Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Waltons: "The Thanksgiving Story"

First aired November 15, 1973

"Next to Christmas, I suppose you'd have to say that Thanksgiving was our favorite time of year.  We may have been poor in worldly possessions, but at Thanksgiving, more than any other time, I think we knew, really knew, how great was our abundance." 
-John Boy Walton

For those that don't know already,  The Waltons was a series about a large family living in the mountains of Virginia during the 1930s and 40s.   The series ran from 1972 to 1981.

In this movie-length episode from season 2 of the series, the residents of Walton's Mountain are getting ready for Thanksgiving.  Younger siblings Erin (Mary McDonough), Jim-Bob (David W. Harper) and Elizabeth (Kami Cotler) are gathering pumpkins.  Mary Ellen (Judy Norton), the oldest daughter, is auditioning to play Pocahontas in the school Thanksgiving pageant.

Jim-Bob, Elizabeth & Erin bring home pumpkins, accompanied by their trusty dog Reckless.
Oldest son John-Boy (Richard Thomas) is especially happy.  His girlfriend Jenny Pendleton (Sian Barbara Allen) is coming back to visit for Thanksgiving.  All the Walton family likes Jenny and are glad to hear this news.  John-Boy is also getting ready to take a test that will qualify him to apply for a college scholarship.

Grandpa & John work in the family sawmill.

Grandpa Zeb (Will Geer) and his son John Walton (Ralph Waite) are busy sawing wood for a big lumber order.  They're having a bit of trouble with the saw belt, but it seems to be working well enough to get the job done.  John-Boy joins them and suggests they can saw two planks at a time and get the job done twice as fast.  Unfortunately, the saw belt flies off, causing a plank to hit John-Boy in the face.  He says he's fine, but has to his head bandaged up.  Later, while John-Boy is composing a journal entry, he loses control of his hand, making him temporarily unable to write.

Jason (Jon Walmsley) pays a visit to the home of Mamie (Helen Kleeb) and Emily (Mary Jackson) Baldwin.  They've hired him to help in making new bottles of their "Papa's Recipe" (moonshine whiskey).  The Baldwin sisters will pay him to clean the still, mash corn, etc.  They intend to send some of this batch of The Recipe to President and Mrs. Roosevelt.   Jason is a little concerned that his teetotaling mother may not approve of this new money-making venture.

The Baldwin Sisters pay a visit to John & Olivia.
Middle brother Ben (Eric Scott) is feeling he has nothing to do and feels like he needs to grow up.  He wants to hunt for the family's Thanksgiving turkey.  Grandpa offers to help.

Grandpa helps Ben make a Turkey Yelper.

John-Boy heads to the Pendleton house to clean it up before Jenny arrives.  He stops and chats with his father on the way.  In the middle of their conversation John-Boy's vision grows blurry and his hearing seems to go out.

John-Boy's attempt to clean the chimney doesn't go so well!
After a somewhat comical reunion scene, John-Boy and Jenny are glad to see each other.  They talk about how they've both changed in the year since they last saw one another.  They are excited to be planning for their future together.

Jenny & John-Boy get re-acquainted over dinner.

When the times comes to take the scholarship exam, John-Boy's vision starts fading in and out again, meaning he's unable to read the test.  He asks for his parents to come get him and take him to the hospital. 

The doctor says due to the saw belt accident, John-Boy has "a blood clot, pushing against the visual center of the brain."  If he isn't treated soon he could wind up blind or paralyzed.   John-Boy's parents, John and Olivia (Michael Learned),  agree with the doctor that John-Boy needs an operation.  He undergoes surgery and stays in the hospital.  His father is distraught and feels guilty about not fixing the saw belt before the accident.

Jenny visits John-Boy and tries to help him to be optimistic.  She suggests he can re-take the test, but she's more concerned about him surviving the surgery.

Ben & Grandpa on a turkey hunt.
Meanwhile,  Grandpa Zeb and Ben are out hunting for a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.  They track a likely bird down, but Ben fires too soon, scaring away the turkey before they can catch it.  Ben is afraid he will come home empty-handed.

