church choir.

Like Glen Campbell sang in “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife” in 1968, “Livvy” wonders what might have been, and this discontent is indeed what fuelled the nascent feminist movement in 1973, as articulated a decade earlier by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. Despite making grade strides in the struggle for equality in 1919 with the right to vote, most women were confined again during the Depression and throughout the 40s and 50s when hard times and war marginalized the freedoms they had worked hard to achieve. I surmise that John and Olivia’s marriage was more equal than was typical for the time period, but, of course, it was still the 30s, and the attitude toward a woman riding a bicycle by herself is subtlety conveyed by John Walton when he asks his wife, “What will the people think?” Boy, we’ve come a long way.

The other plotline is charming (a sort of reinvention of Cyrano De Bergerac) but undone, in my mind at least, by the fact that Curtis and his fiancé are totally wrong for each other. Let’s face it: she was misled by this guy, she shows up and is completely disillusioned, and should go back home! I’m not sold on Olivia’s counsel that she “may never find” what she’s looking for. But, it’s in keeping with the idea of compromise, and who knows, maybe they stayed together, living a long and happy life on Walton’s Mountain!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Waltons 1.21: The Scholar

Airdate: 2/22/73

Verdie Grant, an African-American woman in her 40s, overhears John Boy give a reading/writing lesson to Elizabeth, and, being illiterate herself, asks him for lessons also. She makes him promise not to tell anyone, but Elizabeth overhears one of their lessons and unknowingly spills the secret to her teacher, Miss Hunter. Long distrustful of others, Verdie finally recognizes John Boy’s honesty when he explains himself, and decides to continue their lessons, finally fulfilling her lifelong dream. Subplot: Erin gets her tonsils removed and, despite fully recovering, continues to act sick to get extra attention. (Oh those needy Walton girls!)

Beautiful episode initially dealing with courage and trust but ultimately confronting the racial barriers that were still around in 1930s America. Through John Boy we are able to see literacy as an ability too often taken for granted, even for those impoverished or affected by the Depression. Best scene: early on, John-Boy explains to Elizabeth how the mixing and matching of 26 simple letters to convey thoughts and emotions is “magic.’ (As a teacher, I love this approach!)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Waltons 1.20: The Deed

Airdate: 2/8/73

A lumber company plans to develop on Walton’s Mountain, and when Grandpa and John-Boy to stop them, they learn that the family has no legal claim to the land as no one ever registered for a deed. To do so would require a court filing fee of 200 dollars, and so the family scrimps and saves the meet the magic number. John Boy, feeling as though he should take action, journeys to Wheeling, West Virginia, where he finds work as a machinist. He gets a taste of city life when he gets robbed by two thugs and loses his first week’s earnings. Undaunted, he accepts a loan from a pretty girl who is also staying at his boarding house, and helps capture the two thugs to get a reward of 50 dollars, enough to help the family get the money to save their land.

One of the first episodes to deal head-on with the grim realities of the Depression. The land barons and developers really do pose a formidable threat, and John Boys’s first taste of life outside the Mountain helps burst his, and our, bubble just a bit. This episode’s dénouement is appropriately bow-tied, but it sure does come on pretty quick.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Waltons 1.19: The Gypsies

Airdate: 2/1/73

A band of gypsies, whose caravan was damaged by a storm, makes their home at the Baldwin house, and when evicted by the sheriff, accepts the Waltons’ invitation to come stay with them (of course!). However, the gypsies are a proud people, and shun any form of help they see as charity, even when their baby is gravely ill. By episode’s end, they finally come around, and the see the Waltons as a breed apart from the rest.

Slow but poignant show features some nice characterizations of an all too often stereotyped ethnicity. The running subtext of racism and xenophobia is still (sadly) relevant.

By this point in the series, it’s safe to say that the Waltons hospitality knows no bounds! Also, how remote, exactly, is Waltons Mountain, given the prodigious number of wanderers, strangers and travelers just “passing by”? This place makes Grand Central Station look like Butcher Holler!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Waltons 1.18: The Courtship

Airdate: 1/25/73

Olivia’s Uncle Cody comes to visit the family. He’s a quiet, rather depressed man who had just lost his banking job, so the elder family members hatch a plan to fix him up with an older woman just as literate and worldly as he is, Cordelia Hunnicut. When he finds out that she had been married four times, he begins to have reservations about their relationship, but ultimately, true love prevails. The episode ends with the first of several weddings on Walton’s Mountain, this one presided upon by none other than Reverend Fordwick (again played by John Ritter).

Young love (the previous “The Love Story”) is followed by vintage love, and the twilight  romance in this show is truly charming indeed. Eduard Franz plays Cody as a classic tragic figure, a sad man at the end of a long career with little to show for it. Leave it to the Waltons to afford him a rare happy ending.

