Spencer’s Mountain – Blu-ray Review

The Movie (2.5/5)

On occasion, when pulling out films from the stack of product that I’ve been given to review, I’ll let my mom pick the movie; I know this sounds lame, but bonding with your parents is something you should never pass up on – life is short, take advantage of this stuff while you can. Usually, she’ll pick whatever has a recognizable name on the cover; she grew up in the 60s and 70s and consumed plenty of TV and movies from that era as a result growing up in the city with her rather large family. As a result, when I plopped down a stack of Warner Archive Blu-ray releases in front of her, she picked the 1963 Warner Bros. production Spencer’s Mountain, based on the fact that she loves Maureen O’Hara and, to quote her, “THEY BASED THE WALTONS OFF OF THIS MOVIE? Your grandma would have LOVED this movie. She LOVED the Waltons.” And so our fate was sealed…..

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Spencer’s Mountain is the story of a poor family, the Spencers, who reside on an isolated mountain on which the Spencer family has always resided, hence the name. Set in the 1940s, the film chronicles the family’s many struggles, including attempting to send their oldest son Clayboy to a nearby university, raising an incredible number of children on Clay Spencer’s measly salary from his job at the nearby quarry, helping the new pastor adjust to their town, and Clay’s foolhardy dream of building a new house for his wife Olivia and all of their children. At the same time, the Spencer family must deal with Clay’s often belligerent alcoholism, and his distaste for the ideals of the church in order to maintain themselves as functioning members of the community.

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Based on a novel of the same name by author Earl Hamner Jr., the screenplay by writer/director Delmer Daves feels incredibly episodic, struggling to  maintain any real sense of continuity between the family’s various struggles. Over the course of two hours, it feels like Daves wanted to tell two major stories as the driving force of the movie, Clay’s construction of his dream house, and the Spencer family’s drive to send Clayboy off to an expensive city university, but neither one gets enough screen time to feel significant. They just sort of get interjected into a number of other stories, which try to deal the many other trials and tribulations the family must face on a daily basis, but also feel rushed and lack any sort of meaningful weight. You get the feeling while watching the movie that Daves read the novel, and had such respect or love for it that he wasn’t sure what subplots and ideas to cut out in order to make a focused, engaging movie.

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On top of the difficulties the movie has presenting a clear narrative, the the film is plagued with some especially stiff dialogue and both over the top and incredibly lifeless line delivery, even for the early 60s. For instance, at multiple points in the film we get scenes in which Clayboy is supposed to be interested in the quarry boss’s daughter Claris, but Clayboy, played by James MacArthur, who was later known for his role on Hawaii Five-O, is so understated in his attempt to play the character as awkward and unprepared for sexual engagement that any attempt at building chemistry or any sense of connection between him and actress Mimsy Farmer who plays Claris never reaches critical velocity. On the other end of the spectrum we have Maureen O’Hara, who surprisingly hams it up so hard as Olivia Spencer, especially during a scene where her youngest child’s rocking high chair swings back too hard and hits the floor, and Henry Fonda chews the scenery as Clay Spencer, who is often depicted as a character who is often drunk and distant, though also expected to be a grounded and loving father figure to his many children.

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The movie, narrative and acting issues aside, is a well made movie. Shot on location in Wyoming’s Teton Range, the film is full of beautiful shots that really emphasize the size and scale of the surrounding areas and just how beautiful they are. The anamorphic aspect ratio is used in conjunction with elaborate crane shots and slow camera movements to really give you a chance to take in the natural environment the Spencers live in. The sets feel warm and lived in, and the costume design is perfectly basic and homely for such a production. The music, composed by Hollywood legend Max Steiner is perfectly serviceable for keeping the emotions and tone of the movie in check. The editing, which was done by David Wages, is competent for the most part; I may have found issue with the way the script was constructed, but at least the two hour run time didn’t feel like two years.

