"Come and listen to my story about a man named Jed,
Well the first thing you know, old Jed's a millionaire,
The dickens you say! CBS DVD and Paramount have released The Beverly Hillbillies: The Official Fourth Season, a 4-disc, 32-episode collection of the smash hit CBS sitcom's 1965-1966 season--the first one in color (...which just adds to the sometimes cartoony feel of the show). Now, while I love the fact that this gathering is exclusive to the "people's store," Wal-Mart (at least until April), fans of the previous bonus-crammed "official" Hillbillies releases won't exactly cotton to this bare-bones presentation--where are those cast-starring commercials and bumpers for Kellogg's Corn Flakes and Winston Cigarettes that were so welcome in the previous sets? And the real DVD kooks out there are going to flip when they hear what I thought I heard in a few episodes: some brief, minor music cue substitutions (the warning's on the back cover, so...). Still...although this may not be the best season of the long-running comedy classic, it's still hilariously funny, courtesy of genius creater/producer/writer Paul Henning's guiding hand, with Buddy Ebsen, Irene Ryan, Donna Douglas, Max Baer, Jr., Raymond Bailey, Nancy Kulp, and Harriet E. MacGibbon doing brilliant work in, for my money, one of the top five funniest sitcoms ever.
I can't believe I'm writing this...but there will be younger viewers reading this review who have never even heard of The Beverly Hillbillies (Western civilization is doomed), so a brief run-down of the series is necessary. The Beverly Hillbillies tells the story of the Clampett family, an isolated Ozark mountain clan who, quite by accident, discover oil on their land. Picking up sticks to move to Beverly Hills, the Clampetts are continually amazed at the assortments of kooks and weirdos they meet in modern American society...which of course is exasperating to the so-called "normal" denizens of 90210, because they regard the Clampetts as second-cousins to Cro-Magnon Man. The Clampetts, headed up by even-keeled, judicious clan leader Jed (Buddy Ebsen), don't understand, well...any references to modern culture or society. The result is unending confusion and misunderstandings between the well-meaning Clampetts and the rest of the world, represented most often by the Clampetts' next-door neighbor, Milburn Drysdale (Raymond Bailey), who is also Jed's craven, obsequious banker. The rest of the Clampett clan consists of Granny (Irene Ryan), widower Jed's mother-in-law and the orneriest little cuss you ever saw (she still thinks the South won The War Between the States) who hates her life in Beverly Hills; sweet heartbreaker Elly May Clampett (Donna Douglas), Jed's daughter, who loves to wrassle almost as much as she loves her "critter" friends; and cement-head Jethro Bodine (Max Baer, Jr.), the dim-witted (and that's being kind), Jed's cousin. Waging perpetual battle to rid Beverly Hills of those "savages" is Milburn Drysdale's wife, Margaret (Harriet E. MacGibbon), possibly the most neurotic snob to ever grace American TV screens, while Drysdale's right hand man, Miss Jane Hathaway (Nancy Kulp), grudgingly goes along with her boss' schemes to keep the Clampetts in Beverly Hills (thus keeping their money in his bank), while pining away for the manly charms of lunkhead Jethro.
Going back and re-reading my review for the third season of the third season of The Beverly Hillbillies, I'm not sure I can add anything more to my unreservedly passionate embrace of what has traditionally been one of the most critically reviled television series in the medium's history. The level of loathing The Beverly Hillbillies routinely engendered back in the early 1960s was astonishing, from snobby, self-important newspaper and magazine hacks who thundered about the show's supposedly "moronic" aesthetic, right up to the very highest powerplayers at CBS, Filmways (the series' production company), and the show's sponsors, who publicly offered polite praise for the show before lambasting it in private...while collectively holding their hypocritical noses when they cashed all those Hillbillies checks. Of course what they hated was not the phony assertion that the series was not only undemanding but actively puerile, appealing to the lowest common denominator (god forbid anyone does that). Anyone watching The Beverly Hillbillies with even a modicum of background in American humor will see the sophistication of Henning's rural, farcical attack on modern American society; specifically, his absolute skewering of the meaningless, superficial pop culture deifications of everything from Hollywood, psychoanalysis, the music industry, and cutthroat capitalism, to the most basic framework of the typical American nuclear family (the Clampetts weren't merely "fish out of water," they were, up to that point in early 1960s television, the most surreal collection of cartoon characters ever to call themselves a "family," completely devoid of--nor, importantly, desiring--any "anchor points" in modern society). No, the unctuous TV critics and the image-conscious television and advertising executives and the elitist college professors and "educators" and the do-gooder "social commentators" railed publically and privately against The Beverly Hillbillies because the sitcom ultimately showed their world to be the screwed-up one, not the Clampett's. And the fact that the crudest forms of stereotypical "Southern country bumpkins" were the ones doing the showing-up--the last stereotype in America, then and now, which could be attacked and mocked in the arts with absolute impunity--was intolerable to those so thoroughly invested in that crazy modern culture. Add into that mix the Nielsen ratings' that showed literally 40 to 50 millions+ of "the great unwashed" in "fly-over country" tuning in each week to laugh at what they valued, and it's no wonder these humorless, self-serious boobs couldn't stand the show.
