Sunday, September 25, 2005

Barely Kept His Family Fed

If you buy only one TV show on DVD this week -- though you'll probably buy fewer than one -- make it "The Beverly Hillbillies: the Ultimate Collection." There's a good review, with screenshots, at DVD Beaver.

I have my problems with the way the estate of Paul Henning has elected to handle his shows: not only are they not releasing the entire first season at once, but they're leaving off the Christmas episode for a separate release (jointly with a "Petticoat Junction" Christmas episode), which is not only silly but makes hash of Paul Henning's pioneering use of the story-arc format. Still, you get the original black-and-white episodes in decent prints with decent extras, and since the black-and-white episodes are a) By far the best of the show's run and b) Don't turn up much in syndication, it's worth the fairly reasonable price.

"The Beverly Hillbillies" is a good example of how sometimes the audiences know better than the critics. At the time, it was the number-one target of critics who pined for the Golden Age of preachy New York-based live TV drama, and blamed people like Paul Henning for ruining everything. But what Henning was doing was bringing the style of radio comedy to television. The vaudevillian air to much of the comedy, the culture-clash humor, the loose structure, the then-unusual use of continuing story threads and episodes that ran together in arcs instead of being purely self-contained; this was all stuff that Henning had done in his years as a radio writer for shows like "Fibber McGee and Molly" and "Burns and Allen." Bringing back the freewheeling fun of radio comedy was a greater contribution to television than all those pompous "Playhouse 90" plays combined.

More importantly, "The Beverly Hillbillies" was funny. Funny cast, funny characters, funny stories, funny routines. It was at its best in the first two seasons; after that, director Richard Whorf left, the show switched to color (necessitating a re-shot title sequence and slightly cheesier production values), the Clampetts got dumber -- originally Jed was very smart and even Jethro wasn't as big a dunce as he became -- and the show became more repetitive and more uneven. Still, Henning wrote or co-wrote every episode until the end, and there were always funny episodes even toward the end of the series.

Like a lot of enduring shows, "The Beverly Hillbillies" continues to work because it gets its frivolous comedy from something relevant and true -- in this case, a clash of cultures within an increasingly urbanized America. This being a frivolous comedy, the culture clash is played for laughs and subsumed within that other favorite comedy theme, the good guys vs. the hypocritical snobs; the Clampetts, like the Marx Brothers, always get the best of the stuffed shirts and greedy capitalists, the difference being that the Clampetts never intend to get the best of anybody: they just want to go on living the way they prefer to live, and if anyone tries to interfere with that, they'll just ignore them.

"Petticoat Junction," with which Henning was much less involved, also has a valuable DVD release, showcasing the early black-and-white episodes which are almost never seen in syndication, and which are a lot better than the bland color episodes. (By the time "Petticoat Junction" went to color, the good writers had moved on to other shows, like "Green Acres.") For this set, Henning's daughter Linda (Betty Jo) recorded an introduction for each episode.

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