Well, who’da believed it, another season come and gone in the blink of an eye. (Actually, I thought we’d be much further along by now, but oh well.)
As you may know, between seasons, we like to revisit the Walnut Groovy Awards . . . to my knowledge the only awards franchise in history that exclusively doled out annual prizes to Little House personnel. (And in some cases, as we shall see, to Little House animalnel.)
While much about the Walnut Groovy Awards is sadly lost to history – you’ll find next to nothing about them online, oddly – I have a knack for unearthing details and photos from the historical awards ceremonies, if I do say so myself.
And it is my pleasure, friends, to share those treasures with you. So, without further ado, please join me in the Pezihutazizi Ballroom of Minneapolis’s Thunderbird Hotel for the 1976 Walnut Groovies!
(For those who accuse me of fictionalizing, the Thunderbird, a Twin Cities institution once revered, later reviled for its elaborate but offensive “Hollywood Indigenous” decor, was a real place; built 1962, demolished 2016!)
Now let’s get right to the awards:
BEST STUNT: Mary and Laura’s underwater puppy rescue (“Remember Me: Part One”)
We loved “Remember Me” for its vivid characterizations and wrenching drama, but that’s not to say it skimps on action. In just the first few minutes, we get a thrilling mini-adventure as Mary and Laura dive to save puppies whose owner is drowning them. Quite the splashy opening for one of this season’s strongest episodes.
Runners-up: Charles gets thrown into a table of pies (twice) (“In the Big Inning”), Mrs. Oleson falls into the river (“The Camp-Out”), Charles nearly rolls his wagon (“A Matter of Faith”), Mustache Man almost gets thrown onto the train tracks (“The Runaway Caboose”)
BEST MUSIC: David Rose (“The Long Road Home”)
Music is one of Little House’s many underrated elements, and composer David Rose’s scores are so clever this is always a difficult category. But in “The Long Road Home,” Rose bypasses usual motifs like “Mary the Nerd” to create a wholly new score that’s cinematic in ambition.
WORST MUSIC: David Rose (“The Pride of Walnut Grove”)
This category’s even harder, for obvious reasons, but even geniuses have bad habits. David’s is lathering up the “comedy” music when situations call for it (and sometimes when they don’t).
Of his tunes to accompany Laura’s stint as “woman of the house,” one of our viewers said, “This is some weird fucking music, David.”
And it’s because of insights like those I married that viewer, reader.
Runners-up: David Rose (“Ebenezer Sprague”)
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Haskell B. Boggs (“A Matter of Faith”)
Twentieth-Century television has a reputation for being merely functional in the way it was shot. But especially considering its budget, Little House pumped a lot of artistry into its camerawork. “A Matter of Faith” shows the creative team pushing the envelope with an almost avant-garde approach to visuals. Pure style.
WORST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Haskell B. Boggs (“The Camp-Out”)
I will say, this episode features some of the most beautiful shots of fake Minnesota mountains you’ll ever see. And yet, the plot hinges on Laura and Nellie’s unplanned river journey, and it’s clear from the footage that made it into the episode that for once, Little House reached too far.
BEST SCREENPLAY: Michael Landon (“His Father’s Son”)
Very tough category this year, as the show hits its sweet spot – call it “thinking person’s melodrama for the whole family” – again and again. But “His Father’s Son,” with its intensity, deeply felt exploration of father/son relationships, and literary touches, showcases Little House’s ability to aim high and hit the mark using words alone.
Runners-up: Ray Goldrup, John Hawkins and B.W. Sandefur (“Haunted House”), Michael Landon (“Remember Me: Part One”), Harold Swanton (“The Talking Machine”), B.W. Sandefur (“A Matter of Faith,” “Soldier’s Return”)
WORST SCREENPLAY: Rocci Chatfield (“The Gift”)
This episode divided our family, with at least one person loving it. But we all agreed something was off about a story where the Ing-Gals misappropriate Sunday school money, get sucked into a pyramid scheme, lie to their neighbors to scam them out of cash, and then get publicly praised by Reverend Alden for it all at the end. Bull. Shit.