Time shift: In the episode “The Ceremony,” the time period indicated is September, 1935; now, according to Hamner’s narration, it is the Spring of 1933. (They sure didn’t waste much time putting up a picture of FDR!)

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Waltons 1.17: The Love Story

Airdate: 1/18/73

A young girl named Jenny Pendleton has run away from her Richmond home to Walton’s Mountain, in a house her father used to own but is now under the watch of John Walton. The family takes her in and she immediately falls in love with her new environment… and with John-Boy. As romance blossoms, her father returns, and we learn that she had run away when he remarried. It seems as though she is ready to give her stepmother a chance when she gets the tragic news that her father was killed in an automobile accident; they must now both return to Richmond, leaving behind a heartbroken John-Boy.

Second episode in a row written by series creator Earl Hamner is the first in which John Boy is truly in love. His love interest, Jenny, is believably portrayed by prolific TV actress Sian Barbara Allen, whose warm soul and active imagination beguiles the audience as well as John Boy (her plain but pretty appearance also makes her a credible presence in 30s Virginia). I’ve discovered that love scenes in dramas are often difficult to write without sounding tinny or maudlin, but Hamner writes some sharp yet emotional dialogue here, and even the inevitably heartbreaking finale is less melodramatic than it could have been. A few demerits though for Richard Thomas’ lack of singing ability; regrettably, it’s played during said final scene!

Cute subplot involving Mary Ellen’s plan to start a bullfrog farm for frogs legs restaurants; what ultimately happens to the plan is just as cute.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Waltons 1.16: The Fire

Airdate: 1/11/73

When Miss Hunter teaches the class about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, one student, a very shy girl named Lois May, tells her father, an overprotective, religious zealot bent on wreaking his vengeance on the heathens he sees as the cause. As he drunkenly sets the schoolhouse ablaze, he knocks himself unconscious, and perishes in the inferno. Miss Hunter now must contend with the rebuilding of her school (and temporary relocation of her classroom to Ike’s general store), and the emotional support of now fatherless Lois May. Eventually, the girl is reunited with her long-lost mother and comes out of her shell to attend school with confidence.

Contrary to popular belief, The Waltons didn’t always shy from controversy, as this episode’s exploration of religion/evolution and the then-recent Scopes Monkey Trial demonstrates. Actor Richard Bradford, playing the father, Lutie Bascomb, perhaps overplays his part, but his rage leading up to the fire is as frightening as any exhibited by an aberrant character on W’s Mountan. Some of you may recognize Laurie Prange, who plays Lois May; she later went on to be the guest star on two episodes of another CBS series, The Incredible Hulk: one in which she was an heiress being slowly poisoned by her relatives, and another is which she helped a halfway-transformed Hulk get out of an alien observation facility. She also starred in a excellent, creepy made-for-TV movie, Dark Secret of Harvest Home, starring Bette Davis (a good DVD rental for Halloween).

The best scene of this episode is actually unrelated to the plot: John Walton comes into John-Boy’s room and asks to hear some of what he wrote. I’ve always felt these quiet, “incidental” scenes are really what the show is all about – indeed, isn’t that what life as all about?

Emmy note: this episode was nominated for make-up, no doubt for Prange’s cuts and bruises.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Waltons 1.15: The Actress

Airdate: 1/4/73

A movie star, Alvira Drummond, passing by is abandoned by her driver, and, of course, hospitably taken in by the Walton clan. While some of the family is immediately starstruck, others, notably Olivia and grandma, quickly become resentful of her ostentations (and feminine wiles). Gradually, the family learns of her true situation: her driver had abandoned her for nonpayment of salary, and her agent ceased to represent her or send her money to get back to New York. When she overhears how she is wearing out her welcome, she collects herself and agrees to put on a local show, featuring readings from Shakespeare and John-Boy’s manuscript, to fund her journey back home.

Again, a stranger breaks down right on Walton’s Mountain – this time, a sad has-been, clearly modeled after Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard. The formula here is reminiscent of an earlier episode, “The Carnival,” also involving big-city strandees who put on a show at the end. You get a little of everything here: John Boy getting writing inspiration, insecure Mary Ellen dreaming of being older and beautiful, etc.

Is Ike Godsey a Renaissance man or what? Here we learn he can also diagnose intricate car repair problems. This man keeps Walton’s Mountain running!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Waltons 1.14: The Minstel

Airdate: 12/21/72

A Woody Guthrie-esque travelling minstrel named Jamie wanders by and immediately enchants an increasingly restless Mary Ellen, who is starting to shun the family ways and develop her own free-spirited identity. When she decides to run away with him, he calls her a kid and crushes her spirits. It takes John Boy telling her how to balance family loyalty with individuality, as well as a trip to Washington DC (thanks to the family’s apple-picking earnings), to cure her wanderlust, at least for the time being.

