Upon his death in 1955, author and film critic James Agee did not leave his wife Mia with much money to keep their family going, and so editor David McDowell decided to publish an unfinished work of Agee’s (which Jim had been working on since 1948) entitled A Death in the Family. An autobiographical novel set in Knoxville, TN (in 1915) that details the aftermath of the death of Agee’s father in an automobile accident, Family would win Agee a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1958. Family would then be adapted into a 1960 stage play, All the Way Home, which would also garner a dramatic Pulitzer for playwright Tad Mosel the following year.
Two years later, All the Way Home was brought to the silver screen courtesy of Paramount, starring Jean Simmons and Robert Preston as Mary and Jay Follet, a loving couple offering up prima facia evidence that opposites attract: Mary is a religious woman and teetotaler, Jay has a taste for the good stuff and is quite skeptical on the subject of religion (he’s an atheist in Agee’s book, though this is understandably downplayed in the movie). The Follets have a seven-year-old son, Rufus (Michael Kearney), and another bundle of joy on the way…though Mary and Jay have been struggling as to how they’ll break this news to Rufus.
The Follets take a road trip to visit Jay’s great-great grandmother (Lylah Tiffany), and are accompanied by members of Jay’s family: his mother Jessie (Georgia Simmons), father John Henry (Edwin Wolfe), and brother Ralph (Pat Hingle) and his wife Sally (Ronnie Claire Edwards). No sooner have the Follets returned home when they receive a phone call from Ralph that John Henry has taken ill; Ralph is unable to articulate exactly what’s wrong with their father but rather be safe than sorry, Jay hops in his car to be at his old man’s side. Jay later phones Mary to let her know that his father is okay, that he’ll be home in time for dinner. It’s an appointment that Follet will fail to keep.
All the Way Home, to my knowledge, has never seen an official Region 1 DVD release…come to think it, I don’t think the movie ever surfaced on VHS, either. Which is a shame, really; it’s a poignant film that grapples with issues of grief and faith, and the difficulty in picking up the pieces after the untimely death of a loved one. The movie is available for viewing on YouTube ($2.99) and Amazon ($3.99 rental, $9.99 purchase), and if the Movies! website (the digital subchannel available in selected TV markets that shows a lot of the Paramount library) is to be believed it’s turned up there a time or two as well. You know me—I’m a physical media guy—so when I saw that my Facebook compadre Martin Grams, Jr. had it for $6.99 at Finders Keepers (undergoing maintenance as of this writing, so I can’t give you a precise link) into the online cart it went.
My mother is not a big Robert Preston fan…which is why she doesn’t care for The Music Man (1962—I know…sacrilege!). I can tolerate him in small doses, but I really think he turns in excellent work despite his short amount of screen time. Preston has a wonderful rapport with the child actor who plays his son, Michael Kearney; Philip H. Reisman, Jr., who adapted the stage play for the film, does an admirable job showing the bond between father and son from the beginning (the two of them are first seen watching Charlie Chaplin in a movie theatre). I particularly enjoyed the scene where Preston gently tries to explain to Kearney why using “the N-word” is improper because it’s an epithet used to hurt people.
All the Way Home is Jean Simmons’ show, of course, and she delivers a bravura performance as a woman who not only has to cope with the loss of the man she dearly loves but explain Jay’s passing to her seven-year-old (mother and son share a tender scene at the end, when Mary places Rufus’ hand on her stomach to explain that he’ll soon be joined by a baby sister/brother, and that it’s almost like having a piece of his father rejoining them). TDOY favorite Aline MacMahon is also on hand in what was her silver screen swan song (she did a few TV shows/TV movies like The Defenders and The Doctors and the Nurses before her passing in 1991); as Mary’s supportive Aunt Hannah, she’s there when her niece gets that tragic call and never leaves her side as Mary works through her grief while looking after Rufus. MacMahon was one of five performers who reprised their original stage roles—the other four being Thomas Chalmers (as Mary’s father), Georgia Simmons, Edwin Wolfe, and Lylah Tiffany (who made her stage debut at age 81 playing the 103-year-old great-great grandmother).
Another TDOY favorite, Pat Hingle, plays Jay’s younger brother Ralph—a mortician who’s bursting with pride showing off his new car (there’s a tense scene between him and Mary toward the end of the film because she’s insistent that Ralph not prepare Jay’s body for the burial) but mostly insecure about his life and work; Hingle would reprise the role in a 1971 TV-movie version (with Joanne Woodward and Richard Kiley in the Simmons and Preston roles). (All the Way Home was also revived in 1981—with Sally Field and William Hurt…and TDOY idols John McIntire and Jeanette Nolan as Jay’s parents—and 2002 [under the book title, A Death in the Family] with Annabeth Gish and John Slattery.) The actress portraying Hingle’s wife might be familiar to fans of The Waltons: she’s Ronnie Claire Edwards, who played Corabeth Walton Godsey on that long-running series. I also got a kick out of seeing two-time Tony winner John Cullum (as Mary’s brother Andrew) in his motion picture debut; Cullum would go on to appear in such films as Hawaii (1966) and 1776 (1972) but is probably best known around Rancho Yesteryear as storekeeper Holling Vincoeur on the TV series Northern Exposure. (Blacklisted actor John Henry Faulk, the subject of the 1975 TV-movie Fear on Trial, has a small role as Walter.)
David Susskind, famous for his groundbreaking TV talk show Open End (and producer of many, many live television productions) continued his string of critically acclaimed films (A Raisin in the Sun, Requiem for a Heavyweight) with Alex Segal (another live TV veteran) in the director’s chair; Segal does solid work with what is admittedly a stage bound presentation, and he’d go on to later boob tube triumphs like the 1966 production of Death of a Salesman with Lee J. Cobb. If you haven’t seen this movie you’ll probably want to check out YouTube or Amazon…but the copy I got from Finders Keepers is an excellent one, and if you think I got a little teary-eyed during this film it’s only because it’s allergy season. (Yeah…that’s the ticket…)