Jack Palance, what a great actor. "Winter's End," what a great movie. CBS and "The Hallmark Hall of Fame" come through again with ideal Sunday night entertainment.
It's been 43 years since Palance mesmerized the viewing nation as a punch-drunk palooka in Rod Serling's "Requiem for a Heavyweight," a landmark for CBS and its drama anthology "Playhouse 90." Here is Palance again, still mesmerizing, in "Winter's End" as a weather-beaten geezer who comes in from the cold to find his son and find himself after losing track of both--thus ending winter in more ways than one.
The complete title of the film, at 9 tomorrow night on Channel 9, is "Sarah, Plain & Tall: Winter's End," because it's the second sequel to "Sarah, Plain & Tall," the superb and hugely popular "Hallmark" drama that ushered the decade in as this latest installment ushers it out. Patricia MacLachlan, who wrote the book on which the first movie was based, wrote the script for the new one, which again brings together director Glenn Jordan and stars Glenn Close as Sarah and Christopher Walken as Jacob.
For those few who missed the first film, Close recaps it in a speech about halfway through--how she answered an ad in a Maine newspaper to come West to Kansas and care for a widower, Jacob Witting, and his two children, seven years earlier. She and Jacob then had a baby of their own. It is now March of 1918, still very much Kansas, and the younger children, a boy and a girl, are growing fast.
These "Sarah" movies almost don't need plots because just watching people live orderly lives in a pristine, pre-tech environment has its own obvious seductive charms. They're ordinary people but not by today's standards; they are honest, truthful, straightforward, compassionate, trusting, independent, decent. They don't whine and are not materialistic. Not even the kids.
Little Cassie likes to play hide-and-seek with her brother, Caleb, who humors her by playing along. One day, though, she finds a strange, craggy, dusky-voiced man lurking in the barn. Sarah investigates. It turns out to be Jacob's father, who deserted the Witting family when Jacob was only a boy. Years of resentment have built up, on Jacob's part any way, and he wishes the old man would just go away again.
One expects a reconciliation and probably an epiphany and "Winter's End" is not wildly unpredictable, but the script doesn't make things easy or pat, and at nearly every turn there are moments of edifying emotional truthfulness. If movies ever give you a lump in your throat, prepare to get lumpy all over again. The "Sarah" films, so skillfully made and so non-pandering in approach, are sort of like "The Waltons" without the schmaltz. Also better written and, thanks to people like Close, Walken and Palance, much better acted.
Palance had a fascinating face in 1956 and age has made it more so. He gives a performance of truly elegant restraint, so that moments that could be melodramatic undergo a certain dignification. The children take to the idea of having a grandpa living in the house very eagerly, even as Jacob is mumbling bitterly, and they bond with the old man in the way that only children and old people can.
Comes a moment, then, in the second hour, when Grandpa sings Cassie to sleep, holding her on his lap and crooning the traditional lullaby "All Through the Night," and the whole world stops at the simple beauty of it. Your faithful critic, who prides himself on his resistance to sentimentality (false pride, as it happens, but that's another story), went completely to pieces. Beautiful, wonderful, heavenly.
A subplot has Jacob's older daughter, Anna, now a local nurse, worrying about her boyfriend, who is off fighting World War I. He's also the doctor's son--a doctor who not only makes house calls, but who tells a reticent Grandpa at one point, "Now you come into my office or I'll come and find you" for his next appointment. We are set up for the fact that the boyfriend has been disfigured by the war and that his return to his girlfriend will be traumatic, as in "The Best Years of Our Lives."
This is one instance, probably the only one, in which the film opts for the easy way out. But by then it's near the end anyway, after the big storm and the fight in the barn and sundry other crises have battered the family.
David Shire's lovely musical score incorporates "Where Have You Been, Billy-Boy?" from the outset; the song is later sung by Close and the kids. Amazingly enough, considering the economics of TV moviemaking these days, the film was actually shot in Kansas and not in Canada. It's a superb piece of work and one of the few sweeps events in which a network, in this case CBS, can take fulsome pride.
In addition to war raging in Europe, the Midwest of 1918 is being attacked by an influenza epidemic. Says the doctor: "We're in God's hands on every front, it seems." In other words, it may be Kansas of 1918, but it is also here and now. "Winter's End," airing prior to another winter's beginning, is golden inspiration all the way through.