On Golden Pond, formerly a Broadway hit, has come to the screen with a distinguished cast including Katharine Hepburn and two stalwarts of the Fonda family, Henry and Jane. Reflecting its origins on the stage, it takes place mostly in a summer cottage by a pretty New Hampshire lake. The settings are limited, the characters are few, the thoughts - about old age and family tensions, mostly - are even less deep than the water. The plot concerns an old man's worry that his time may be drawing to a close, his wife's loving concern for his welfare, the delayed maturity of their grown-up daughter, and a foul-mouthed teen-ager whose cantankerous presence leads to a patently contrived resolution.
Perhaps to compensate for the film's paucity in the profundity department, screenwriter Ernest Thompson and director Mark Rydell have dragged in more symbols than you could shake a movie camera at. It's kind of impressive, really, the way everything is a symbol for everything else, as if this were a course in Introductory Allegory. The film's other commodity is emotion, of the most artificial kind. People's eyes are either bright or watery - rarely in between - and every word drips with feeling. It's the kind of movie that bypasses your brain and goes straight to your tear ducts.
And yet, and yet . . . it's funny a lot of the time! As the grizzled old professor, Henry Fonda delivers his irascible lines with a tender toughness that's a wonder to behold. He's so strong - not redeeming, but somehow avoiding the gushier aspects of the script - that Katharine Hepburn seems like a good supporting actress who's on board to back him up. Jane Fonda is strong in her first movie opposite her father, and it's always fun to see the gifted Dabney Coleman.
In a recent conversation with the Monitor, director Rydell maintained that Hollywood isn't as hopelessly immature as recent films have indicated - that there is still an audience hungering for quiet drama on such serious subjects as family life, long-term marriage, and the process of growing old. ''On Golden Pond'' is no model for mature filmmaking, but its values are basically sound, and it packs an emotional wallop in its own Hollywooden way, superficial as that may be. Audiences are responding, in the cities where it has opened to date, so Rydell may be right that sex and science fiction aren't the only salable items at today's movie houses. Here's hoping that future ''mature dramas'' have more on their side than mature themes alone.