Weeeeelllllllll doggies this is mighty depressin'! MPI Home Video has released The Return of the Beverly Hillbillies, the 1981 CBS reunion movie of the classic, icon series, featuring original cast members Buddy Ebsen, Donna Douglas, and Nancy Kulp, along with newcomers Werner Klemperer, Ray Young (as Jethro), Linda Kaye Henning (of Petticoat Junction fame), Shad Heller, and Imogene Coca as Granny's Maw. Scripted by Paul Henning, the creator, producer and chief writer of the original series, The Return of the Beverly Hillbillies has one or two moments here and there...but for the most part it's a sad, pale (and criminally, unfunny) imitation of one of the single most brilliant examples of the American television sitcom. However...there are a couple of very cool bonuses included here that make this disc a keeper for fans of the series.
It's morning in America in 1981, and President Ronald Reagan wants to solve the energy crisis. On the advice of Miss Jane Hathaway (Nancy Kulp), once the personal secretary of Milburn Drysdale of the Commerce Bank of Beverly Hills and now with the Department of Energy, officious, obnoxious D.C. drone C.D. Medford (Werner Klemperer) accompanies her in search of Granny Clampett's "medicine," that all-powerful home-brewed white lightnin' that Miss Hathaway is convinced could be the miracle cure for America's gas crisis. Since Granny passed away some time ago, Miss Jane and C.D. arrive at Jed Clampett's (Buddy Ebsen)'s old cabin in Bug Tussle, hoping to score just a few drops of Granny's medicine in one of the many forgotten jugs Granny had stashed all over the place. Unfortunately, what little survives is ruined by C.D., so Jed, now poor again after voluntarily giving his fortune to his daughter, Elly May (Donna Douglas), and his nephew, Jethro Bodine (Ray Young), suggests that the team contact either one of the youngins to see if they have any of Granny's medicine left. Someone who sure as shootin' ain't gonna tell them the fixins is Granny's Maw (Imogene Coca), the even ornerier 100+-years-old mother of Granny, who now runs an "old ladies" home in Bug Tussle...for those poor 18 and 19-year-olds who haven't gotten married yet.
I'm written before about The Beverly Hillbillies (please click here for that extensive review), so I'll try not to go over the same material again. Suffice it to say, The Beverly Hillbillies is, in direct opposition to all those so-called critics and pundits who have sniffed and snooted at it since it debuted back in 1962, certainly one of the funniest and smartest sitcoms to have ever aired in any decade; I don't hesitate to put it, along with I Love Lucy and the "classic 39" The Honeymooners, in the top 5 sitcoms of all time (with the other two slots always changing up, depending on my mood that day). So when CBS decided to give the Clampetts another one-time shot ten years after canceling the still-popular show in their infamous "rural purge," you can bet I tuned in on October 6th, 1981, to see who lived, who died, and who the replacements were.
Tragically, what appears here on the screen is one of the worst examples of the classic TV reunion movie genre, not so much because of the mediocrity (or downright awfulness) of the material itself, but in how far and how glaring it diverges from the impact of the source material. Now granted, what were screenwriter Paul Henning and director Robert M. Leeds (a vet of the original series) to do with the deaths of Granny's Irene Ryan and Milburn Drysdale's Raymond Bailey, and the no-show of Jethro Bodine's Max Baer, Jr.? That's half of the original cast (more if you include long-gone Bea Benaderet)? Most fans would have said,"Don't do anything--leave it alone!", and certainly the tepid ratings for this particular outing proved that the millions of fans of the original series didn't want a return trip. Not only was half the cast gone, but so was the original truck, the original Clampett mansion, the beloved incidental music cues, and even Beverly Hills, fercrissakes. All we get here is a tiny studio mock-up of Jed's cabin, a garish interior set representing Jethro's movie studio office, and The Waltons' backlot redressed for Maw's climatic car chase. The Return of the Beverly Hillbillies doesn't feel like a Beverly Hillbillies episode at all, because so much of what went into a typical episode, is missing.
Now maybe, just maybe, Paul Henning could have gotten away with all that karmic emptiness if his script had echoed back to the original glory days. After all, Ebsen, Douglas, and Kulp were still there: they could get laughs if the words were right. And certainly Klemperer and Coca were no slouches in the yocks department, either (let's just say game Ray Young, as a more brash-than-dumb, horny Jethro, is miscast). Unfortunately, Henning's approximation of a Hillbillies script ten years later is just that: a guesstimation of what used to work. A shadow of the form that used to reliably churn out solid laughs and satire with almost frightening precision and repetition over 240-some half-hour episodes. Now, every once and awhile, something will slip through in The Return of the Beverly Hillbillies that reminds you of the old days. When Miss Jane struggles with a jug cork, Jed shakes his head pitifully and states, "You're really hurtin' for a drink, aren't you?" Or when Miss Jane asks Jed, about Maw, "Would you say she's a 100?" to which Jed gravely replies, "Not in front of her." Indeed, Coca's Maw, while no Granny, is probably the most successful element here, creating an insane, screeching, hectoring banshee that's one-part Li'l Abner and two parts The Exorcist. At least she's trying to stir up some energy here, compared to sleepy Ebsen, out-to-lunch Douglas, and frankly-boring-without-Mr. Drysdale Kulp (it's pretty funny seeing Coca swish that switch around with demonic rage, and the sight of her dancing at the finale is almost worth the price of admission).
However, too much of The Return of the Beverly Hillbillies is padded-out, unfunny tripe that Henning himself lamented he couldn't fix, due to 1981's devastating writer's strike that upended the industry, and prevented scribes like himself from editing or adding to scripts already approved for production. Whether this is the real or main reason for The Return of the Beverly Hillbillies's failure is beside the point: what's here is here, regardless of how it came about, and sorry to say, it's sorrily substandard. The core story of getting Granny's hooch for the energy crisis isn't terribly compelling to begin with, but to have Jed, Elly May, and Jethro not even meet up until the final fade-out is just willful suicide (they're a family to us; we want to see them together). Taking the money angle out of the story is dumb (we don't want to see wise old Jed poor; where are the jokes about Jed buying off the energy crisis?), and putting so much emphasis and screen time on supporting player Kulp and newcomer Klemperer is either perversely misguided...or an indication that Henning only had Ebsen and Douglas for a few short hours or days. By the time Earl Scruggs shows up, the desperation is palpable--a neat trick when you consider this is the kind of TV reunion show that pulls this joke: Miss Jane mentions "Auschwitz" in relation to the way Granny is running her "old ladies" home...and Jed responds (as if Miss Jane sneezed), "She does sound like she's got a cold." "Tasteless" can be the funniest form of forbidden fruit in comedy, but the notion of teaming up kindly, beloved Jed Clampett with a Nazi Holocaust joke, is a clear indication that creator/writer Paul Henning had lost his way here.
By a wide mile.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.