Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Worst Television Show Ever Filmed

There’s nothing more amusing and satisfying to fans of a TV series to find a hateful reviewer fall flat on their butt when the show they despise becomes a runaway hit, and remains one for years.

Such was the case with “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

The Clampett clan loaded up their truck and drove onto prime time 50 years ago today. The result? The number one show in television for the 1962-63 season. And it got bigger numbers the following year.

The Amarillo News-Reporter bleated: “The Beverly Hillbillies, new tonight, just may be the worst television show ever filmed. It purports to be comedy, but it trots out all the most ancient hillbilly jokes ever told.”

I love “The Beverly Hillbillies.” I watched it in prime-time (with the Kellogg’s cereal boxes in the lower corner of the screen in the closing credits, like on so many shows then) and ate it up in reruns. The series is a little uncomfortable in the first episodes but executive producer Paul Henning seems to have realised what was amiss and fixed it quickly. In the initial few shows, Jed and his clan are the joke. The humour is based on how stupid they are. Henning must have realised you can’t have staying power with all your protagonists being dullards. So the focus was changed. While the Hillbillies remained a little ignorant about modern life, they became underdogs. The city folk became the ones ridiculed on the show—the snobby woman next door, the pathetically avaricious banker, and various shysters who tried to take advantage of them only to be foiled. They were the kinds of people the audience loved to hate and they could identify with the Clampetts. There was balance in the best scripts. Granny (and, for a few episodes, Sonny Drysdale) provided comic relief. There were warm moments (mainly involving Ellie May) and bits of parody (the double-nought spy episodes) and satire (Dash Riprock and the film industry), though not the vicious satire of Al Kapp’s “Li’l Abner,” which the show was compared to in many early reviews due to the superficial similarity in character types. The show was probably the first exposure many people had to bluegrass music. Curt Massey’s theme was, as hit themes generally are, singable, and veteran guitarist Perry Botkin, Sr. provided some fitting and memorable incidental music. And the show hired fine character actors for various occasional or one-shot roles, including cartoon voice actors Alan Reed, John Stephenson, Elvia Allman and, of course, Bea Benaderet as Cousin Pearl.

But some people shore ‘nuff done reckoned that thar show was smellier than a passel of skunks in an outhouse. Here’s the review the day after the premiere in the Lowell Sun, complete with grammatically-incorrect opening sentence.

Hillbillies Series Seen As Insult
By William K. Sarmento
LOWELL—I am well aware that the master-minds at the television networks must try and please a variety of tastes. But last night’s premiere of “The Beverly Hillbillies” was insult to the intelligence of the most moronic viewer. It tops the list of the worst show to come along this season. It was so bad that I almost thought I could hear the windows in millions of American homes flying open to air out the living room to get rid of all traces of this “bomb.”
The show is a cross between “The Real McCoys” and “L’il Abner.” The result of this integration comes on strong, like an inventory at the Chicago stockyards. The basic premise for this “gem” is that a backwoods hillbilly family becomes millionaires overnight due to the discovery of oil in their backyard. They decide to move to Beverly Hills to be near their kinfolk, other millionaires.
The oldest member of the family is a sort of Mammy Yokem who stamps out the fireplace with her bare feet to save her shoe leather. Her son is the male head of the group who has never heard or a telephone, airplane or a millionaire. But he docs drive the family across country to California without incident. Now isn’t he the brightest thing since the Hathaways left with their chimp children?
NEXT there is Cousin Jethro, who looks strangely like L’il Abner. He has had some “schooling” and demonstrated this by his answer to the question, “How come they don’t have ice and snow in California?” Cousin Jethro beamingly replied, “Don’t ask me, I didn’t take it.” Now I can understand why Kennedy has so much trouble getting a federal aid to education bill passed. If this is a tribute to the American intellect, then we bad all better hammer a few more nails into the fallout shelter. Perhaps you may he considering that this was the initial show and it’s bound to get better. Let me clue you that in future weeks we will he treated to such comedy as the Hillbillies attempting to do their washing in the swimming pool in back of their new mansion. Aren’t you weak with anticipation?
The one consoling thing with which I may leave you is that next week you may watch the new Gene Kelly series, “Going My Way” or the return of Perry Como. Maybe if we are all quiet and don’t say anything “The Beverly Hillbillies” will pack up and leave. I doubt if the rating charts will indicate that the public has turned out the welcome mat for them.


 Does anyone even remember Gene Kelly doing a TV series?
 Not all the reviews were negative. Let’s look at three from various news services.

By CYNTHIA LOWRY 
AP Television-Radio Writer 
NEW YORK (AP)—The title “Beverly Hillbillies” explains a lot about CBS’ new comedy series and, happily, the premiere Wednesday night promises a funny, rowdy and maybe even mildly satiric program.
The jokes will be based, of course, on the sudden shift of a primitive Ozark family — one of those moonshinin’, hawg-raisin,’ possum-eatin’ clans found primarily in a writer’s imagination—from a remote mountain shack to a Southern California millionaire’s mansion, courtesy of an overnight oil fortune.
The Clampett family consists of pretty familiar characters of fiction and comic strips: Jed, the colorful talking father (played by Buddy Ebsen); Granny, who considers tending the family still “woman’s work”; Elly May, the lissome daughter whose first name should be Daisy; and cousin Jethro, the handsome bumpkin whose name might be Abner. Anyway, it promises to be uninhibited and amusing if the writers remember to add enough branch water to the corn.

‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ Looks Like Smash Comedy Hit
By RICK Du BROW
HOLLYWOOD, Sept. 27. (UPI)—At the networks there is a strong feeling that “The Beverly Hillbillies,” a new comedy series which showed up last night on CBS-TV, is going to be a smash hit.
The title describes the idea in a nutshell: It is about an Ozark Mountain family that discovers oil in front of its shack and moves to a huge mansion in Beverly Hills, Calif., home of money and movie stars.
The series stars Buddy Ebsen as family patriarch; as his voluptuous blonde daughter Irene Ryan as “granny;” and Max Baer Jr., son of the former heavyweight boxer, as a big, good-natured, oafish cousin named Jethro.
Needless to say, the advertising boys are thrilled about the possibilities of the series because it reminds them of “The Real McCoys;” and nothing thrills an advertiser more than a show that is reminiscent of another hit.
SO MUCH FOR THE preliminaries. As a flat observation, the nicest thing I can say about “The Beverly Hillbillies” — or any program, for that matter—is that it is really not like civilized rural clan; these new hillbillies make Li’l Abner and his mob look like a bunch of sophisticates. Samples:
—Miss Douglas, carrying an unconscious, citified oilman into the shack, asks Ebsen: “Can I keep him, Pa?”
—Ebsen, who doesn’t know the value of oil until he’s told about it, and doesn’t realize he’s a rich man, tells a cousin he’s been offered “a new kind of dollars . . . million.”
WELL, ALL RIGHT. This is a cold - blooded commercial series to cash in on some salable types, but there's nothing done; and many times, it was.
For example, the rollicking banjo music that weaves in and out is delightful. The cast is expert and attractive. The writer - creator, Paul Henning who penned comedy for George Bums and Gracie Allen for a decade, knows his business.
Thus, while things sometimes seem forced on “Hillbillies,” it also often fast and funny and fairly acceptable broad farce, though I wouldn’t advise you to call off a good poker game because of it.
To succeed, the “Hillbillies” must compete against tough shows: Perry Como and the new “Going My Way” series with Gene Kelly.

‘Beverly Hillbillies’ Keeps Main Characters In Line
By HAL HUMPHREY
[Los Angeles Times syndicate]
HOLLYWOOD — Taking a family of hillbillies out of their primitive Ozark shack and plunking them down to live in the middle of Beverly Hills sounds like the corniest gimmick to come down the pike since “Truth or Consequences.” The nice thing about this brand of corn, however, is creator Paul Henning’s refusal to let his characters become wise-cracking, knee-slapping comics.
In the premiere episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies” on CBS-TV), Cousin Pearl (Bea Benadaret) is trying to convince Jed Clampett (Buddy Ebsen) that since he now is oil-rich, he can leave his remote Ozark existence for the comforts of “Californy.”
JED: You think I oughta move?
PEARL: Jed, how can you even ask? Look around you! You’re eight miles from the nearest neighbor. You're overrun with skunks, possums, coyotes and bobcats. You got kerosene lamps for light, a wood stove to cook on winter and summer. You’re washin’ with homemade lye soap and your bathroom is 50 feet from the house. And you ask should you move!
JED (very soberly): Yeah — I guess you’re right. A man’d be a dang fool to leave all this.
LATER IN THE half hour when the time came for Jed, Granny, Elly and Big Jethro to take off for Californy in their modified flatbed truck, I found myself sharing Jed’s doubts about the advantages of a Beverly Hills manse over his crude but homey Ozark hovel.
Fans of Jackie Gleason’s “Honeymooners” used to complain once in a while over the absolutely stark, and maybe even dirty, tenement flat they occupied. To me, that two-plate gas burner, the rickety ice-box and the flimsy commode actually set off Ralph and Alice Kramden’s frustrating, but funny (for the audience), scramble to carve out a little real living on a bus driver’s pay.
WRITER-PRODUCER Henning feels he is furnishing himself with more comedy springboards by surrounding his hillbillies with the posh accoutrements which come with a Beverly Hills estate, and he probably is right. Someday, though, I hope he will do a season of shows with his hill folk in their natural habitat. Al Capp has done right well with Li’l Abner in that milieu.
It's been a few years since Henning has done TV. He wrote for George Burns and Gracie for 10 years, produced and wrote Dennis Day’s TV show the year it was opposite “I Love Lucy,” then came up with the Bob Cummings Show — the successful one which had Bob as a semi-lecherous photographer for five years.
After a spate of movie-writing, Henning — a slight man who is as serious about his work as any bank vice-president — decided TV audiences were ready again “to just laugh.”
HIS OWN BEGINNINGS were in Independence, Mo., and it was Boy Scout treks into the Ozarks which Henning says inspired his long-standing desire to do something about hillbillies.
“They never think they do anything funny, and that’s the way I'm keeping them in the series,” says Henning.
He wrote the first 11 episodes himself, and even the theme music and lyrics (“The Ballad of Jed Clampett”) to make sure that his hillbillies weren’t corrupted. Henning insists on supervising the publicity, so that his actors' images in the show aren’t cheapened and distorted.
“Somebody thought it would be a good idea to do a magazine layout of pictures with Buddy Ebsen on his small yacht," Henning recalls. “I screamed. It was too out of character for the series, and the people I know in the mid-West take their TV characters very seriously.”
HE WAS EVEN more upset when he saw that in the first episode Elly (Donna Douglas) was too neatly coiffeured and eye-pencilled. “I was ill that day, and didn’t get to the set, but later I felt like killing that hairdresser.”

