Hidden Gems: Spencer’s Mountain (1963)

Spencer's Mountain
source: Warner Brothers

If you ever longed to live in the vast, open spaces of the Grand Teton Mountains of Wyoming while drinking your favorite brand of bourbon till the sun goes down, annoying not only your significant other but also your fellow townsfolk, children and their friends, then Spencer’s Mountain is a movie that may pique your interest.

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Where the Spencer’s laid down their roots.

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Earl Hamner Jr. Spencer’s Mountain tells the story of Clay Spencer, played by Henry Fonda, and his struggles to build a better life for his family.

His wife, Olivia, played by Maureen O’Hara, tries her best to accommodate Clay and his ambitions but finds it difficult when he continually deviates from the path he stringently set for himself.

Among some of Clay’s ‘distractions’ include mild alcoholism, perpetual flirtations with other women, and the occasional adversarial comment about his wife’s religion.

Clay’s carelessness causes his family more harm than good.

The Spencer’s essentially live in the middle of nowhere. They don’t own any vehicles, horses or telephones, this leaves the family especially helpless during emergencies. When they do need some assistance, Clay just harrases his eldest son ‘Clayboy’ a freshly minted high school graduate, to run a couple of miles to the nearest police station.

It isn’t a very effective way to go about things, but, it’s the best they have.

‘Clayboy’ played by James MacArthur, is the only man to graduate high school in the Spencer family. He wants to make something out of himself, and he decides that living in the backwoods of, in his words,”the middle nowhere” is no way to live a life.

Strangely enough, his father agrees, and when ‘Clayboy’s’ teacher chooses him for one of the few scholarships that his school offers, he jumps at the chance.

Spencer's Mountain 2
source: Warner Brothers

This is where Clay’s redemption story begins.

‘Clayboy’s’ teacher nominates him for a “divinity” scholarship. It wasn’t necessarily the one he wanted, but it was better than nothing.

Knowing the elder Spencer’s general grumpiness about religion, he’s hesitant to agree to this. Olivia, on the other hand, is ecstatic that her baby boy is potentially pursuing a career as a pastor.

All the while this is happening, Clay begins renovating his home, hoping to use a plot of old Spencer land to create his dream residence. With ‘Clayboy’s’ dream of going to college, all of that is put on hold.

After letting this ruminate in his heart for a few days, Clay casts aside his prejudices and quietly accepts his son’s decision. Just as he came to terms with himself, it turns out that ‘Clayboy’s’ scores in Latin were too low for his scholarship to be accepted.

Frustrated, Clay drives up to the university to give the dean a piece of his mind. A couple of hours of contentious conversation later, the dean gives him an ultimatum: if ‘Clayboy’ can learn Latin before the semester starts, then he can enroll, but his scholarship will be dropped as a result.

Problem solved, right?

Well, not exactly.

It takes the Spencer’s a couple days to figure out where they could possibly find a Latin tutor in the middle of the dense backwoods of Wyoming. When they do, it comes as a shock to Clay when it’s the local priest that selflessly agrees to help his son.

Divine Intervention.

Spencer's Mountain 3
source: Warner Brothers

Preacher Goodman (played by Wally Cox) forces Clay to go to his services on Sunday in exchange for ‘Clayboy’s’ lessons. Sure enough, next Sunday Clay sticks to his word and attends the service, much to the delight of not only his wife but the entire town.

It appears that the hard-drinking, no-nonsense, Clay Spencer has finally begun to soften up a bit.

His newfound faith would be tested, however, when he and his father Grandpa Spencer (played by Donald Crisp) get crushed by an unsuspecting falling tree while trying to remove the stump before it grows into the family funeral plot.

The irony.

‘Clayboy’ arrives moments after the incident, bringing a pail of lunch the pair requested hours earlier. As he steps closer to the scene, ‘Clayboy’ knows that this is quickly turning into a life or death situation.

Scared out of his mind, he drops everything he’s doing and runs to the nearest ’emergency bell’ immediately alerting anyone near. Subsequently, everyone heads up the mountain bringing all the tools and medical supplies that are needed.

Spencer's Mountain 4
source: Warner Brothers

Clay escapes with a few injuries but it’s Grandpa Spencer that takes the brunt of the damage, ultimately losing his life.

Months go by after the accident.

Clay preoccupies himself with his new “dream house” project, expecting it to take his mind off of what happened. It does for a little while, but his ambitions only serve as a reminder of his dad who also shared the same dream.

The next day, Clay and ‘Clayboy’ head up to the dean’s office to show him that he successfully passed his lessons. The dean agrees and proudly scribbles ‘Clayboy’s’ name on the roster. Knowing that the last thing they need to do in order to enroll is a tuition deposit, Clay gives up on his dream of building a new home and literally sets the house on fire.

Once it simmers down and there’s nothing left but ash and disappointment, he sells the land for a hefty fee, which goes towards ‘Clayboy’s’ tuition.

The end of the movie sees the Spencer family send-off ‘Clayboy’ to college. With a clear conscience and a happy wife, Clay Spencer can definitely rest easy knowing that he made his dad proud.

Conclusion

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source: Warner Brothers

This movie is the equivalent of drinking iced tea on the banks of a canal that sits a couple of feet behind your home, watching the sunset while you quietly ignore your responsibilities.

Director Delmer Daves truly outdid himself with this one. Not only does the movie give you a sense of familiarity, it shows a different side to what one would call a “nuclear family.”

Everything is not what it seems in Spencer’s Mountain.

I’ve always seen Henry Fonda as the soft, brooding type of guy. So it came as a bit of a surprise when I saw him acting “out of character” – so to speak – in this film.  Maybe I need to watch a couple of more of his movies to break this stereotype, but I’d say that his portrayal of Clay Spencer did a perfect job of that.

As for the film itself, it’s certainly a fun one. I thoroughly enjoyed all of the acting performances put on, particularly James MacArthur who, I have to admit, made my heart flutter during multiple instances in the movie.

If you have the chance to check out this film, I recommend that you do. It may not be the most exciting, or the most angst-inducing, but it’ll have you compelled to cast aside some selfish need for the sake of your family.

 

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