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Fans of the 1970s television series The Waltons will find Spencer's Mountain (1963) - the story of a poor but loving country family -- comfortably familiar, and that's no coincidence. Both the film and the series were based on an autobiographical novel by Earl Hamner, Jr. about his own family in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains during the Depression and World War II. For the film, the setting was changed to the more imposing Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Henry Fonda plays Clay Spencer, one of nine children who have grown up on a mountain homesteaded by their father. His dream is to build a home on the mountain for his family, wife Olivia (Maureen O'Hara), and their nine children. The oldest, Clayboy (James MacArthur), is a bright high school senior who would like to go to college, even though the family's finances are precarious.
Spencer's Mountain was O'Hara and Fonda's second film together. They had previously co-starred in Immortal Sergeant (1943). In her autobiography, O'Hara wrote that she loved the script for Spencer's Mountain, but that Fonda was less happy with it. In fact, Fonda had ample reason to be disgruntled, not all of it having to do with the film. Both he and O'Hara were at critical points in their careers. For years, each had been represented by the powerful talent agency, MCA, which was also a production company. But the government had told MCA executives that they couldn't do both - they had to choose one or the other. So in 1962, the company opted to keep the production company and dissolved its talent agency, leaving many longtime clients like O'Hara and Fonda without agents. Both were middle-aged and no longer top box office draws, so good parts for them were fewer. Fonda had always preferred working in theater, but his new agents insisted he focus on film.
Just prior to taking the role in Spencer's Mountain, Fonda had appeared in a play in New York that flopped. When the play closed, his new agents had turned down another play without telling Fonda, and insisted that he take the part in Spencer's Mountain, although he protested, "the script is old-fashioned corn - it will set movies back 25 years." The play they turned down was Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and playwright Edward Albee had written the role of the henpecked husband George with Fonda in mind. When Fonda found out, he was furious, but he was already committed to Spencer's Mountain, and had to go through with it. He was even angrier when he saw the play after the film wrapped. There was later talk about Fonda and Bette Davis appearing in the film version of Virginia Woolf with Fred Zinnemann directing, but of course the adaptation that reached the screen in 1966 was directed by Mike Nichols with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the leads.
James MacArthur, who played Clayboy in Spencer's Mountain, was the son of actress Helen Hayes and playwright Charles MacArthur. He had appeared on stage and television before making an impressive film debut in John Frankenheimer's The Young Stranger (1957). MacArthur appeared in several films throughout the 1960s, but has spent most of his career in television, including a leading role in the series Hawaii-Five O (1968-1979). Making her film debut as Clayboy's rich girlfriend was Mimsy Farmer. Farmer went on to play bad girls in several Roger Corman films, then moved to Europe, where she has appeared in a wide variety of films in Italy and France. Maureen O'Hara's real-life daughter Bronwyn FitzSimons has a bit part in Spencer's Mountain as a college secretary.
Spencer's Mountain was the last film of Donald Crisp, who played the family patriarch. He retired after making the film, and died 11 years later at the age of 94. The veteran British character actor had worked in films since 1908, and had appeared in more that 170 films, including three others with Fonda, and two with O'Hara.
Spencer's Mountain was a big hit at the box office, and even though some critics agreed with Fonda that it was pure cornball - the Christian Science Monitor called it "marshmallow Tobacco Road" -- others were won over. According to Variety, "With less ingratiating and expert performers than Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara as the central characters the chances are that [director Delmer] Daves might have found himself in trouble. Fonda, in particular, can take what easily could have been an ordinary hayseed and invest such a role with depth, purposefulness, and dignity."
Director: Delmer Daves
Producer: Delmer Daves
Screenplay: Delmer Daves, based on the novel by Earl Hamner, Jr.
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.
Editor: David Wages
Costume Design: Marjorie Best
Art Direction: Carl Anderson
Music: Max Steiner
Principal Cast: Henry Fonda (Clay Spencer), Maureen O'Hara (Olivia Spencer), James MacArthur (Clayboy Spencer), Donald Crisp (Grandpa Spencer), Wally Cox (Preacher Goodman), Mimsy Farmer (Claris Coleman), Virginia Gregg (Miss Parker), Lillian Bronson (Grandma Spencer).
by Margarita Landazuri