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After watching the movie, I could definitely see how the story of the Spencer family would work as a TV show. It’s almost as if director Delmer Daves made a large budget, star-studded pilot, complete with over the top TV-ish acting and episodic writing. These stories, of which there are many in this single film, beg to be expanded on so that they have more time to grow and become something. As it stands, Spencer’s Mountain is a beautiful, well crafted movie, but it isn’t really that cohesive of a movie. But hey, my mom really liked it. So I guess that’s something.

The Video (4/5)

Spencer’s Mountain was shot on 4-perf 35mm film with Panavision cameras and anamorphic lenses, resulting in a projected aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Sourced from a brand new HD master created by the team at Warner Archive, the film is presented in 1080p resolution, maintaining the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

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The mountains of Wyoming could not look more beautiful than they do through the eyes of a 60s Panavision anamorphic lens. The wonderfully saturated greens, and light whispy blues of this transfer bring out all of the natural qualities of this fantastic on-location production. Coupled with fantastic details in close-ups and mid-shots, and a healthy layer of organic looking film grain, Spencer’s Mountain looks wonderful for the most part. Wide shots are much softer, and there are a few shots here or there that look like they were sourced from a film element two or three generations away from the source used for the rest of the transfer due to their high levels of grain, worse color, and lower resolution. Outside of those shots, this 1080p transfer is clean as a whistle, and expertly prepared, giving a new life to an otherwise forgotten 60s film.

The Audio (4/5)

Spencer’s Mountain originally played in theaters with a mono optical soundtrack on film prints. For this release, Warner Archive has recreated that soundtrack with a DTS-Master Audio 2.0 mono presentation.

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As is the case with all of these mono tracks from Warner Archive, the track is nicely layered with a solid balance between dialogue, sound effects, and Weiner’s musical score. The track is free of any defects, such as pops and clicks. A solid, appropriate effort from the Archive team.

Special Features/Packaging (x/5)

Spencer’s Mountain has been released to Blu-ray by Warner Archive in the traditional Blu-ray keepcase packaging. The front artwork features Henry Fonda in character as Clay Spencer, standing in the foreground of a shot of the mountains featured prominently in the film. Something about the font, and the framing makes this look very early 90s VHS-ish to me, not sure why. The back artwork features a picture of Clayboy and Claris from their picnic in the film, under a tagline for the film and two paragraphs about the film. Below that is a shot of Fonda and O’Hara in their characters’ kitch next to a list of special features, and above credits and technical specs for the release. A rather tame offering from the Warner Archive group.

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Onto the features:

Grand Teton Premiere Documentary – a seven minute feature in which the camera is taken into the town where the film was shot so that they could interview the people that lived there, and how filming affected their lives. It also covers the massive ordeal that was the star-studded premiere of the film in that same town.

Henry Fonda Interviews – a 9 minute talk show-esque interview with Fonda and James MacArthur. They share stories about making the movie in Jackson, Wyoming, and the plot of the movie and other stories about the production.

Theatrical Trailer – the film’s trailer, as seen before its original release in 1963.

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Overall, the two real extras that are included are nice period pieces that show just how big of a deal this movie was to the area in which it was produced. The packaging however, leaves a bit to be desired.

Technical Specs (click for technical FAQs)

Video

Region Coding: None

Codec: AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

Audio

DTS-Master Audio 2.0 Mono (English)

Subtitles

English

Runtime: 118 minutes

Overall (3.5/5)

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I was not nearly as satisfied with Spencer’s Mountain as my mom was, but I’m also a way harsher critic than she is. Where she found heartwarming family moments, I saw awkward writing, over the top melodrama, and a nearly incoherent story structure. Your mileage with the film may vary, depending on where you fall between me and my mom on the critical spectrum. To entice you further, Warner Archive has done a phenomenal job bringing the movie to life in 1080p, with excellent audio and decent features to match. The packaging may not blow anyone away, but this is a pretty solid release for an otherwise forgotten film. Recommended for fans of the film.

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