The show probably lasted a season too long. Much like Mr. Magoo wore out his welcome by continually mistaking things for something else, the final “Hillbillies” season made Granny the butt of the joke by mistaking grunion for… well, my mind has blocked whatever it was. The continuing storyline didn’t help. But the show was fun while at the top of its game.

One of the things I didn’t learn until years after the series left prime-time was that Irene Ryan wasn’t a little old lady. Nor did I realise she was part of the vaudeville team of Tim Ryan and Irene Noblette. They were, among other things, stars of a series of short films for Educational (“The Spice of the Program”) in the mid-‘30s and Jack Benny’s summer replacement on radio in 1936. She later appeared as a regular on Bob Hope’s radio show and if you listen closely to the old broadcasts, you can recognise the voice. Dennis Day once told a story about how he was travelling to Los Angeles from New York to audition for the Benny show. He’d never been west before. His mother recognised Tim and Irene making the same trip and asked them to look after him.

Here she is in the 1944 film “Hot Rhythm,” courtesy of a camera-phone pointed at a TV.



A P.S.—Justin Ebsen posted this note on Facebook: “Okay, now a fun fact: Dad (Jed) was almost killed when in the episode where Jethro becomes a secret agent, he tries to make the Hillbilly truck fly. It was running up on some scaffolding and began to fall when Max Baer Jr. grabbed my dad and pulled him to safety.”

5 comments:

  1. While the title characters on the show could be considered stereotypical, the show actually took a more nuanced view towards their relationships with the show's other characters. Raymond Bailey's character was greedy, but he really wasn't the bad guy -- his wife was the show's only real 'villain'. Henning also brought Nancy Kulp's character over from The Bob Cummings Show virtually unchanged, but while playing her as a cultural sophisticate, didn't show her to be condescending towards the Clampetts (even Mr. Brewster and the oil company people get off far better here than they would have if the show had been written even 15 years later, after the first wave of U.S. gasoline price hikes). The 'bad guy' roles were mostly left to guest stars who underestimated the Clampetts.

    The other thing to note about Henning is that he was never, ever shy about populating his sitcoms with fabulous/busty babes, from Bob Cummings' photography models, to the Bradley sisters, to Connie Hines and Eva Gabor. Donna Douglas' Elly Mae allowed Paul not only to get sex into the show as a regular main character, but make that character funny, instead of just being stroll-on eye candy for the men in the Nielsen audience (not that he still didn't offer up a lot of that -- the ill-fated Sharon Tate was often used as a minor character in Filmways shows -- but the combo of sex and comedy from one of the stars would also be a big part of the appeal of Lisa Douglas on "Green Acres").

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  2. Great post, Yowp. I, too, have been a life-long fan of TBH. Don't know if you have the second and third season DVD collections (first season is in public domain) but they include the option of having the main title sponsor plugs, cast sponsor commercials and the Kellogs and Winston cigs superimposed in the corner as originally aired for each episode.

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  3. TCJ, I don't have the DVDs; I know one of them replaced the theme with another Flatt and Scruggs instrumental used on the show. I haven't seen the episodes in a number of years as I don't have a TV.
    Yeah, JL, Milburn wasn't a bad guy, but Henning knew making fun of bankers would be a winner for him.

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    1. In a way, Henning used the Clampetts and their adversaries in a similar way as he used Gracie Allen a decade earlier. In that show, Harry Morton was the least sympathetic of the regulars, but Henning and the other writers knew Harry could only go so far in showing disdain for Gracie before the audience would dislike the character, so the more adversarial roles were left for the guest of the week, who would be left in total befuddlement by Mrs. Burns at the end of the show.

      Drysdale's greed was played for laughs -- i.e., he was never trying to steal the Clampetts' millions, he just didn't want it to leave the Commerce Bank and would comically freak out over any threat. It was his wife and as you noted, the "various shysters" who directly went after the family but were left befuddled by the Clampetts at the end of the episodes, and Harriet McGibbon's appearance as Margaret Drysdale were akin to Charles Lane's as Homer Bedloe on "Petticoat Junction" -- as semi-regular villain to torment, but not on a week-to-week basis (which in turn, made the tormenting all the more special).

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    2. The public domain collections are the ones with the replaced theme music. The sets I have from CBS DVD/Paramount has the music intact.

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