Of course, The Beverly Hillbillies, first and foremost, is important in television's history because, quite simply, it's one of the funniest examples of the sitcom genre. However, it certainly doesn't hamper my appreciation of the show, knowing how many defenders of the "New Faith" it riled. It's too bad, then, that season four of The Beverly Hillbillies doesn't quite match up with the level of inspired hilarity that can be found in episode after episode in the first three seasons. Almost every episode is again written by Paul Henning and Mark Tuttle, and perhaps that might be one element of why the show doesn't seem to be at the very top of its game for this fourth outing: burn-out. Not only did Henning and Tuttle have to come up with around 30 or so scripts for this season--can you imagine such a thing happening in today's namby-pampered television industry?--producer Henning was also shepherding yet another new Hillbillies spin-off in his growing TV empire, Green Acres, while watching over and fiddling with already established Petticoat Junction. Did all that double and triple-duty for Henning result in a slightly scattershot approach to this season of the Hillbillies (it's interesting that perhaps this season's best episode, That Old Black Magic, was penned not by Henning/Tuttle, but Ronny Pearlman)? Hard to say. But it does seem there's a loss of the laser-like focus that the Hillbillies had in previous seasons, with several episodes this time out suffering from rushed or unfinished or underutilized gags and comedic situations--a rarity for the series up to this point (a good example is The Folk Singers, where an expected duet with Jethro and Miss Jane fails to appear, even though Mr. Drysdale mentions it...and no, I don't believe it's a modern edit; the runtime for the episode is 25+ minutes). Extended story arcs seem to be curtailed, as well, with Granny's doctorin', and Jethro's endless search for a career, given relatively short-shrift (Jethro as five-star general/astronaut/"double naught" spy/"International Playboy" get only one or two episodes each. As well, there seems to be an imbalance in who gets stories built exclusively around them, with cartoony Granny and Jethro, with support from peripatetic Mr. Drysdale, getting most of the storylines, while Elly May and Jed largely fill in the background (the charming, sexy Donna Douglas in particular is underutilized this season, while not nearly enough of Harriet E. MacGibbon's marvelously neurotic Margaret Drysdale is on display, either).
Just to be clear, though, after that leaning-negative appraisal of the season: that slight blurring of the show's focus is only that--slight--with Henning and Tuttle still routinely scoring big laughs with their amusing set-ups and their seemingly endless supply of funny one-liners. The season opener, Admiral Jed Clampett, is a classic example of Hillbillies "misdirection/misinformation" comedy, with Jed, bedecked in a costume shop naval outfit, buying a yacht...that happens to be a U.S.N. destroyer (an unimpressed Granny checks out the radar and declares to Jed, "The worst television set I've ever seen,"). That Old Black Magic, scripted by Ronny Pearlman, is a flat-out brilliant exercise in Hillbilly farce, with multiple misunderstandings resulting from a myna bird that imitates astrology-loving Mrs. Drysdale, and Jed's and Granny's misunderstanding a "critter doctor's" advice on how to cure "sick" Mrs. Drysdale (the bird mimicking the sublime Harriet E. MacGibbon is good enough...but when the episode has her caged in a giant chicken coop, flapping her arms to "get her color up," I was on the floor...). The Sheik, however, is a rather flat, familiar take on the notion of the Clampetts dealing with an Arab oil sheik who takes a liking to Elly May, hoping she'll be his 251st wife (a frantic Mr. Drysdale, sick with worry over the possibility of all those petrodollars going to another bank, still has time to line-item the sheik's dowry, which includes 200 sheep: "Have you priced lamb chops lately?" he gleefully shouts). Seeing as how Thunderball was generating worldwide "Bondmania" at its absolute zenith in 1965, it's not surprising that Jethro's "Double Naught" spy shenanigans would be back; in the hilarious The Private Eye, Jethro is given an office at Mr. Drysdale's bank for his espionage operations (the Looney Tunes-worthy shot of Jethro stuck on the floor via his iron-plated Amish hat is classic, but the pantomime of Jethro trying to figure out why his secret two-way mirror doesn't work--he put it in backwards--is priceless).
