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  • Writer's pictureFr. Vili Lehtoranta

Family Movies Part 7 - The New Adventures Of Heidi

The New Adventures of Heidi is an American TV musical from 1978. It is based on the beloved children’s book character Heidi, created by Swiss author Johanna Spyri. The Heidi books tell about an orphaned girl who lives with her grandfather, and they are among the most best-selling books ever written. They’ve also been adapted into movies numerous times, most famously in 1937 starring Shirley Temple.

I have personal reasons to like this 1978 version of Heidi. Actress Katy Kurtzman, who stars as Heidi, also played the stuttering girl Anna in my all-time favorite Little House on the Prairie episode The Music Box (1977), and actor Sean Marshall, who plays Peter in the movie, voiced the Boy in one of my favorite cartoons The Small One.

Also interestingly, The Small One was released by Disney on December 16, 1978, with a theatrical re-issue of the movie Pinocchio. The New Adventures of Heidi premiered on NBC just three days earlier, on December 13, 1978.

The movie is a modern (i.e. 1970s) version of Heidi. She and her grandfather Wilhelm Beck (Burl Ives) live happily on the Swiss Alps. Her best friend is a boy named Peter, with whom she shepherds goats. Wilhelm starts to notice that he is going blind and soon won’t be able to take care of Heidi. Therefore he makes a call to Cousin Tobias (Walter Brooke), with whom Heidi has lived previously, and arranges for Heidi to go back to live with him and Cousin Martha (Amzie Strickland).

A group of girls from a Zürich convent school arrive at the Alps for a field trip. A girl named Elizabeth (Sherrie Wills), who has a history of being a troublemaker, wanders off and starts to follow Heidi and Peter. When Sister Agnes (Adrienne Marden), who is in charge of the class, finds the girl missing, she calls Elizabeth’s father, a wealthy hotel businessman Daniel Wyler (John Gavin), and informs him of the girl’s latest trick. Late at night Heidi and Wilhelm discover Elizabeth, and offer her a place for the night so to return her to the village in the morning. At the village Elizabeth finds her father, who is with his secretary Mady (Marlyn Mason), and returns to Zürich. But when Heidi is about to leave the village with Tobias and Martha, Elizabeth reappears with Mady, who suggests to them that Heidi should come to Zürich as a companion to Elizabeth. Tobias agrees and Heidi moves in to the home of the Wylers. After hearing that Mr. Wyler will not be home for Christmas, but on a business trip in New York City, Mady arranges for Heidi and Elizabeth to go with him. Together the girls are set to spend an unforgettable Christmas in the big city.

This version of Heidi is a good mixture of sorrows and happiness, homelife and adventure. Kurtzman truly makes Heidi a very sympathetic character, especially when she hears that she must move away from her grandfather’s home. The movie was directed by Ralph Senensky (b. 1923), a TV veteran who directed many episodes of Star Trek and The Waltons, and who, as of fall 2023, is still alive at the ripe age of 100. Senensky wrote about the filming of the movie’s emotional scenes:

Katy Kurtzman cried very easily in her scenes. I had witnessed the shedding of many tears in the two weeks of Los Angeles location filming and the two weeks in the mountains. As we prepared to shoot an emotional scene early in our story at the Selznick Studio, I did not want a lot of tears. Since the news she was about to hear could easily make her cry, I suggested to Katy that Heidi would not want to upset Grandfather. “You must not cry. You must not let him see you cry!”

Both Marshall and Wills give good supporting roles as Peter and Elizabeth. Though The New Adventures of Heidi is formally a Christmas movie, the season only appears at the end and is so downplayed that the movie can well be watched at any time of the year. The movie also gives great scenes of nature and big city takes – though not of Switzerland and New York, but of Colorado and Los Angeles. Heidi movies should, of course, be shot at the Swiss Alps, but the movie’s budget, being that of a television production, did not allow this. So the crew shot the Swiss sequences in Snowmass, Colorado. When they were filming on a mountain slope, the art department decorated the slope with plastic red poppies to make it look more real. Senensky told how, when they were filming one day, there came a tourist from Switzerland to visit the set. When the director asked what he thought of their using the Rocky Mountains to fill in for the Alps, he commented: “It’s all very nice, but we don’t have red poppies in the Alps.”

The New Adventures of Heidi (in Colorado) can be watched for free on YouTube.

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