Friday, November 06, 2009

The Beverly Hillbillies

A one-note bad joke notable for a fundamental lack of enthusiasm and imagination, The Beverly Hillbillies (1993, dir. Penelope Spheeris) does not improve on the 1960s television series of the same name. Rather, it simply tries to do it over. With Cloris Leachman as Granny and Lily Tomlin as Jane Hathaway, one might think that the film at least had acting in its favor, but all we get from them are earnest pasteboard parodies of roles that weren’t much more than parodies of stereotypes to begin with.

Stereotypes are what The Beverly Hillbillies is about. A Tennessee mountain man, Jed Clampett (Jim Varney) accidentally discovers oil on his land. He becomes an instant billionaire. His cousin Pearl convinces him that paradise is in Beverly Hills, so he moves his family to California, where he hopes to find a new wife to raise his daughter up proper. In Beverly Hills the greedy banker Millburn Drysdale and his secretary Jane Hathaway take the Clampetts under their avid wings. Shady characters plot to steal Jed’s fortune. This was a standard plot of the television series—efforts to bilk Jed out of his fortune, along with such other plots as Jed’s search for a husband for Elly Mae or Jethro’s aspirations to be a brain surgeon or a double-naught spy.

In the television series and the film, hillbillies are simple mountain folk full of virtue, homilies, good intentions, and friendliness. They are always relatively simple-minded (though not stupid) and naïve. Beverly Hills is full of malice and corruption and false, hollow pretensions. Somehow the Clampetts resist temptation and evil of Hollywood life and remain unblemished and wealthy. Like the television series, the film views the hillbillies as a cartoon stereotype—there is no concern with even remotely authentic details, only the broad and careless brushstrokes that identify the stereotype—a hound dog, Granny in her rocking chair, Jed’s ragged hat, Elly Mae’s cut off jeans, banjos, shotguns, moonshine, and so on.

With all its mindless silliness the television series is more satisfying than this film. With an array of minor characters such as Millburn Drysdale’s dithering and embarrassed wife Margaret and their son Sonny, along with all the eccentric relatives who visit the Clampetts, the show was usually entertaining, especially when Jethro or Granny was the center of attention. In the film, Mrs. Drysdale becomes a bland yuppie matron with a poodle, while Sonny is renamed Morgan. In the television show, Sonny Drysdale, played brilliantly by Louis Nye, was one of my favorite characters.

The television show was always making fun and satirizing, contrasting the pretensions of the rich against the earnest good-heartedness of the Clampetts. It carried on the tradition of slapstick social satire of the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers and many others. The film simply imitates the television show, without much vigor or success.

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