The first episode dealing exclusively with Mary Ellen feels like it could’ve been written by Judy Blume. She’s got the growing pains – bad – and though the angst of a teenage girl is nothing new, it does imbue this particular episode with a contemporary feel.

I’ve always been of the opinion that period pieces reflect not only the time period of their setting but also the day and age in which they’re made. Made in 1972, this show clearly reflects the “tune in and drop out” mantra of the counterculture movement, and Mary Ellen’s clash with her parents is in keeping with the Baby Boomer generation gap that fuelled the movement. There’s even plenty of folk music in this episode!

Speaking of music, listen closely to some of the soundtrack variations on the theme song, particularly during the first apple-picking scene. Love the old-time orchestral scores on TV dramas!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Waltons 1.13: The Reunion

Airdate: 12/14/72

John Boy wants to buy his mother one of them newfangled washin’ machines, so he starts doing odd jobs for the Baldwin sisters to get the money. This coincides with a visit by the sisters’ cousin, Homer (Denver Pyle), who takes everyone, along with Grandpa, to a picture show in Charlottesville. His true intentions come to light as it is discovered that he has been secretly selling the recipe and plans to take all the whiskey, which had been made for a family reunion, into town to sell. The sheriff uses John Boy as a stool pigeon to nab Homer on one of his runs.

Bootlegging comes up again as a plot point, and this time it is Denver Pyle as the ostensibly innocent but ultimately nefarious Cousin Homer who commits the dirty deed. Olivia once again expresses her disapproval of the Baldwins’ sinful ways, but ultimately allows the family pay a visit to the sisters when she realizes the house is empty of alcohol.

Of course, Denver Pyle went on the play Uncle Jesse on The Dukes of Hazzard, but does anyone else also remember him as Mad Jack on The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams? The role he played on that was similar to Will Geer’s in Jeremiah Johnson, so it’s definitely cool to see both in the same scene together in this episode.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Waltons 1.12: The Dust Bowl Cousins

Airdate: 12/7/72

Cousins of Olivia – Ham Denby, Cora, and their son, Job – arrive to stay with the Waltons after their Kansas farm is destroyed by the Dust Bowl. Dishonest, shiftless and believing hard times means doing anything in order to get by, they quickly disrupt the family harmony. Ham shoplifts items from Ike’s store (much to Erin’s moral disapproval), and Job soon develops less than honorable designs on Mary Ellen. When no letter for possible employment arrives to offer Ham financial stability, he puts his feelers out for some acreage on Walton’s Mountain that he believes is owed to his wife as an inheritance. It takes Cora to see that their welcome has been fully worn out, and bids adieu on behalf of her clan.

An edgy, offbeat episode, not only for its unsavory depiction of the Denbys, but also the direction, which features some interesting camerawork and acting choices (in fact, this episode won a Director’s Guild of America award). It’s a true testament to the Walton’s hospitality and family loyalty that they take in such a pack of scoundrels for as long as they did. Actor Ken Wolger is quite disturbing as Job; the scenes involving him and Mary Ellen as he considers sexual advances on her are quite chilling.

Yankee Doodle Cricket (1975)

I wanted a special holiday video to feature on the Rocket for the glorious Fourth, so I raided my trove of DVDs and found a great special from my past, Chuck Jones’ utterly charming Yankee Doodle Cricket from 1975, one year before the huge bicentennial celebration. Officially a sequel to A Cricket In Times Square, this was based on the book by George Selden, and features Mel Blanc doing the voices for multiple characters. The premise seems more than loosely based on Disney’s Ben and Me, in which a mouse is integral to all the myriad accomplishments credited to Ben Franklin. This time, our beloved founding fathers owe it all to a collection of cute critters, among them Chester Cricket, Harry the Cat, and Tucker the Mouse.

It all starts when Tucker drafts a declaration of “interdependence” between cats and mice, and shows it to Harry, who sneaks it to his owner, Thomas Jefferson, and… you can guess the rest. Meanwhile, both animals realize a flag is needed, so they take a cue from a trod-upon snake, and… well, you get the rest. And as for the show’s title, it has to do with a new national anthem (not the Star Spangled Banner) crafted by the “Yankee Doodle Cricket” and played by the “instruments” of all the woodland creatures.

Clever references to other presidential one-liners during Jefferson’s lame attempts at writing, and a nice musical interlude beginning the second half of the special. As for Chuck Jones’ animation, it’s, of course, magnificent, although this probably shouldn’t be your introduction for a non-Warner Bros. Jones work (I’d go with the more celebrated Rikki Tikki Tavi, which you can find on the same DVD as this one). On balance, a nice feature to include if you, like me, have a roster of patriotic videos to show to commemorate Independence Day. Perhaps you can sneak it somewhere between 1776 and The Stars and Stripes Forever.

