I have always been a great admirer of Paul Henning, the crooner-turned-TV producer/writer of some of the best-loved shows of the 1960s. It was Henning who gave a voice to rural audiences by creating such classic TV series as The Beverly Hillbilllies, Petticoat Junction and Green Acres. If you revisit any of them today, they remain far superior to most contemporary sitcoms. Henning not only created shows that have timeless appeal, but he also brainstormed the concept of interweaving characters and plot devices between the series- a stroke of genius that brought cross-promotion marketing to new levels. Henning also prided himself on making his country characters eccentric, but never idiotic. They were simple people living simple lives and if they seemed to exist in a time warp, they were all honest, admirable folks. It was always the sophisticated city slickers who would get their comeuppance at the hands of these "bumpkins". Andy Griffith once told me that it irked him when audiences would say that the actors were just "playing themselves". He pointed out that, in most cases, these actors had long, distinguished careers prior to appearing in rural sitcoms. He wanted to stress that these were outstanding talents and should never have been pigeon-holed as actual country hicks. Paul Henning strictly oversaw quality control on his shows and demanded that every episode by family-friendly. Thus, I was in for quite a shock when I sat down to review MPI's screener copy of the 1981 TV movie Return of the Beverly Hillbillies. I don't recall this particular show, but from the get-go the title is deceiving. The only original Hillbillies are Buddy Ebsen's Jed Clampett and Donna Douglas's Elly May. Irene Ryan, who played Granny, had passed away years before. Max Baer Jr., who played Jethro, had the good sense to stay away from the project. Nancy Kulp reprises her role as Jane Hathaway, but her on-screen boss, the inimitable Raymond Bailey had also died and, like Ryan, his presence is sorely missed. (Henning cast actor Ray Young as Jethro, and although he does his best, we are all too aware that he was not part of the original cast.)
Henning's script is too over-the-top even for a Hillbillies plot device. In this case, President Reagan is desperate to solve the energy crisis. He dispatches Jane Hathaway (now a Washington bureaucrat) to track down the secret formula of Granny Clampett's white lightning, which is deemed to be so powerful it might be useful as a source of fuel. Jane arrives on horseback at Jed Clampett's mountain cabin. In the aftermath of Granny's death, Jethro went on to run his own movie studio and Elly May has opened a zoo. Rather than live alone in his Beverly Hills mansion, Jed has returned to his roots, his only concession to wealth being a bigger cabin that he has constructed. The feeble plot follows Jane and Jed's search around the premises for any remaining jugs of Granny's booze that can be brought to Washington to analyze. She is accompanied by C.D. Medford, a humorless member of the President's team who will use any ruthless method to obtain the formula for the white lightning. (One of the lamest aspects of Henning's script is a repetitive gag in which samples of the booze are repeatedly discovered only to be lost accidentally.) The role of Medford is played by the great Werner Klemperer, who is criminally misused here in a role that diminishes his talents and makes him a truly loathsome character. To compensate for Irene Ryan's absence, Henning created the role of Granny's mother! She is played by another TV legend, Imogene Coca but the character has to be one of the most grating and irritating in the history of the medium. She screeches like a banshee, runs about hitting people with a stick and otherwise making herself unwelcome. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the ill-fated venture is Henning's decision to deliberately move away from family fare to smut. That's right, this new, updated version of the series features such wholesome fare as strippers, Asian massage girls, scantily clad teenage "old maids" (young Heather Locklear among them!) and a very embarrassing striptease performed by Klemperer. Why Henning decided he had to degrade his characters in order to appear hip is not known, but he certainly should have known better. There are tasteless jokes about Jed Clampett's sex life (or lack thereof) and one punch line about Auschwitz! I kid you not...I actually had to backtrack to make sure I heard it right. Can you imagine an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies where the "funny" payoff line refers to a Nazi death camp? The movie is peppered with some welcome character actors including perpetual grouch Charles Lane, Lloyd "Shad" Heller, Lurene Tuttle and Earl Scruggs, who performs a musical number. Henning runs out the clock in the last fifteen minutes with an absurd, endless car chase featuring King Donovan in an obnoxious performance that makes Imogene Coca's character look like a model of restraint. The film is also disappointing in that Elly May and Jed only share the screen together in the last few minutes of the movie. The ill-fated venture was directed by Robert M. Leeds, who also should have known better because he worked on the last season of the original series.
Despite the dreadful aspects of the main feature, I am heartily recommending that you buy the DVD itself, if only because of the superb bonus extras. There is a one hour documentary about Paul Henning that features the man himself in vintage interviews, along with new insights from his daughter Linda (an actress who appears in Return of the Beverly Hillbillies), Max Baer Jr., Charles Lane and some of the producers and writers who worked on the original show. (Strangely, Donna Douglas is not among them.) They offer some wonderful anecdotes about Henning's triumph in creating three hit series in the 60s only to have CBS head honcho James Aubrey cancel these favorites in favor of appealing to urban audiences (which turned out to be a major misjudgment). Henning's talents extended to writing the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies, which ingeniously tells the entire premise of the scenario in popular ditty that is still being sung today. Other bonus extras include an introduction by Linda Nelson, a genial lady who clearly adored her father; a wealth of original Kelloggs Corn Flakes ads featuring the cast, original TV promos for the Hillbillies and Green Acres and a promotional short for a never-produced wildlife series featuring Donna Douglas as Elly May.
If you love the show, skip the main event and head straight to those bonus extras....
Update: Astute reader Scott Shea points out that the people interviewed in the aforementioned documentary blame James Aubrey for canceling CBS' slate of hit rural shows. In fact, Aubrey was the man who championed them and was fired himself from the network in 1965. It was Fred Silverman who actually canceled these series.