Judge Bill Treadway takes us back to a simpler time. A time of homespun values, first love, and DVD sets that lacked extras.
From Spencer's Mountain to The Homecoming to Walton's Mountain.
An unexpected smash for its reluctant parent network, CBS, The Waltons stands the test of time and remains of the best family-oriented programs ever made for prime time television. It overcame middling reviews and predictions of failure to enjoy a decade-long run.
If only Warner Bros. had given The Waltons the treatment it deserved on DVD.
Facts of the Case
Within the Blue Ridge of Virginia stands Walton's Mountain. Located there is a small, modest house and barn. Within this house are the Waltons, a close-knit family consisting of patriarch John Walton (Ralph Waite, Sunshine State), his wife, Olivia (MissMichael Learned, as specified in the credits), their parents, and seven children. They make ends meet through a modest sawmill and lumber business.
Of the children, the eldest is John-Boy (Richard Thomas, Wonder Boys, Battle Beyond the Stars). Dreaming of becoming a writer, he jots down his thoughts in a series of journals while helping his father with the sawmill.
In 1971, CBS aired The Homecoming, a television movie that introduced the world to the Walton family. That was a fine film—a review will be forthcoming of that Paramount disc—and it drew high ratings for CBS. With that success in mind, CBS gave the go-ahead for a weekly television series spinoff. That was a surprise in and of itself, since at the time CBS was purging itself of all rural-themed programming. Petticoat Junction and Green Acres had been cancelled despite being ratings powerhouses.
Some changes were made in the cast for the series. While the entire child cast and Ellen Corby (Grandma) were retained, all other roles were recast, for reasons still unknown. Ralph Waite, a fairly well-known character actor, was cast as John Walton, and Michael Learned (called "Miss" in the credits for fear that she would be mistaken for one of the male cast members) replaced Patricia Neal as Olivia Walton. The show was programmed into a highly competitive time slot, opposite NBC's smash The Flip Wilson Show and ABC's The Mod Squad. The predictions indicated that The Waltons would have a very short life indeed. Through a miracle, The Waltons managed to snag solid ratings. The Mod Squad would be axed the following season, prompting Flip Wilson to pull the plug on his own program before NBC could do so.
It is futile to compare The Waltons to Little House on the Prairie, even though it is a similarly themed program. Both are based on true events. I prefer Little House on the Prairie, always have and always will. That is not to take anything away from The Waltons, which is a nice family program that would be welcome on television now in the ever-expanding sea of reality programming. The stories sometimes meander to the point of tedium (whereas Little House always kept the momentum with which it began), and the program is a bit too conscious of the scenery. There are times when it feels as if the show says "Look at the scenery!" rather than letting it become a character in itself as Little House did.
What makes The Waltons work is the acting. Every role is properly cast. The character of Waite's father is a calming force in a tide of depression, and the character of Learned's mother is properly stern and loving. Most impressive is Richard Thomas in what must have been a difficult role. It is one thing to play a sensitive, naïve kid. To do it without cliché is impressive. Thomas manages to make the role work in spite of itself.
All 24 episodes from the first season appear here, spread out over five double-sided discs. On a scale of zero to five stars:
• "The Foundling"
• "The Carnival"
• "The Calf"
• "The Hunt"
• "The Typewriter"
• "The Star"
• "The Sinner"
• "The Boy from the C.C.C."
• "The Ceremony"
• "The Legend"
• "The Literary Man"
• "The Dust Bowl Cousins"
• "The Reunion"
• "The Minstrel"
• "The Actress"
• "The Fire"
• "The Love Story"
• "The Courtship"
• "The Gypsies"
• "The Deed"
• "The Scholar"
• "The Bicycle"
• "The Townie"
• "An Easter Story"
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One of the biggest bones I had to pick with Warner's recent release of Kung Fu on DVD was the odd decision to make the program a "widescreen" release. The top and bottom of the image were cropped off with black bars to create a faux 1.85:1 widescreen image. The Waltons has been spared this fate, but that is the only good news I can give about the transfer. The video quality is excessively poor. Based on the available evidence, it is obvious that no cleanup has been performed on any of the episodes. The opening credits are excruciating to watch, with the overload of grain, scratches, specks, and assorted blemishes. The actual episodes are slightly better. The grain is not as plentiful but is still present, particularly in dark scenes. The transfers all show the signs of poor aging—odd white scratches the size of dragonflies, reel marks that shouldn't be seen at any point, and smudges of dirt. If this was the best source material Warner Bros. could find, it provides an eye-opening example of how important proper film storage and preservation is.
Audio doesn't fare much better. The usual Dolby Digital 1.0 mono tracks Warner is famous for are offered here. The overall sound is tinny and muted. Dialogue is easily heard, but it lacks the vibrancy the best mono tracks can offer. The show doesn't sound much better here than it does on TV. Having seen The Waltons in syndication, I can tell you from experience that I often have to turn the volume up to a very high setting. I had to do the same for these DVDs. Again, though, this may have been the best Warner Bros. could find.
For some reason known only to whoever put together this set, only French subtitles are offered. Unless you know how to operate the closed captioning option on your television set, forget about English or Spanish subtitles. This deprives those hearing-impaired viewers who do not understand French of an option that should be mandatory on all discs. For shame, Warner!
No extras are offered here. Not a single thing can be found on five discs. Since Warner has offered behind-the-scenes and retrospective documentaries on other box sets, I am surprised not to see at least one for The Waltons. As for commentary tracks, would it have been difficult to find at least one cast or creative member to discuss their thoughts for a single episode?
If you wish to make the complete first season of The Waltons a part of your DVD library, it's going to cost you: The set is offered at a fairly high price tag of $49.95. I do recommend seeing The Waltons at least once. It's a nice, clean-cut, and well-acted series of a kind that they don't make anymore. However, the poor quality of the transfers makes it difficult to recommend a purchase. If you have access to cable television, you'd be better off taping the shows off TV Land or the Hallmark Channel. The quality is about the same.
I find Warner Bros. guilty of not paying proper respect to one of the defining television programs of the '70s. Such an expensive package should have offered some extra content. Even if the studio had only poor source material, I have seen public domain studios do wonders with a little extra cleanup effort. I would like to think a major studio would too.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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