Will John-Boy pull through his surgery in time for Thanksgiving dinner?  Will he get another chance to take his scholarship exam?  Will Grandpa and Ben manage to bag a turkey?  Will Mary Ellen get to the part in the school pageant?

J.A. Morris says:

I watched The Waltons every week for most of my childhood, but this is the first episode I've watched in at least 20 years.  Tragedies often hit Walton's Mountain.  Off the top of my head, I can recall stories that centered on a house fire, a mine cave-in, and life-threatening diseases.  "The Thanksgiving Story" is no exception, with John-Boy's head injury threatening his college scholarship chances and his ability to see and walk.  The sub-plots that focus on Mary Ellen, Jason and Ben are less compelling, but entertaining nonetheless. The Baldwin sisters were always amusing as the local moonshiners with hearts of gold.  It also does a good job of showing that preparing a Thanksgiving feast was a lot tougher 70 years ago, no trips to the chain grocery store for the Waltons.  

Grandma Esther makes pumpkin pie, no canned pumpkin in rural 1930s Appalachia!

The storyline about John-Boy and Jenny was also handled well.  But (SPOILER ALERT) this episode marks the last appearance of Jenny on the series.  I looked up information on her portrayer, Sian Barbara Allen, who was dating Richard "John-Boy" Thomas when "The Thanksgiving Story" was filmed.  She appeared in one episode prior to this and received a Golden Globe nomination in 1973 as Most Promising New Actress.  But The Waltons seems to be her peak of fame, the rest of Allen's credits were one-shot guest appearances on various series in the 70s and 80s.  Allen retired from acting in 1990. 

Mary Ellen as Pochahantas in the school pageant.

As a longtime resident of Richmond, VA, I also appreciated the references to Richmond and other places in the state.

If there's anything about The Waltons that hasn't aged well, it's the background music.  The music is a bit over-the-top and melodramatic by today's standards.   

"The Thanksgiving Story" is a good episode of this series.  Since it's a double-length episode, it might not be the best "first episode" for new viewers, but Thanksgiving is a perfect occasion for a show that was all about a family that helped one another during tough times.

J.A. Morris' rating:
3.5 pumpkin pies.

Olivia visits John-Boy in the hospital.

RigbyMel says:

Oddly enough, I did NOT watch The Waltons in its initial run.  I was vaguely aware of the series, but at the time, if it didn't contain cartoons, superheroes or Muppets, little RigbyMel was not particularly interested.  So "The Thanksgiving Story" actually represents the first Waltons episode I ever saw in its entirety, and I only saw it in the past couple of years.    As someone not overly familiar with the series,  I can say that this episode works very well both from a holiday special point of view and as an introduction to the show.  Considering that there are so many characters to keep track of, the writers do a great job of giving everyone (with the possible exception of some younger siblings that don't really have a major role in the episode) well-defined personalities.  I especially liked  the portrayals of the older folks like the Baldwin sisters, Grandpa Zeb and Grandma Esther.  The 1930s Thanksgiving ambiance is well deployed without coming off as cloying.  As a Virginian,  I was also interested and amused at the subplot involving Mary Ellen's audition to play Pocahontas in the school pageant.

The family waits for news about John-Boy's surgery.

I do think the whole John-Boy head injury storyline feels overly melodramatic, seeing as I already knew enough about the series to know that John-Boy would be around for future episodes.  But there is enough lightness and fun in the episode to balance the melodrama.  I also suspect that a few of the costumes that we see in the episode look a bit more 1970s than 1930s stylistically,  but that's a relatively small criticism.

This episode of The Waltons is well worth a look.

RigbyMel's rating:
3 pumpkin pies (baked from scratch by Grandma Esther, in this case)


Unknown said...

A great show. I love the prayer that Grandpa Walton does at the end of the show. Would love to get a copy of that prayer.

RigbyMel said...

It's definitely a nice show! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Sandra. :-)

Unknown said...

Best show ever. Excellent acting.

RigbyMel said...

We dig it too -- thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

Redneck Bostonian said...