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.)