THE HOMECOMING: Review from Variety, December 22, 1971
With Patricia Neal, Richard Thomas, Edgar Bergen, Ellen Corby, Andrew Duggan, Cleavon Little, Josephine Hutchinson, Dorothy Stickney, William Windom, Judy Norton, Kami Cotler, David Huddleston, Woodrow Parfrey, Sally Chamberlain, others
Exec Producer: Lee Rich
Producer: Robert L. Jacks
Director: Fielder Cook
Writer: Earl Hamner Jr.
12O Mins., Sun., 7:30 p.m.
Fashioned by writer Earl Hamner Jr. from his own autobiographical novel, "The Homecoming" provided this year's holiday season with its best new property dealing with the meaning of the Christmas spirit, rather than the trappings. It was a loving remembrance of a family crisis the day before Christmas at a Virginia mountain home in the depression year of 1933 when the prospects of a Santa Claus visit were mighty slim.
When the father of the Walton family did not appear and the radio reports said the bus he normally took home from his city job -- 50 miles away -- had been wrecked, the mother's normal apprehension about the giftless holiday turned into a deeper fear for her husband's safety. Within this context, the normal preparations and anticipations of Christmas became distinctly more touching and poignant to the couple's seven children and grandparents.
Running through this framework was the added heart-tug of the oldest son's desire to live up to his daddy's respect and prove himself a man worthy of that respect. As the hours pass, this son (and narrator) has his chance to prove his mettle as he tries to get to the scene of the accident although in terms of storyline his adventures outside the home were fey and touching distractions to the basic home and family content of closely knit togetherness.
Richard Thomas as the eldest son was splendidly right as a youngster striving to live up to his assigned roles --father's son, older brother, good example -- while still maintaining his own sensitivity and privacy. His scene with his mother (Patricia Neal) when he revealed the secret-thoughts diary he was keeping, was a pure gem of understated compassion. His scenes with the other kids while putting up the tree, with his grandpa while getting it, and with the adults during his search for his dad, were all played with natural boyishness and innate decency -- and did much to carry the basic premise of the film.
There were some drawbacks, however, that jarred the cohesive mood of the story. Miss Neal, having difficulties with her accent, seemed to be giving too studied a performance as the mother, with the contrast becoming more pronounced because everyone else -- save one -- was so naturally at ease, accent or no. The other sour note was a city lady missionary (Sally Chamberlain) whose tasteless bargaining with the mountain kids (a Biblical quote for a present) turned into a scene that generated too much negative feelings -- and played too long. Thomas' adventures with William Wisdom, a turkey dispensing Robin Hood; Cleavon Little, a backwoods "Purlie"; and Josephine Hutchinson and Dorothy Stickney, as slightly daft lady bootleggers, were also on the longish side, but expert thesping by the actors gave color and humor to those episodes.
Two youngsters, Judy Norton and Kami Cotler, stood out among the brood and helped, along with grandparents, Edgar Bergen and Ellen Corby, to make the scenes at home the show's heartwarming highspots. Andrew Duggan, appearing late as the father, was forcefully fine as he saved the day and established the "love" moral of the piece.