Today is the birthday of the great Irene Ryan. Today she is best remembered for playing Granny on the hit CBS sit com The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971), although she had long career in vaudeville, radio and films prior to that (go here for my full biographical post about her).
But the time is well past for me to sing the praises of this highly influential tv show, which I grew up watching almost daily in reruns. It was cancelled from prime-time when I was six years old but its presence (at least in our home) only increased in syndication. The show’s country humor was greatly appreciated by my father. Though he was from the Smokey Mountain region and the fictional Clampetts were from the Ozarks, a hillbilly is a hillbilly, and anyway many of our extended family had moved west to Arkansas (where the Clampetts were supposed to be from) and Missouri (where the show’s creator Paul Henning was from).
Prior to creating The Beverly Hillbillies, Henning had written for Fibber McGee and Molly and Burns and Allen on radio, as well as the tv shows The Real McCoys, The Andy Griffith Show and (his own creation) The Bob Cummings Show. There was much precedent in American pop culture for Henning’s kind of humor, from vaudeville and radio’s “Arkansas Traveler” to rural “Toby Shows” to the Ma and Pa Kettle film series to the comic strip Li’l Abner. Henning’s genius was to mash the rural folk humor up with contemporary movie star culture. The culture clash generated comedy; the comedy appealed to both rural and urban audiences, traditional and modern alike. Some found it “corny”; I’ve always found it witty. It’s vaudeville comedy through and through. Henning also composed the irresistible theme song.
We often related our own southern grandmother to Granny though she was nothing like that character. Ryan’s portrayal was her finest screen work. I often think of her characterization as being very similar to Donald Duck. Very quick to anger and easy to agitate, always hopping up and down, and swatting people with brooms and pointing shotguns at them. She won well deserved Emmys for this work.
As family patriarch Jed Clampett, show biz veteran Buddy Ebsen seemed to mine his entire past as a performer. Among countless rural characters he was perhaps best known at the time for having played Davy Crockett’s frontier sidekick. Easygoing, cheerful, unflappable, he usually got to deliver the best verbal jokes on the show, constructed out of his misunderstanding of the sophisticated characters he encountered as a nouveau riche oil millionaire. There’s one that has always stood out in my mind for some reason:
OTHER CHARACTER: Jethro went to Eton?!
JED: Sure! Why, I reckon Jethro went to eatin’ purty soon after he was born, I reckon!
Beefcake nephew Jethro Bodine was played by Max Baer, Jr. son and nephew of two of the country’s best known heavyweight boxers. Over-exuberant, naive and possessed of superhuman strength, he was always getting into the same kind of trouble as Baby Huey and Herman Munster: always breaking things, running and tripping, and picking up pretty girls (literally, as though they were puppies or bags full of Halloween candy). On occasion, in the early seasons when they wanted to go truly lowbrow (which was often) Baer would also play his twin sister, Jethrine. The less said about that, the better.
On the other hand, genuine eye candy was provided by Jed’s daughter Ellie May (Donna Douglas, who sadly passed away just this year). The comic idea behind Ellie May was almost identical to Li’l Abner’s Daisy Mae, with the sexuality toned down a good deal for tv watching families. Rather than cut-offs, she wore full length blue jeans with a rope for a belt like Jethro. The joke was that here was this gorgeous girl but only outsiders (and the folks watching at home) would ever notice.
In the early seasons, Bea Benadaret, formerly of The Burns and Allen Show, and also the voice of The Flintstones’ Betty Rubble would visit from time to time as Jethro’s trouble-making mother Pearl.
Other memorable recurring guests included the bluegrass duo of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs who would play themselves on the show, and also played on the theme song. This meant something in our house; we have every one of Flatt and Scrugg’s records.
Then there was the family’s excitable, nervous, sycophantic banker Milburn Drysdale (Raymond Bailey), and his bird-watching, vanilla, sex-starved assistant Miss Hathaway (Nancy Kulp). These were the ones who always had to get the Clampetts out of whatever trouble they were in. (Half the time the Clampetts never realized they were in any trouble).
The Beverly Hillbillies was one of the most popular shows on the airwaves during its original nine year run. In the wake of its success, Henning also created the popular (and similar) shows Petticoat Junction and Green Acres. None was to last past the early 70s when the new fashion in television was set by the edgy, topical All in the Family. Since that show was just as influential on me (in other ways) I can hardly complain. Besides, there are always re-runs.
For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.