Original Air Date: December 4th, 1977
Review by Joanna Wilson
The 1977 TV movie The Gathering directed by Randal Kleiser casts a long shadow. Not only has this movie endeared itself to many of the viewers that saw it when it was originally broadcast but it contains a stellar cast. It won an Emmy for Outstanding Special--Drama or Comedy as well being nominated for four others. For me, it has a personal connection as I live not far from the locations where they shot the film.
In this story, successful businessman Adam Thornton, played by Edward Asner, learns he has only months to live. In an effort to reconnect with the family he could previously never make time for, Adam organizes an unexpected Christmas reunion. Not wanting anyone’s pity, he doesn’t share his terminal condition or his motivations to redeem himself, although his wife Kate, played by Maureen Stapleton, from whom he is separated and his grown children can sense a change in him. Gathering together his family for the holiday at the last minute is its own struggle as is convincing them to spend it with the father they have mixed feelings for. But Adam needs to spend time with each of his family members to say what he needs to say before it is too late. The greatest reward is when his youngest son, Bud, played by Gregory Harrison, makes the journey from remote Canada. Adam now regrets throwing Bud out of his house over their conflicts about the Vietnam War. This Christmas film has the subtleties and complexity of emotion that some films overwrite or worse yet, force into their scripts. In addition to Asner, Stapleton and Harrison, this ensemble cast includes several other recognizable actors: Stephanie Zimbalist, Gail Strickland, Lawrence Pressman, Veronica Hamel and Bruce Davison among others.
There are two memorable scenes. The first is when the men in the family ask Adam to recite his favorite Christmas poem just as he used to do every Christmas Eve. Introducing the Victorian poem as one written by the popular British author, Rudyard Kipling, he entertains the men drinking in the kitchen. What many viewers may not know is that this poem “Christmas in the Workhouse” is not by Kipling but more accurately by George R. Sims who wrote the dramatic monologue contained in his “Dagonet Ballads” in 1879. The second memorable scene is the one where Adam and his like-minded son Tom decide to set off an entire box of fireworks after midnight early Christmas morning. The two adults shout and cheer as the explosions, lights and whistles fill the darkness of still night that results in neighborhood dogs barking and neighbors complaining. But the scene underscores Adam’s attitude and commitment to spend his last Christmas literally and symbolically as loudly as he wants.
There is also a scene where Adam’s grandchildren awaken their grandfather who is sleeping on the couch on Christmas morning. It’s a small detail, however, some may recognize that the two children use a Yogi Bear plush toy to wake up their grandfather. This toy was most probably chosen because this film was executive produced by Joseph Barbera--the same man as the TV animation giant from Hanna-Barbera Productions. But a children’s movie this is not.
Though this film’s story takes place in a quaint, snowy New England village, it was actually shot in Northeast Ohio. The house they used for the Thornton home is located in Hudson Ohio on the campus of The Western Reserve Academy. The outdoor footage used in the opening scenes of the film when Adam is walking with his doctor discussing the outcome of his terminal diagnosis is located in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Thornton/Asner stands on a bridge looking over the railing at the river below before he walks along to the edge and down a staircase which leads to a beautiful waterfall. This is a popular destination for couples as well as shoppers right in downtown Chagrin Falls.
This touching holiday film is one that many viewers have missed in previous years. However, I saw it broadcast last Christmas on the Gospel Music Channel, which is a good sign that we can expect to see it again in December 2010.