More than a year before TV viewers began visiting Walton’s Mountain on a weekly basis, the adventures of America’s favorite Depression-era family reached the small screen with The Homecoming: A Christmas Story. Adapted from the writing of Earl Hamner Jr., as was the subsequent 1972–1981 series The Waltons, the movie has a slightly different cast from the weekly series but the same nostalgic warmth. Among the actors who debuted characterizations here that continued through the weekly series is leading man Richard Thomas, who plays elder son John Boy. (The series’ much-parodied trope of all the characters saying “good night” to each other before the closing credits emerges fully formed in this first installment.) While the overarching theme of familial love and devout spirituality shielding poor people from the hardships of the outside world might strike some viewers as too sickly-sweet wholesome, the execution of this fine telefilm is sufficiently humorous, lively, and specific to make The Homecoming: A Christmas Story abundantly appealing.
The Homecoming: A Christmas Story is all about setting the stage for an uplifting climax, but Hamner—who wrote the script—and director Fielder Cook are so rigorous in how they pursue narrative goals that the ending feels sturdy instead of manipulative. The simple premise is that the large Walton family, living in rural Virginia, awaits the return of patriarch John Walton (Andrew Duggan), who has been forced to take a job 50 miles away and can only get home on weekends. Matriarch Olivia Walton (Patricia Neal) struggles to provide for the couple’s many children, some of whom are nearing adulthood and some of whom still anxiously await Santa. Various complications make Olivia’s task formidable. Money is too tight for extravagant gifts, and the means by which neighbors make ends meet test Olivia’s strict religious beliefs, so she’s vexed when John Boy accepts favors from a pair of biddies who sell bootleg liquor.
Most vignettes involve humor, an emotional sucker punch of some sort, and the learning of a lesson—as when the older kids feed Bible verses to their younger siblings during a contest with Christmas gifts as a prize. Some scenes explore passages in life, such as the sequence of teenaged Mary Ellen asking John Boy about dating and kissing. Much of the plot revolves around John Boy’s awkward assumption of a surrogate-father role, a situation complicated by his secret desire to become a writer.
All of this stuff pays off quite well, even if Hamner occasionally betrays a weakness for cutesy scripting. At his best, he channels homespun pragmatism through Olivia’s dialogue (“Santa Claus is poor this year, just like everyone else”), and his management of a huge number of speaking roles is impressive. All in all, The Homecoming: A Christmas Story provides either a satisfying one-and-done entertainment or, for those so inclined, a charming gateway into the world of the Waltons. FYI, neither Duggan nor Neal returned for the series, with their roles assumed by Ralph Waite and Michael Learned, while beloved vaudeville star Edgar Bergen’s role in the pilot film as Grandfather Walton later went to Will Geer.
The Homecoming: A Christmas Story: GROOVY