Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Debut of the Beverly Hillbillies

Jed: What do you think, Pearl? You think I oughta move?

Pearl: Jed, how can you even ask? Look around you. You're eight miles from your nearest neighbor. You're overrun with skunks, possums, coyotes, bobcats. You use kerosene lamps for light! You cook on a wood stove, summer and winter! You're drinkin' homemade moonshine, washin' with homemade lye soap! And your bathroom is 50 feet from the house, and you ask should you move?

Jed: Yeah, I reckon you're right. Man'd be a dang fool to leave all this.

Fifty years ago tonight, America was introduced to the Clampetts — Jed, Granny, Jethro and Elly Mae — a backwoods family that struck it rich when oil was found on their land.

And, for the very first time, Americans heard a song by bluegrass performers Flatt and Scruggs that would become very familiar:
"Come and listen to a story about a man named Jed
A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed,
Then one day he was shootin' at some food,
And up through the ground came a bubblin' crude.
Oil, that is. Black gold. Texas tea."

A lot of other things about the Clampetts would become familiar to Americans — Elly Mae's beauty (and total lack of cooking skills), Jethro's stupidity, Granny's inclination to make things, like lye soap and white lightning; and the whole family's general ignorance about life in the big city compared to their rustic roots.

But I'm inclined to think it was their fish–out–of–water existence in the elite world of Beverly Hills that made them so popular. Everything they said, every conclusion they reached made perfect sense to them in the context of their experiences.

It just didn't make sense to those around them.

Such misunderstandings were a frequent source of humor on the show. One of the show's highest–rated episodes dealt with Granny's assumption that a kangaroo at the Drysdales' home was really a "giant jackrabbit."

I guess everyone has certain favorite moments from the Hillbillies during their nine–season run.

Personally, my favorite is a series of episodes in which Granny believed that a movie re–recreation of the Civil War was the real thing — and that the actor playing Ulysses S. Grant was, in fact, Ulysses S. Grant (who would have been close to 150 years old at that time — if he had still been alive).

Granny and the Clampetts took up arms to lend aid to the Southern cause — and the Southerners didn't question her presence. They simply figured that she was a relative of the movie's producer — named Abe, of course.

Granny took Grant into custody and set about rehabilitating him in preparation for the new reality of a Confederate States of America. Part of his treatment involved sitting next to the swimming pool (known as the "cement pond" to the Hillbillies), where he ogled Elly Mae in what was then a very fashionable bikini. Granny came to the pool wearing a turn–of–the–century bathing suit, prompting Grant to urge her to "Put it on! Put it on!"

Later, during more filming of battle scenes, Granny shot some of Elly' Lady Fingers into Grant's backside, knocking him from the horse he was riding. "Tell me to 'put it on, put it on,' " she sniffed.

The Beverly Hillbillies was the first of a series of "rural" TV shows created by Paul Henning. It was followed by shows like Green Acres and Petticoat Junction, and all three shows enjoyed success in the 1960s.

But, as tastes changed in the early 1970s and the movement among TV sitcoms was increasingly toward more sophisticated fare, like All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, ratings for The Beverly Hillbillies declined, and the show was canceled along with Green Acres and some other rural sitcoms in what came to be known as the "Rural Purge."

(Incidentally, today is also the birthday of Donna Douglas, who played Elly Mae. She was 29 the day the program premiered.)

Monday, September 17, 2012

M*A*S*H Almost Didn't Make the Cut

Hawkeye (Alan Alda): Henry, you have no idea what it's like to share a tent with a guy who thinks he's all 12 disciples.

In the history of television, I don't think there has ever been another series like M*A*S*H.

When M*A*S*H went off the air in 1983, it was one of the top three shows in the United States.

But most people forget that it languished at #46 in the TV ratings in its first season, which began on this day in 1972, and almost didn't make the cut.

Other shows have survived — some have even thrived — after sluggish starts, but M*A*S*H did so while writing its own rules and virtually ignoring conventional wisdom.

It often seemed to be searching for itself in that first season — not entirely content to play things for laughs, even though it was mostly billed as a sitcom.

And that apparent ambiguity almost led to its cancellation after that first season. No one really knew what it was, but the series was saved thanks to an impassioned plea from the wife of a CBS executive who liked the show — whatever it was.

M*A*S*H was always more than a comedy. It just didn't know how to achieve its mission.

Its first three seasons leaned toward slapstick, but, at the end of that third season, when Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) left the series — permanently — when his character's airplane was shot down over the Sea of Japan, M*A*S*H truly began to blend comedy with drama and pathos to create some of the most imaginative half–hour episodes ever filmed.

Before Stevenson's departure, there were flashes of what was in store, even in the pilot episode, which largely introduced the cast to the audience.

