A few months after American Graffiti (where they played boyfriend and girlfriend), and almost a month after the series premiere of Happy Days, Ron Howard and Cindy Williams appeared as love interests in the CBS TV movie, The Migrants. Based off a Tennessee Williams story that playwright, Lanford Wilson, wrote into a teleplay, The Migrants follows a family of migrant farmers along their regular route picking crops for a crew that travel together.
Similar to Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, the film dissolves into the conflict Tom juggled in that play, of a young man deciding whether to support his family or leave and pursue his dreams. Often hitched to roles that ask him to be gawky or bumbling, Howard gets to show a different side in this film as the Barlow’s son, Lyle, who has it together but struggles with two futures where his family is dependent on him.
It’s not that anybody’s sitting out—his parents and younger sisters pick the same fields as he does—but Lyle’s the oldest and sole son, and there will never be a good time for him to leave. When Lyle tries to bring this up to his mother, Viola (Cloris Leachman), she encourages him to meet his newborn niece. Other times telling him to have dreams outside of farming, when those ambitions become tangible she puts an end to the conversation.
Farming is what they know but there’s no reason they all shouldn’t try for new professions. Funds are already tight. The possibility of another career being better is enough to nullify the risks. What’s keeping them is the debt they’ve incurred with their crew leader, Hec (Mills Watson). His bookkeeping is atrocious. Reluctant to give Lyle a number on how much they owe, he doesn’t want them to repay but remain in his service.
Maybe The Migrants squeezes Lyle’s conscience on cue, but he’s trapped in his mobile life the same way Betty (Cindy Williams) is stuck in her small town one. Scenery unchanging, and with a car given to her by her brother that doesn’t work (more a pawn off than a gift), if Lyle can make the car go he can drive it, as long as he takes Betty with him.
Opening with an announcer’s voice declaring the start of CBS Playhouse 90, you immediately feel transported to the film’s original broadcast. The sound quality on the new DVD release from Kino Lorber isn’t optimum. The background crickets come through loud and clear but the dialogue doesn’t always have the same volume, and there aren’t any subtitles, but for a film that goes the way these films will go, it’s arresting with its performances.
Available on DVD 4/18.