Spencer's Mountain

Spencer's Mountain is a 1963 American family drama film written, directed, and produced by Delmer Daves from the 1961 novel of the same name by Earl Hamner Jr.[2] The film stars Henry Fonda, Maureen O'Hara,[3] and in early appearances in their careers, James MacArthur, Veronica Cartwright, and Victor French. Longtime Hollywood actor Donald Crisp plays "Grandpa", his final screen role.

Spencer's Mountain
Directed byDelmer Daves
Produced byDelmer Daves
Screenplay byDelmer Daves
Based onthe novel by
Earl Hamner Jr.
StarringHenry Fonda
Maureen O'Hara
Music byMax Steiner
CinematographyCharles Lawton, A.S.C.
H. F. Koenekamp, A.S.C. (second unit)
Edited byDavid Wages
A Delmer Daves Production
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • May 16, 1963 (1963-05-16)
Running time
118 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$4.5 million (US/ Canada rentals) [1]


The Spencers are a large and growing family living in the Grand Teton Mountains of Wyoming in the early 1960s. Family patriarch 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 enable his son Clay Spencer, Jr. (James MacArthur) - whom most everyone calls "Clayboy" - to attend college, and to build a new home for his family. The area is very rural, and the family of eleven does not own a motor vehicle or even a horse, nor do they have electricity or a telephone.

One day Olivia asks Clay 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 drink from a bottle he calls "insect repellent". Later, the man comments that he finds the "repellent" to be "somewhat numbing". It is in fact moonshine, and the man hooks "old granddad". When the fish gets away, Clay launches into a profanity-laden tirade. 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. When he and Clay, drunk and drenched, stumble into town, he is now disgraced to everyone.

Clay learns that the outraged community has all boycotted Goodman's church in favor of another, so he sets about fixing things. He essentially blackmails everyone into returning to the 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, as the only boy in a class of less than a dozen seniors. His teacher Miss Parker (Virginia Gregg) wants him to go to college, and she and the minister come to talk to Olivia and Clay. The only scholarship available is to study theology. However, 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 begs Col. Coleman to convert an old building into a community library and pay Clayboy to run it, so he can earn money toward college. While working on the library, Clayboy meets an old friend: the boss's daughter Claris (Mimsy Farmer), now home from college, who shows a great interest in him. They start dating.

When Clayboy gets a rejection letter from the college, Clay borrows a neighbor's vehicle and drives to the city to ask the dean why. The dean explains that Clayboy had not studied Latin, which was required for his ministry scholarship. Clay is furious to learn that his son would study for ministry, 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 starting to attend 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 fall in Grandpa's direction, and 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 rings a large alarm bell to summon the townsfolk to help and 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 freshmen. Clay then visits a friend to get a loan to pay for the college. Minnie-Cora, whom 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.




The novel and film became the basis for the popular television series The Waltons, which followed in 1972. The series switched the setting from the film's Wyoming to the novel's Virginia, and placed the action in 1933 during the Great Depression. The series also differed from both the film and novel by playing down many of the adult themes, including alcoholism and infidelity, to suit the standards of early-70s family television. Spencer's Mountain was the second of three films co-starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara. Twenty years earlier they starred in the 1943 war drama Immortal Sergeant and, ten years after Spencer's Mountain, played the leads in the 1973 made-for-television film adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel The Red Pony, directed and co-written by Spencer's Mountain second unit director Robert Totten.

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. Although the original novel was set in the Appalachians of Virginia, Hamner said in 1963 that Daves wanted more imposing mountains to emphasize the characters' isolation and struggles with their environment.[5]

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."[6]


  1. "All-Time Top Grossers". Variety. 8 January 1964. p. 69.
  2. McInerney, Lee (July 15, 1963). "The New Film / 'Spencer's Mountain' Stars Henry Fonda; Now at the Stanley". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. p. 12.
  3. Marsters, Jack (June 15, 1963). "Eyes Fascinate Maureen O'Hara". The Gazette. Montreal. p. 28.
  4. "Spencer's Mountain (1963)". IMDb.com. Retrieved 26 May 2017.
  5. Printz, Bill (June 30, 1963). "Family Love in 'Spencer's Mountain'". Daytona Beach Sunday News-Journal. p. 6D.
  6. Italie, Hillel (August 8, 2012). "Groundbreaking film critic Crist dies at age 90". New York Herald Tribune.
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