That was when viewers first learned of Radar's strange ability to know what people were going to say before they said it.

They learned of Frank and Hot Lips and their torrid affair.

And they learned that Hawkeye and Trapper John were skirt–chasing, gin–swilling doctors, gifted in matters of medicine.

By the way, if you're a M*A*S*H fan, you probably think of actor William Christopher when you think of the character of Father Mulcahy, the unit's priest. And that is certainly as it should be. Christopher appeared in more than 80% of the series' episodes — only one appearance shy of matching Jamie Farr for third place in frequency of appearances.

And Christopher probably should have had that extra appearance — but someone else played Father Mulcahy in the pilot episode that aired 40 years ago tonight.

It really is a shame that Christopher wasn't in that pilot episode — since Father Mulcahy figured rather prominently in the story's conclusion.

You see, Hawkeye was trying to organize a raffle to raise money so his Korean houseboy, Ho–Jon, could go to the U.S. and enroll at Hawkeye's alma mater. The winner of the raffle would receive a weekend in Tokyo accompanied by a beautiful nurse, whose name (Lt. Dish) was mildly reminiscent of Pussy Galore from the James Bond series.

M*A*S*H could be irreverent and decidedly incorrect politically in those days before Saturday Night Live challenged so many television taboos.

For example, in the initial episodes of the series, Hawkeye and Trapper John (Wayne Rogers) and the smarmy Frank Burns (Larry Linville) had a black bunkmate, a doctor named Spearchucker Jones.

He disappeared a few months after the show's premiere — with no explanation given.

The natural assumption might have been that CBS received some complaints from viewers who were offended by the racist connotations of the name, but apparently, the character was a casualty of story accuracy.

The writers learned that there were no black doctors during the Korean War so the character was quietly removed.

Well, anyway ...

When the big moment for the raffle drawing arrived, Hawkeye had it all worked out for someone to win who would be sure to turn it down — Father Mulcahy.

A brigadier general, who had been summoned by a phone call from Hot Lips, arrived at precisely the moment that Mulcahy was revealed to be the raffle winner and bellowed, "Do I understand that the priest of this outfit has just won a weekend with a nurse in Tokyo?"

"It's a prayer come true," Hawkeye replied.

At that point, Hot Lips entered the tent, pulling Frank behind her. He had been wrapped in gauze and sedated to keep him from interfering with the raffle.

And Hot Lips delivered perhaps the finest line I have heard in a pilot episode.

"Those two," the exasperated Hot Lips sputtered, pointing at Hawkeye and Trapper, "they're ruining this war, for all of us!"

Fortunately for TV viewers in the 1970s, M*A*S*H kept "ruining" war for the next 11 years.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Tragedy of Grace Kelly

Friday was an odd kind of day for me.

I spent much of it working with journalism students, which isn't the odd part because I usually do that on Fridays during the school year, but my thoughts kept returning to that mid–September day in 1982, when I heard that Grace Kelly had suffered a stroke while driving in Monaco and died after crashing the vehicle.

She was perhaps the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, and, at 52, she was much too young to be dead — even though she had been away from Hollywood for more than 20 years.

She gave up the life of a movie star to become a real–life princess — although I suppose just about anyone who saw her as a young woman would say that she always had a somewhat regal bearing.

But she retained the common touch.

"I just love Grace Kelly," Jimmy Stewart, her co–star in "Rear Window," said at her funeral. "Not because she was a princess, not because she was an actress, not because she was my friend, but because she was just about the nicest lady I ever met."

Everyone loved Grace Kelly. I never knew anyone who didn't.

I remember the first time I saw "Rear Window." It had been re–released to theaters to mark the 30th anniversary of its original theatrical release so I went to see it on one of my days off.

It was a glorious thing to behold on the big screen. I could see for myself what my parents had always told me — that Hitchcock was meant to be experienced on the really big screen. No TV screen, no matter how large, could really do justice to a Hitchcock movie.

The reviewer in the local paper had seen it in all its restored splendor, and he promised his readers that Grace Kelly was "as beautiful as you remember."

Since it was my first time to see the movie, of course, I had no memory of her in it, but I had seen other movies in which she appeared — "High Noon," "Dial M for Murder," "The Country Girl" — and I looked forward to seeing her in it.

I was not disappointed.

Kelly's role in that movie was much more complex than it may have seemed on the surface. For that matter, Kelly herself was more complex than she may have appeared to some.

There was a shyness to her that was often concealed by her smoldering beauty, and there was a mind–bending life–imitates–art quality (or should that be art imitates life?) to Grace Kelly. She played a princess on the screen, then became one in real life.

But she was always a princess in the hearts of her fans.