BEST DIRECTION: William F. Claxton (“A Matter of Faith”)
Despite being a literal rehash of a Claxton Bonanza episode, “A Matter of Faith” artistically outshines its predecessor (and then some). Clax combines dazzling visuals, a darkly ironic script, some of the series’ most terrifying moments, and a knockout performance from Karen Grassle to achieve an end product that’s truly inspiring, and even more than the sum of its parts.
WORST DIRECTION: Michael Landon (“The Long Road Home”)
Another hard category, since bad direction is really quite rare on this show. “The Long Road Home” isn’t a poor story by any means – and yet, considering its strong elements (visual style, great score, worthy theme, and excellent guest appearance by Louis Gossett, Jr.), it’s strange that it falls a little flat, and isn’t a wildly beloved episode after all this time. Clearly not the instant classic Landon was aiming for (but don’t worry, he’ll get other chances).
BEST PERFORMANCE BY FOOD: The bushel of apples (“Going Home”)
I bet you didn’t even notice, reader, that the apples in the Ingallses’ sod house in “Going Home” were Granny Smiths – not a variety that grows in Minnesota’s cold climate.
But don’t blame yourself – the Granny Smiths’ performance was so completely convincing, you’d have to be some sort of obsessive weirdo to even notice they were the wrong freaking apples.
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ANIMAL (OR ANIMALS): The bug eaten and regurgitated by Nondescript Helen (“Haunted House”)
This season featured a number of noteworthy animal performers. But none pulled off a more harrowing feat than the insect that crawled around Nondescript Helen’s face and into her mouth when she, Nellie, and Willie were trying to get Laura to go up to the spookhouse. Fortunately, the bug was later spotted crawling on a log in the same episode, so it didn’t become a permanent resident of Helen’s insides. We hope!
Runners-up: The sheep (“Ebenezer Sprague,” “For My Lady”), the chickenhawk (“In the Big Inning”), Jack’s Ugly Girlfriend (“Remember Me: Part One”), the bear (“His Father’s Son”), the dead calf (“Going Home”)
This stupid, nameless bovine had a terrible season, leading its calf to certain doom in “Going Home,” and nearly doing the same to Caroline in “A Matter of Faith.” Plus it ate the neighbors’ flower garden! It’s sloppy joe time, if you ask me.
BEST IMPERSONATION OF AN ANIMAL: Michael Landon (the bear, “His Father’s Son”)
For the bear’s attack on Mr. Edwards, they used close-up footage of a real one complemented by shots of Landon in a bear suit taking swipes at Victor French. That you can’t tell which is which is a Little House triumph, especially when you see how effing ridiculous Landon’s costume actually was.
Runner-up: Mrs. Whipple’s shawl (the tarantula, “Soldier’s Return”)
MVP GROVESTER: BEST NON-SPEAKING TOWNSPERSON: Not-Joni Mitchell (“The Gift”)
Fan favorite Not-Joni achieves an impressive presence despite having zero dialogue to this point in the saga. True, she has a cliquish allegiance to the Nondescript Helens and embraced the “Four Eyes” movement, but she saves her strongest disapproval for Nellie, which she expresses as always through her accomplished eye-rolling technique. Not-Joni, we salute you.
WORST NON-SPEAKING TOWNSPERSON: Not-Albert (various)
It had to be somebody, right?
Two performances in particular were so big, and the parts so juicy, that the academy couldn’t choose. Ted Gehring brings surprising humanity and pain to a role that could easily have been a by-the-numbers Scrooge knockoff.
And as for Mrs. Whipple, as one of our panelists remarked, it’s remarkable, and remarkably horrible, how the show picked one of the nicest recurring townspeople and decided to ruin her life. Queenie Smith answers that call with dignity, sadness, and a touch of ferocity. Long live the Whip.
