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Review: Earl Hamner Storyteller

A loving portrait of a Hollywood writer who created The Waltons, as told in his own words and by a number of celebrities who portrayed his characters.

By David Delouchery - All About The Waltons



Earl Hamner Storyteller (EHS) is the story of a genteel Virginian writer who made it big in Hollywood. Earl Hamner grew up during the Depression, served during the 2nd World War and then pursued a career of writing that took him from writing novels and radio to TV and film.


In establishing Earl's desire to write, EHS weaves footage from his creations Spencer's Mountain (1963), The Homecoming (1971) and The Waltons (1972-80) to illustrate his journey to become a writer. This technique continues to be employed to further illustrate details about Earl’s upbringing, family and home. How amazing to tell the tale of a writer's life story by combining fictional footage from various dramas that biographically illustrate which such accurate precision since all of that footage was semi-autobiographical to begin with. Has there ever been such a situation before where a Hollywood legend creates a successful body of work that would then one day act as archive footage to support their own biography?


Earl Hamner's father never lived to see The Waltons or The Homecoming but he got quite a kick when he learned that Henry Fonda would portray him in Spencer's Mountain. Andrew Duggan and Ralph Waite would continue where Mr. Fonda left off. In fact all of Earl's family has had the honor of being portrayed by a number of talented actors and in a humorous sort of way they have become immortalized for just being normal, common and not very spectacular at all. How un-Hollywood like is that?


While Earl speaks for himself and takes the viewer on a journey through his life and career, the story is achieved mainly by connecting soundbites from more than 55 interviews with the actors, friends and family who Earl's influence touched throughout their life and career. The filmmakers take us back to Earl’s childhood home in Schuyler, Virginia, a small community that Earl immortalized in his fictional tales of growing up on The Waltons. Actor/Producer Michael McGreevey acts as a conduit, “the ear of the audience” so to speak to help frame the story as Earl shares his memories of growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountain region of Virginia. Yet with so much career to reveal and so many interviews from other celebrities to tell the tale, little time is spent “porch sitting” before we are whisked off on a quickly paced journey of Earl's career in Hollywood. We don't really get a behind-the-scenes-tell-all-tale because Earl is too much of a gentleman for that. What we do get though is a relatively thorough look at the achievements of a man who sought to tell stories about family, honor, love, perseverance, grace and dignity who did it so successfully in a town that is not especially known for those qualities.

 


The film spends a significant amount of time illustrating Earl's break into Hollywood and television writing his first scripts for a handful of Twilight Zone episodes. We learn an interesting insight in that the characters of the old man and his wife portrayed in “The Hunt” serve as prototypes for Grandma and Grandpa Walton.


By far Earl's greatest achievement is the long running series The Waltons. EHS spends almost a third of its run time focusing on this production. In the kitchen of his childhood home in Virginia Earl sits with 3 of his surviving siblings and explains that he wrote about each of them as he saw them. Through a series of clips Earl reveals each of the “Walton” actors who portrayed his siblings.


Earl is the voice of a mature John-Boy who looks back on his memories of growing up on Walton's Mountain. Richard Thomas admits his disappointment when he was not chosen to read the opening and closing monologue for each episode. We learn about the issues explored, the history told and how Earl worked to keep real, honest moments in the show. The film then moves on to Earl's other creations like Apples Way and Falcon Crest.


Country recording artist and Virginia native, Jimmy Fortune bookends the film with his song “Virginia Dreams” and pianist/composer Paul Cardall provides the various themes throughout the film.


The documentary doesn't lose sight of its topic. With so many legendary interviewees, productions and clips to sort through it could have been a daunting task for most but the filmmakers expertly craft a story that stays on track and never veers far from the topic which, is always Earl himself.


While one would think that a biography would focus principally on the subjects most popular productions, EHS actually does a commendable job stepping us through an insightful journey of Earl's career especially insightful for those who know little of his varied body of work.


Earl Hamner’s themes centralize around family. Whether it be about a wine producing family from California (Falcon Crest) or a man who moves his family from the rat race of the city to find a simpler life in small town Iowa (Apple’s Way} or even a pig and a spider (Charlotte’s Web) Earl found drama in the everyday struggles of family life, how they persevere and how they relate to each other through various trials and tribulations that surround them. The pinnacle of this exploration was The Waltons which certainly deserves to be heralded with some of the other sweeping dramatic works like Bertolucci’s 1900, Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy or Legends of the Fall. The Waltons addressed many social issues and were placed within the context of two great American struggles, The Great Depression and World War II. While other great television creators/show runners such as Steven Bochco, Bruno Hellor, and David Kelley typically focus on crime and doctor dramas for intriguing storylines, Earl focused on domestic and social turmoil to engage the viewer’s attention; values and morals instead of violence and sex.

 


 

EHS is not without a few technical blemishes that only the most seasoned eye would probably detect. Conversely it excels at not being bogged down by the weight of its own subject matter. The quick pace keeps things moving and the volume of interviews never allows the viewer to tire from overuse of any of the personalities in particular. More often than not it leaves one to wonder what other stories were left on the editing room floor. In telling the tale of a Hollywood legend it's fitting to see so many recognizable faces who came together to share their insight and memories of a writer who gave them the words and character to perform. While this film is the story of a writer, it is more revealing at times for “who” speaks than for what they say. Many of these interviews are celebrities who in many cases we haven't seen in the limelight for some time and it's a joy to see their familiar faces again yet for the most part all too briefly.

 

In the end, Earl Hamner Storyteller is a charming tribute. The filmmakers achieved their goal in telling the story of modest writer's journey from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia to the Hills of Hollywood. There are too few portraits that honor the works of creative individuals such as this Virginian, no, American treasure. A Hollywood storyteller who strived to reveal the best in ourselves, who navigated a business known for spite, greed and deceit and used his skill and talent to create a body of work that reveals our best qualities and gave audiences something decent that the whole family could enjoy, be entertained by and learn something along the way

 

Rating: 8/10


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