DVD: Gathering, The (1977)

December 7, 2011 | By

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Film: Very Good/ DVD Transfer: Very Good/ DVD Extras:  n/a

Label: Warner Home Video/ Region: 1 (NTSC) / Released: October 25, 2011

Genre: Drama / Christmas Special / TV

Synopsis: A small town corporate chieftan attempts a reconciliation with his estranged family at what will be his final Christmas gathering.

Special Features:  n/a

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Review:

Emmy Winner: Outstanding Special – Drama or Comedy

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There’s a specific generation who recall this classic, Emmy Award-winning drama that transcends the usual seasonal tripe concocted for TV movies as well as TV series. The tone is designed to be non-controversial, a bit genteel, and the drama follows the predictable path where the estranged components of a fractured family somehow reassemble for one momentous Christmas dinner, rekindling a sense of fidelity to the concept of Family: always there for each other, and able to command strength when faced with serious events.

Written by James Poe and directed by then-newcomer Randal Kleiser (a year before he struck gold with Grease), The Gathering begins on a grim note: emotionally burly patriarch Adam Thornton (Ed Asner) is told he has 30-90 days max before a serious disease claims his life, so without any hesitation, he sets his affairs in order, and plans to make Xmas his one chance to right a series of wrongs, all stemming from his pivotal decision to leave wife Kate (Maureen Stapleton), and ignore virtually all of his four kids – daughters Julie (Rebecca Balding) and Peggy (Gail Strickland), and sons Bud Jr. (Gregory Harrison) and Tom (Lawrence Pressman ) for more than a decade.

After Adam explains to Kate of his eventually demise, the two make telephone overtures to the kids, and the narrative intercuts each child’s reaction as they either contemplate or reject Kate’s offer for a family get-together; some also suspect the sudden dinner invite signals a reunion between their still legally separated parents. Naturally, ¾’s of the kids come home with their spouses and kids, and Adam’s first priority is to make peace with Tom, whom he feels is headed for the same path towards misery and regret – a nice touch by writer Poe in evoking Ebenezer Scrooge and the ghosts without directly referencing Charles Dickens.

The lone no-show – draft-dodger Bud, living under an alias in Manitoba (!) – eventually makes it home, and makes peace with his father while adding a new daughter-in-law and son to the Thornton family before the end credits roll. Poe doesn’t give Adam any miraculous remission, but dad will leave the family more intact, and filled with resolve.

It’s melodramatic, manipulative, predictable – Bud’s last-minute appearance is hardly a shock – and dripping with schmaltz, but Poe’s prose, and his decision to keep the drama revolving around Adam are what prevents the teleplay from being wholly generic. We’re always shown Adam’s reactions – upset, disappointment, regret, humility, glee – and Asner is surrounded by a great cast of veteran actors – namely Stapleton, John Randolph (Seconds), James Karen (Poltergiest [M]) – and newcomers (see Postscript).

Director Kleiser also adopted a pastel, candy colour scheme reminiscent of old Technicolor family dramas, and Dennis Dalzell’s cinematography is unusually rich for a TV production. Warner Home Video’s transfer betters the old VHS tape, and with minimal digital noise reduction, the DVD presents a fairly clean transfer – quite rare when most TV productions aren’t just grainy, but survive as older, worn and often soft-focus prints.

The lone flaw is John Barry’s score, or rather the use of his music cues, which tends to revolve around slight variations of his monothematic theme. His instrumental combinations are often quite effective (particularly harpsichord and solo violin), but the maniacal repetition of the same cues weakens scenes and montages, and makes anything original rather clichéd.

Unfortunately, there are no extras on the DVD, but it’s a welcome surprise to see WHV giving the film a straight DVD release when its prior appearance was under the MOD Warner Archive brand, coupled with the teleplay’s sequel, The Gathering, Part II (1979), of which neither Kleiser, Poe, nor Barry had any connection.

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Postscript

Even a cursory examination of the cast shows what became a who’s who of classic eighties TV, making The Gathering noteworthy for capturing talent shortly before they broke.

Although she plays a benevolent daughter, Balding had already shown a nasty side as corrupt cop Parker in The Bionic Woman, but is best known for her extensive TV work (three years on Soap) and two classic slasher films: Silent Scream (1980) and The Boogens (1981).

Veronica Hamel soon achieved her own stardom on the long-running Hill Street Blues (1981-1987), whereas Bruce Davison (X-Men) had appeared in Kleiser’s directorial debut, the short film Peege (1973). Stephanie Zimbalist’s small role predates her career high in Remington Steele (1982-1987), not to mention Harrison, who played screen husband Bud prior to a starring role on Logan’s Run (1977-1978) and Trapper John, M.D. (1979-1986).

Poe’s background includes adapting a pair of Tennessee Williams plays for film – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Summer and Smoke (1961) – and Clifford Odets’ The Big Knife (1955), the travelogue pastry Around the World in 80 Days (1956), and William E. Barrett’s Lilies in the Field (1963). His final credits include Riot (1969), They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), and co-writing The Nightman (1992), an underrated TV adaptation of Lucille Fletcher’s noir radio play.

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© 2011 Mark R. Hasan

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External References:

IMDB Composer Filmography

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