Cutest scene: a boy and girl firefly need to light up to replace Paul Revere’s “one if by land, two if by sea” lanterns because he’s drunk. (I’m not quite sure if parents would appreciate this depiction!)

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Waltons 1.11: The Literary Man

Airdate: 11/30/72

Another wanderer stops by the Waltons, an A.J. Covington, who helps John Boy when his truck breaks down. A literate, sophisticated man, he immediately takes a liking to the intellectually curious John Boy, and vice-versa. A jack of all trades, AJ even volunteers to help the family meet a lumber contract, but inadvertently causes them to fall behind when he gets tied up in a critique of John Boy’s writing instead of chopping trees.

Meanwhile, Jim Bob is very sick, suffering from stomach pains, and John and Grandpa are getting further behind on the lumber contract. AJ diagnoses Jim Bob’s pains as appendicitis, and the boy is rushed to hospital in Charlottesville. Developing a liking for Walton’s Mountain, AJ has his eye on an abandoned cottage, and sells his watch for money he plans to use to put a down payment on the house’s back taxes. Jim Bob pulls through, and AJ hatches an idea to increase the mill’s sawing capacity by changing the ratio of the machine’s pulleys. The extra force, however, burns out the bearings, ending any hope of making the contract.

John Boy, in humble awe of AJ’s literary accomplishments, confides in his journal that he will give up writing forever, but AJ confesses that had actually written very little, instead chasing dreams of writing “the big story.” After much reflection, AJ does what he needs to do: pay one final visit to his house, the one he must now give up, and give his watch money to the Waltons to cover the lost contract. Leaving without saying goodbye, he leaves the money in a letter, thanking everyone for their hospitality, and admitting that the letter was the most he had written in years.

As an English teacher and writer, I was profoundly affected by this episode. Actor David Huddleston performs AJ as simple yet accomplished man of the world, a Walt-Whitmanesque humanist who calls the world his home, but desperately (and futilely) also wants to carve out a small tract of earth for himself. A dreamer, and a tragic underachiever, he instills in John Boy the vicarious dreams that he himself could not live out. He is a living embodiment of a frustrated soul, living a life of “quiet desperation,” never going home, only forth.

I even cried at the end of this one, a culmination of so many great scenes and moments, particularly the “chopping adjectives instead of trees” scene, and AJ’s final, soul-baring yet understated monologue in the barn (which seems to be where the best Walton’s monologues are delivered). Bravo to teleplay writer Colley Cibber, for this, the best episode so far of The Waltons.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Waltons 1.10: The Legend

Airdate: 11/16/72

John’s old World War I buddy, Tip Harrison, visits the Waltons, sharing old memories of days gone by. As John Boy is the first to notice, Tip isn’t all as he appears, for beneath his classy, fun-loving exterior lies a depressed, alcoholic man who can’t live in the present. He starts a fire and lets Jason takes the blame for it, and drunkenly shoots Reckless, the Waltons’ dog (gasp!), before finally admitting his transgressions when his conscience gets the best of him. (Don’t worry, the dog is ok.)

Another lost soul stops by the Walton’s abode and sees the error of his ways. This time it takes the form of John’s old army buddy, allowing us to learn a bit about John’s military past. Tensest scene: Reckless gets shot and we wait, eagerly, to find out if Tip will admit what he did.  Most maddening scene: John gives Tip a long-winded earful about his sins instead of going to find and help the dog!

I think this episode has resonance because we all know a Tip Harrison: someone who’s a gaggle of laughs but doesn’t quite have it together. I like to think we have part of this within us, an id as Freud pointed out, balanced on the other side (the superego) by the ego in the middle. We'll see more ids stopping by as the years go on, some more unbalanced than others.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Waltons 1.9: The Ceremony

Airdate: 11/9/72

A Jewish family arrives from Nazi Germany, but the father, a professor at a university in Berlin, finds it difficult to adapt to a life free from danger and persecution. He demands that they absolve their identities as Jews, but his son, Paul, is disheartened to forego his upcoming Bar Mitzvah. Grandpa Walton goes to see the family, resolve all misunderstandings, allay their suspicions, and encourage them to honor and celebrate their heritage; the Waltons even host the boy’s Bar Mitzvah!

Part of the appeal of The Waltons was the way it seemed to exist in a nurturing nook, apart from the rest of the country, and indeed, the world. But it still let the outside in, one person or family at a time. In “The Ceremony” it confronts the reality of the rise of Nazism, and presages how that conflict will ultimately affect the future of the Waltons themselves. Some sensitive portrayals here, intensified, perhaps, by our knowledge of how dire things really were in Europe at the time, and how much worse they would get.

Ellen Geer, who portrays the wife, Eva, is the real-life daughter of Will Geer, who plays Grandpa Walton.

In this episode, the radio announcer reports on the recently enacted Nuremberg Laws, putting the time period at September 1935.
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