Where the Lilies Bloom was based on Vera and Bill Cleaver’s 1969 novel of the same name, a finalist in the 1970 National Book Awards. Radnitz/Mattel Productions purchased the film rights in 1971 and hired Earl Hamner, Jr. to adapt the screenplay. Hamner was well acquainted with the book’s rural setting, as he based his 1961 novel, Spencer’s Mountain, on his own Appalachian childhood. Spencer’s Mountain was made into a film in 1963 and was later adapted for television as The Waltons. Radnitz/Mattel Productions was a partnership formed between producer Robert B. Radnitz, who had adapted several children’s novels for the screen, and the toy company Mattel Inc. in 1970. This collaboration had already produced the critically acclaimed Sounder (1972), which was a hit at the box office and received four Academy Award nominations. United Artists negotiated for the distribution rights in order to increase their number of “family-oriented” films.
Where the Lilies Bloom is set in the Appalachian Mountains, where Mary Call Luther has to take care of her younger siblings, Romey and Ima Dean, after her mother’s death. Sensing that his death is near, her chronically ill father, Roy, asks Mary Call to be the head of the family after he passes. He also warns her that neighbor Kiser Pease wants to marry her older sister, Devola, but Kiser is the same man who acquired their property behind their backs by paying their overdue taxes. Although Kiser says that he only secured the land in order to save the family from eviction, Mary Call is determined that he never marry her sister. Later, when Kiser gets pneumonia, Mary Call saves his life in exchange for signing a paper returning the property to the family. Tragedy strikes when Roy Luther dies and the children are forced to bury him in secret. In order to avoid being sent to an orphanage, they must pretend that Roy is still alive. All goes smoothly until the neighbors get suspicious.
In an interview with film critic Roger Ebert, Radnitz said that he wanted Where the Lilies Bloom to be something other than “that cutesy-poo stuff from Disney. […] I wanted to make movies in which the central characters were interesting people who just happened to be kids.” The producers conducted a nationwide search with 20 casting calls throughout the Southern United States to find the right actress to play Mary Call. Publicity materials for the film state that the producers auditioned 631 girls. The very last girl they saw, a previously unknown 13-year-old named Julie Gholson, was hired after her audition at the University of Alabama. Most of the actors, including Matthew Burrill (Romey), Helen Harmon (Ima Dean) and Bob Cole (Hyder Graybeal) were not professionals. Radnitz told Ebert that he chose local people “because I was tired of hearing Southern accents that seemed about as South as the southern San Fernando Valley.” Harry Dean Stanton (Kiser Pease), who had been born 50 miles from where the novel was set, was one of the professionals in the cast, along with Jan Smithers (Devola), making her film debut, Alice Beardsley (Goldie Pease), Sudie Bond (Miss Fleetie) and Rance Howard (Roy Luther). Musician Earl Scruggs received his first motion picture credit as a composer for his score.
With director William A. Graham at the helm, production on Where the Lilies Bloom ran from the middle of May until mid-August 1972. It was shot on location in and around the town of Boone, in Watauga County, North Carolina. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Hurricane Agnes roared through Boone on a day when shooting was supposed to take place in the rain, and the company was able to take advantage of the weather. Ironically, this was the second time that a Radnitz/Mattel movie had been menaced by a hurricane. Hurricane Edith hit the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, location of their film Sounder the year before, halting production for several days.
The film premiered in St. Petersburg, Florida, on April 10, 1974, and then in Los Angeles two weeks later. It did well at the box office and received mostly positive reviews from critics like Howard Thompson. In his June 8, 1974, review for The New York Times, he called Where the Lilies Bloom an “endearingly simple, honest and moving film. […] [L]ike a cool, clear dip of mountain spring water.” Julie Gholson came in for special praise from Thompson, who wrote that her performance was “remarkably convincing […] as the gritty 15‐year‐old heroine, determined to keep her orphaned siblings out of an institution, staving off her older sister's inquisitive suitor and finally shedding flint sparks, like a baby Scarlett O’Hara.” Where the Lilies Bloom was also a hit with religious groups like Morality in Media, who named it “The Film for 1974.” It also received Box Office’s Blue Ribbon Award for “the best picture of the month for the whole family” for the month of April 1974.
While Julie Gholson was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Promising Newcomer - Female, Where the Lilies Bloom would be her only film appearance. She later served as executive director of the Alabama nonprofit charity GivingFlite, which is dedicated to arranging air transports. Jan Smithers would go on to appear in many films and television shows, most prominently as Bailey Quarters in the comedy series WKRP in Cincinnati.
The AFI Catalog of Feature Films. https://catalog.afi.com/Film/55318-WHERE-THELILIESBLOOM?sid=007507c5-ea6e-415b-bc28-c0179c6455ce&sr=0.13983864&cp=1&pos=0
Ebert, Roger. “Robert Radnitz: Where the Lilies Bloom.” RogerEbert.com. May 4, 1974. https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/robert-radnitz-where-the-lilies-bloom
The Internet Movie Database. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0072401/
The National Book Foundation. https://www.nationalbook.org/awards-prizes/national-book-awards-1970/?cat=childrens-books
Thompson, Howard “Screen: ‘Lilies Bloom.’” The New York Times. June 8, 1974.