The two-part Possum Day and The Possum Parade are busy if not particularly funny outings, promising more than they deliver (too bad the budget was limited--it would have been funny to see Drysdale actually pull off a big, fake, location-shot parade for Granny)...although Jed's, "I declare you look like the last prune in the box," to an exhausted Granny is one of his better witticisms (yes, that's Filmways contract player Sharon Tate, in a ridiculous black wig, as Mr. Drysdale's secretary). Along that same lines of complaint as the no-show "Possum Parade," the distressingly mistitled The Clampetts Play the Rams does not feature the Clampetts on the gridiron with the NFL team (when a groveling, enthusiastic Mr. Drysdale exclaims, "Let's get out there with the ol' pigskin!", a cautious Jed replies, "I wouldn't call [Granny] that to her face,"). Van The Green Hornet Williams stops by for the light The Courtship of Elly, one of the few episodes centered around Douglas. A Real Nice Neighbor should have been sharper, with the Clampetts mistaking maid Kathleen Freeman for their rich next door neighbor (Ryan scores big with her "Clem" Chowder: "He was our goat...he got mean, and I made soup out of him,"). About the only funny thing in The Poor Farmer is the sight of Jethro polishing off a giant sea sponge, when Granny and he mistake it for a mushroom ("I never seen anything soak up so much gravy!"). Guest star Sebastian Cabot looks like he's not in on the jokes. Rock historians might get a kick out of Hoe Down A-Go-Go, where L.A. band The Enemies shows up for a Clampett barn-burner (Jed's verdict on The Beatles, whom he thinks are real singing beetles? "I'd pay a quarter to see that myself,"). Wonderful comedic player Charlie Ruggles gets a solid two-episode turn in Mrs. Drysdale's Father and Mr. Farquhar Stays On, where he plays Mrs. Drysdale's degenerate gambler father, looking to fleece the Clampetts (Jed's aborted rundown of the family's genealogy is priceless, capped off by abruptly telling Jethro, "You're my grand nephew," to which the cosmically-challenged Jethro sheepishly replies, "Thanks, and you're a fine uncle!").
Military School should have had a lot more jokes involving Jethro being among the ranks of little boys at a military school; the situation was a natural for sight gags (as it stands, the best sight gag is the shot of Drysdale, recovering from a headache with a stack of 10s on his eyes). Any episode that has access to the great comedic foil Fred Clark should have done more with him than what's given to the actor here in the flat The Common Cold. Somehow, Martha Hyer shows up in The Richest Woman (Zsa Zsa must have been booked), but this kind of farce isn't her forte. The two-part episodes The Trotting Horse and The Buggy are much better paced, with a welcome return to Granny and Mrs. Drysdale battling it out, this time with sulky horses (always funny to see the stuntmen dressed as Granny, leaping and tumbling around the sets). Lots of big laughs come from The Cat Burglar, where AIP legend John Ashley shows up as a clean-cut thief looking to clean out the Clampetts. Some terrific cartoony gags, like Jethro caught in a big box snare ("Couldn't you just point to them?" Jed asks when Jethro keeps tripping them during a tour). The Big Chicken, funny as it is to see an ostrich interacting with the cast, isn't much more than a retread of the landmark Hillbillies outing, The Giant Jackrabbit (still, remarkably, the highest rated half-hour show in television history). Still...you won't hear in that black and white classic a barnyard joke as dirty as Granny's here, when she looks at the ostrich and back to an admiring rooster and says, "Forget it, Earl!" One of the best entries this season, Sonny Drysdale Returns, features the incomparable Louis Nye as the world's most disgusting--and hilarious--mama's boy (real name: Adonis). When Nye is proposing to Elly, pausing as he grotesquely emotes, "And you're willing to give up...instant ecstasy?" I can't think of anything funnier I've seen this year. Amazingly, Nye only appeared four times on the Hillbillies--why wasn't he a regular?
