Spencers Mountain

Gasser

Spencer's Mountain (1963)

     When I think of versatile actors who, like a chameleon, can mold their performances to fit a wide range of characters, Henry Fonda does not exactly come to mind. I have not seen a great number of his films, but through Once Upon a Time in the West and now Spencer’s Mountain, I would certainly declare the man had the ability to play whatever type he wanted. Coincidentally, the two films I mentioned that take Fonda away from his typical every-man type roles are also his most tan parts.

     In Spencer’s Mountain, Fonda plays a quarry worker who runs a family of nine children and a good amount of property during what appeared to be the same time when the film was made, the 1960s. Clay Spencer never graduated high school and it shows. Not only does Fonda affect a slight country accent but his dialogue is full of ain’ts and low-brow profanity that he delivers as if it were his natural way of speaking, not something he read from a script.

     Clay Spencer lives on a portion of land in a valley first claimed by his father –still living– 70 years prior and the family was so well-known that one of the mountains in the area was named for them. The story is a fairly hunky-dorey type. For a long while through the plot one thinks there will be no real conflict and that the story follows the rather trivial activities of this poor, country family. The eldest son of Clay and wife Olivia (Maureen O’Hara), who goes by Clayboy (James MacArthur), graduates high school with honors and wants to go to college, which is a bit of an impossibility for this poor family. Part of the story follows his plight to land a scholarship to attend the school.

     There were plenty of moments during the story when I thought, oh no! some tragic accident is going to happen here. But it did not. At least until the film was mostly over when Clay and his father get caught under a falling tree, which kills the father, but even Clay’s injury causes no real hardship for the family.

     The real star of this movie, however, are the panoramic views of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming where the flick was filmed. Spencer’s Mountain also uses Panavision, a particularly wide anamorphic widescreen format that on my rectangular flat screen TV still required two thick black bars on the top and bottom to show the full image. All outdoor views in this film are really stunning landscapes. Mountains, fields, lakes –all are on display in this beauty of a motion picture.

  • Spencer’s Mountain is set for 1:30 p.m. ET July 9 on TCM.
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One Response

  1. I agree with everything you said. I think part of Fonda’s genius was script selection. Even when he played a bad guy (rare) he was incredibly appealing. He always chose parts that did that for him, whether comedy, tragedy or anything else. The common man’s hero and the ladies’ dream. I can’t think of any crap he made. Maybe he just elevated everything he touched.

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