Spencer's Mountain

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Spencer's Mountain
Directed by Delmer Daves
Produced by Delmer Daves
Screenplay by Delmer Daves
Based on Spencer's Mountain 
by Earl Hamner
Starring Henry Fonda
Maureen O'Hara
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography Charles Lawton
Edited by David Wages
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • May 16, 1963 (1963-05-16)
Running time
118 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $4.5 million (US/ Canada rentals) [1]

Spencer's Mountain is a 1963 film written, directed, and produced by Delmer Daves from a novel by Earl Hamner, Jr. The film starred Henry Fonda, Maureen O'Hara and in early appearances, James MacArthur, Veronica Cartwright, and Victor French. The novel and film became the basis for the popular television series The Waltons, which followed in 1972. Differing from both the film and novel, The Waltons watered down many of the adult themes, including alcoholism and infidelity. Spencer's Mountain was O'Hara and Fonda's second film together. They had previously co-starred in Immortal Sergeant (1943).[2]

Spencer's Mountain features the majestic scenery of Wyoming's Teton Range, as photographed by cinematographer Charles Lawton in Panavision and Technicolor. It was filmed in and around the town of Jackson and features the nearby Chapel of the Transfiguration. The novel and the series were set in the Virginia Appalachians, but Hamner said in 1963 that Daves wanted more imposing mountains to emphasize the characters' isolation and struggles with their environment.

Film critic Judith Crist writing in The New York Herald Tribune said of the film, "sheer prurience and perverted morality" adding "it makes the nudie shows at the Rialto look like Walt Disney productions."[3]


The film centers on the trials and tribulations of the Spencers, a family living in the Grand Teton Mountains of Wyoming during the early 1960s. As the patriarch of a large and growing family, Clay Spencer (Henry Fonda) is fiercely independent, yet dedicated to his family. While he resists the influence of religion, he struggles to remain faithful to his wife Olivia (Maureen O'Hara), to allow his son (James MacArthur) to attend college, and to build a new home for his family.

Clay Spencer (Henry Fonda) awakes early one morning in the house he shares with his wife Olivia (Maureen O'Hara) and their huge brood of children. Among them is Clay Spencer Jr. (Clayboy, played by James MacArthur). Clay's parents also live there, and they all get up to welcome Clay's eight younger brothers and sisters to breakfast. Olivia asks for money for a high school graduation ring for Clayboy, but Clay says he doesn’t have the money. He used what they had to buy a table saw from his boss. He promises to get the money by working overtime at the quarry, and then the men set off to Clay's land on Spencer's Mountain. They work on the foundation for the house he plans to build for his family. In fact, he’s been promising to build the house for years.

The next day, Clay and Clayboy take their cow to their neighbor Percy Cook's (Dub Taylor) farm to get her bred with Methuselah, the local prize bull. Percy's daughter Minnie-Cora (Kathy Bennett) comes on to Clayboy, and he's unsure how to react. Later, talking with his dad, Clay tells him to remember: a lady ain't no cow, and he ain't no bull.

Clay then works overtime to get the money for Clayboy's ring, and his boss Col. Coleman (Hayden Rorke) gives him an added bonus: a day off with pay the day trout season opens. While Clay slips off to fish (instead of working on the house), the town prepares for the arrival of their new minister. Enjoying himself at the river, Clay meets a stranger, who joins him, and Clay tells him about the old granddad of all fish – and offers him a swig of his “insect repellent”. Later, the man comments that he finds the "repellent" to be "somewhat numbing". It is – of course – home brew, and the man hooks "old granddad". When the fish gets away, Clay launches into a profanity-laden tirade. Of course, given the era, the words are quite mild. The man chides him for his salty speech, and then – right before he plunges head first into the river – reveals that he's Preacher Goodman (Wally Cox), the town's new minister. He’s now disgraced in front of everyone, when he and Clay, drunk and drenched, stumble into town.

Clay learns that no one will attend Goodman's sermons, so he sets about fixing things. He essentially blackmails everyone into going to church, despite the fact that he doesn't go himself. As he's helped virtually everyone in town, over the years, they either go to church or pay him for the work he's done. They go, and Goodman leads them in the song "Shall We Gather at the River".

Clayboy graduates from High School, in a class of less than a dozen seniors, and he's the only boy. His teacher Miss Parker (Virginia Gregg) wants him to go to college, and she and the minister come to talk to Olivia and Clay. Unfortunately, the only scholarship available is to be a minister. Fortunately, Clay comes home drunk, having been celebrating his son’s accomplishment at being the first of the family to graduate. So, he signs the application without reading it. The teacher then speaks to Col. Coleman about turning an old building into a library and paying Clayboy to run it, as a means of him earning money toward college. While working on the library, Clayboy meets an old friend: the boss' daughter Claris (Mimsy Farmer), now home from college, and quite the looker. They start dating.

When Clayboy gets a rejection letter from the college, Clay drives to the city to ask the dean why. The dean explains that Clayboy had no Latin, which was required for his ministry scholarship. Clay is furious to learn the subject of the scholarship, but he works out a deal with the dean: if Clayboy can learn Latin before the start of college, he can enroll, but there will be no scholarship. Goodman agrees to teach Clayboy Latin, in exchange for Clay attending church. He does, to the amazement of everyone.

Clay and his dad (Grandpa Spencer, Donald Crisp) visit the old homestead on Spencer’s Mountain, and Grandpa speaks of his concerns about the big tree next to the family cemetery. Clay says he’ll chop it down. Meanwhile, Grandpa putters around the ruins of his old home. When he finds a childhood memento, he heads back toward Clay. The tree starts to come down, Clay tries to warn Grandpa off, but he freezes. Clay races to get him out of the way, but only ends up getting in the way himself. Both are crushed. Clayboy arrives, having been sent to bring the two their lunch. He races back to town and calls upon the townsfolk for help. Everyone heads up the mountain. Clay is hurt, but will recover. Grandpa has been mortally wounded, and dies soon after they get him home. After his funeral, Grandma reads his will. As he had given his sons his homestead on the mountain, he had nothing else left to give – except $37, and he leaves it to Clayboy to help him in college.

Clay and Clayboy go to college to show the dean Clayboy's certificate for Latin. He accepts it, and adds the name Clay Spencer Jr. to the roll of incoming freshman. Clay then visits a friend to get a loan to pay for the college. Unfortunately, Minnie-Cora, who Clayboy had earlier rejected, is now married to the friend, and she won't let him lend Clay the money. Olivia takes the kids home and tells Clay to give up – Clayboy is never going to get to college. Clay visits the new house, now well under construction, and hears Olivia's words echoing in his mind as he strolls around the place. Drenching the wood framing in accelerant, he burns the house down. Later, at home, he tells Olivia all the things he's going to do to fix up their existing home, and tells her the new house is gone. He's sold the land to Col. Coleman to pay for Clayboy's college.

Later, at the bus stop, the family says good-bye to Clayboy. Before getting on board, he and Clay embrace, and then he sits in the back next to a man. The fellow asks if he's going far, and Clayboy responds: "Right far," even as the tears trickle down his face.


Maureen O'Hara's daughter Bronwyn FitzSimons has a cameo as the Dean's secretary


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