Runners-up: The Ambiguously Ethnic Kid (“The Pride of Walnut Grove”), Nondescript Helen (“Haunted House”), Mustache Man (“Ebenezer Sprague,” “The Runaway Caboose”), Margaret Mumfort (“In the Big Inning”)
WORST FEATURED TOWNSPERSON: Cloud City Princess Leia (various)
This was the easiest category for voters. Above all others, one character this season shocked us again and again with her descent into malevolence. She smirked and chanted when Mary got her glasses, and egged Willie on to mock her with ashtray eyes (“Four Eyes”); she screamed for Willie and Jonah to beat the shit out of each other on the playground (“At the End of the Rainbow”); she laughed her fucking head off when Nellie humiliated Laura with the phonograph (“The Talking Machine”); and I’ve always suspected she was the one who wrote Jason Loves Laura on the chalkboard for all to see. (Because who else would be tall enough, right?)
Who is this wicked creature? Some may call her “the Tall Schoolgirl”; but to us she’ll always be known as Cloud City Princess Leia.
BEST PERFORMANCE BY A GHOST OR ZOMBIE: Lilly Baldwin Pike (“Haunted House”)
Two spooky characters to choose from this time. You may argue Lilly does nothing but twirl (and you’d be right), but Lisa Lyon’s windup attitudes make the perfect phantom for Amos Pike to soliloquize o’er.
Runner-up: Roy Collins, Sr. (“Soldier’s Return”)
BEST PERFORMANCE (GUEST CAST): Patricia Neal (Julia Sanderson, “Remember Me: Part One”)
Despite some excellent competition, this one was no contest. Patricia Neal gives a truly devastating performance as the kind but iron-willed widow who learns her time is up. A guest star turn for the ages.
Runners-up: John Anderson (Amos Pike, “Haunted House”), Louis Gossett, Jr. (Henry Hill, “The Long Road Home”), Richard Mulligan (Granville Whipple, “Soldier’s Return”), Irene Tedrow (Minerva Farnsworth, “Remember Me: Part Two”)
WORST PERFORMANCE (GUEST CAST): Richard Basehart (Hannibal Applewood, “Troublemaker”)
This one’s for the ages, too. “Troublemaker” is in many ways an absurd story, but Moby-Dick veteran Basehart makes it unforgettable with his Cetacean-sized, blisteringly hammy approach to a character who on paper is merely a stereotypically mean teacher.
Runner-up: E.J. André (Matthew Simms, “Going Home”)
MOST PAINFUL BEHIND-THE-SCENES TENSION: Karen Grassle and Michael Landon
Karen Grassle’s recent memoir revealed some unhappy background to this season, saying that she asked Michael Landon for a raise, and he punished her by essentially writing her out of several scripts. There’s a he-said/she-said element to this claim (more on this below), but certainly it’s clear in several stories that something is off between them. Sad that backstage unpleasantness should have an effect on their legendary onscreen chemistry.
Runner-up: Melissa Sue Anderson and Radames Pera
Another tie here. Radames Pera makes an ideally sensitive John, one who strikes us as sad and slightly lost, when it would be so easy to view him as simply annoying.
And Alison Arngrim brings Nellie fully to life in “The Talking Machine.” A scene-stealer from the start, here she finally gets a story and a script worthy of her genius.
Runners-up: Bonnie Bartlett (“His Father’s Son”), Jonathan Gilbert (“The Spring Dance”), Dabbs Greer (“Remember Me: Part One”), Kevin Hagen (“Soldier’s Return”), Victor French (“Remember Me: Part Two,” “His Father’s Son”), Katherine MacGregor (“The Camp-Out”), Charlotte Stewart (“Troublemaker“)
WORST PERFORMANCE (RECURRING CAST): Kyle Richards (“His Father’s Son”)
It’s hard to speak ill of a little kid, and Alicia does have some fans in our house, but I think Kyle Richards’s acting at this early phase makes the Greenbush Twins look like Sir John Gielgud. Fortunately, by 1978 she’ll have developed her skills, just in time for Halloween.