Brewster's Baby dangles the tantalizing prospect of Jethro opening up his own "key club" (The Possum Pit) before frustratingly dropping it in favor of first season left-over Frank Wilcox as oilman John Brewster adopting a baby. Still...some funny gags and jokes, including Jethro in a Sy Devore suit, and further stats on Jethro's infancy, including the facts that he was born with a full set of teeth ("Just like a beaver") and that he frequently crawled out of his crib to forage in the woods for food. The Great Jethro kills when Jethro finally takes over the reins of John Carradine's magic inventory (the classic "I have changed my mind!" before swatting the paper funnel full of milk is a cherished memory in my house: I imitated that scene in front of my older brothers, to huge laughs and a worse mess...with a resulting paddling from my not-even-barely-amused mother). The Old Folks Home has some solid bits with Granny running around in fast motion, cleaning the mansion as if her life depended on it, lest she be sent to a home (her, "Am I typing?" is hilarious as she smashes Mr. Drysdale's phone). As much as I love bluegrass, it was hard concentrating on the welcome return of the same-named due in, what else, Flatt and Scruggs Return, when presented with the staggering sight of stacked Joi Lansing in a skintight gold lame number. The Folk Singers ultimately turns out to be a tease, when we're denied the sight (and sounds) of Jethro and Miss Jane singing their folk ballad (if the episode runtime didn't look right, I'd suspect new tampering based on music releases). Still, one of the sickest jokes this season will put you on the floor: Jethro invents "The Bodine-a-Phone," an electrified lard bucket (inspired) that fries him when he tries to play it. Spastically jerking all over the floor, Jethro's eyes bug out as he screams, "Ooohh ! Ooohh! Turn me off! Ooohh! Ooohh! Pull me loose! Ooohh! Ooohh! Cut the juice!", to which the oblivious folk record producer declares it a hit song (Baer, as usual, is a remarkably funny physical comedian).
The Beautiful Maid promises a lot but delivers very little (including no discernable pay-off), but at least we get to see statuesque heartbreaker Julie Newmar in a sleek one-piece. The Bird Watchers is an agreeably silly outing, with guest star Wally Cox getting a big laugh, somehow, by merely stating, "I've actually occupied a condor's nest." Larry Pennell's Dash Riprock is back, but to little avail, although the set-up of the next episode, Jethro Gets Engaged, manages some big, funny set-pieces as Jethro--hilariously monikered as "Beef Jerky"--is blown up cartoon style over and over again on a movie location shoot (there may be some music substituted here, whenever Jethro is in costume...maybe the original cue was, Hooray for Hollywood?). Staying strong, more laughs come with Jethro's Pad, where Jethro outfits his garbage dump find, a tiny, rusted-out trailer, into a "portable playboy parlor," as he lights on a new career: "International Playboy." Jethro's idea of lovemaking--cipherin'--is priceless (that's Vegas's smoking hot Phyllis Davis as one of the Kitty Kat girls). Granny Tonics a Bird-Watcher is a cute outing, with Wally Cox back as Commander P. Caspar Biddle, the birdwatcher, geting a serious dose of spring fever courtesy of Granny's tonic. Finally, Jethro Goes to College sounds like a lot more fun than it plays, when Jethro enrolls in a women's secretarial school. Not nearly enough one-liners or funny gags, unfortunately, although the sight of Granny doing judo is pretty good (music substitutions may be here, as well, whenever Jethro appears in his 1920s college costume).
"Well, now it's time to say good-bye to Jed and all his kin,
And they would like to thank you folks fer kindly droppin' in.
You're all invited back next week to this locality,
To have a heapin' helpin' of their hospitality.
Hillbilly, that is.
Set a spell.
Take yer shoes off.
Y'all come back now, y'hear?" Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.