Another tie here. With her iconic performance in “A Matter of Faith” – one of the most memorable of any actor the entire series – Karen Grassle shatters the notion that all Ma is good for is making coffee and talking Pa down from hissy fits. (Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Landon.)
But equally appealing, if less showy, is Melissa Gilbert’s marvelous performance in (the underrated) “Haunted House.” The full range of Laura’s personality – “snippety-snappetiness,” impatience, silliness, kindness, understanding, and ultimately wisdom beyond her years – is on display here.
Runners-up: Melissa Sue Anderson (“Four Eyes”), Melissa Gilbert (“Ebenezer Sprague,” “The Spring Dance,” “Remember Me: Part One,” “Going Home”), Karen Grassle (“Going Home”), Michael Landon (“Remember Me: Part One,” “Remember Me: Part Two,” “Going Home”)
WORST PERFORMANCE (MAIN CAST): Karen Grassle (various)
As we noted above, the behind-the-scenes tension between Karen Grassle and her showrunner/onscreen love interest is perceptible even to the audience. Grassle is also forthcoming in her book about her off-set substance abuse during this period, and no doubt the combination of these factors explains her string of out-of-it performances throughout this season.
Runner-up: Melissa Sue Anderson (“The Gift”)
All right, now it’s time for the best of the best and the worst of the worst!
FIVE BEST STORIES:
#5: For My Lady
A very silly story, this one was a real dark-horse candidate. And yet, our judges couldn’t stop grinning throughout.
Finally, the writers were able to come up with a love story for Laura that actually made (some) sense. But the real star of this one is Nellie, whose monstrous revenge against her best frenemy brought gasps and screams of laughter to our house.
About as perfect as Little House gets, this one is operatic, hitting emotional highs and lows effortlessly and featuring one powerhouse performance after another.
#2: His Father’s Son
I’ll admit I’m biased, seeing more than a little of myself in this story of pre-sleazemonster John Junior and trying-too-hard Mr. Edwards as they attempts to understand each other. Throw in a gory bear attack and a mad scene for John and you’ve got Little House magic yet again.
What more can be said about “A Matter of Faith”? With its focus on the isolated struggle of a single character, it’s unique in the Little House canon, and the urgency of its story is only heightened when contrasted with scenes of Charles and the kids blithely swimming and stupid Aldi picking up pies inches away from the dying Caroline. What more is there to say, except, “Cut it off!”
FIVE WORST STORIES:
A story sunk by blandness more than anything else, this one features Charles at his stupidest as he runs his family into the ground over a meager bill Nels would happily give him more time to pay.
#4: The Gift
As I mentioned above, one of us loved this crazy tale of history’s first pyramid scheme, which culminates in Laura going door to door pretending Caroline is dead and her family’s only hope rests with Dr. Briskin’s Homeopathic Remedies. The rest of us thought it was a disaster. (Sorry, Dags.)
#3: The Camp-Out
I actually kind of like this one, but our panel overall disapproves of purely comedic stories about the Olesons and their misadventures. And a poorly filmed river ride featuring doubles that don’t even resemble the characters didn’t help much.
So bad it really has to be seen to be believed, this one takes an already unbelievable setup and hands it to an over-the-top guest star, who proceeds to literally stomp and scream the story to death.
This one surprised me, since you’d think the nutty dream sequences alone would have saved it. But apparently a majority of panelists felt this one sank like a hunk of pyrite tossed into Plum Creek.
And now, for those of you who care, here’s the full list of our family’s aggregated rankings. See you soon for Season Three.
- A Matter of Faith
- His Father’s Son
- Remember Me
- The Talking Machine
- For My Lady
- Haunted House
- Soldier’s Return
- The Long Road Home
- The Pride of Walnut Grove
- Four Eyes
- The Runaway Caboose
- In the Big Inning
- Going Home
- The Spring Dance
- Ebenezer Sprague
- The Richest Man in Walnut Grove
- The Gift
- The Camp-Out
- At the End of the Rainbow