The 1980’s was the decade of the TV reunion movie. We saw I Dream of Jeannie 15 Years Later, More Wild Wild West, the Return of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later and we visited with The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island. Could it be that the kids who grew up with these shows were old enough in the 80’s to produce a reunion? Or was it that everyone else on TV was so bad, we longed for the 60’s classics?
Either way, TV reunion movies have a way of hitting two discordant notes. On one hand, they’re usually very depressing because the cast has aged and they don’t have the same spark as they did in their original run. On the other hand, they make us smile with a healthy dose of nostalgic references.
The Return of the Beverly Hillbillies is like that. There are moments when it’s painfully awful and moments where it feels like a family reunion.
The plot is no more ridiculous than any you would have seen on the original show. Jane Hathaway (Nancy Kulp) is on a mission to find a jug of Granny’s White Lightening (moonshine) because she thinks the formula will solve the nation’s energy crisis. Instead of working for Milburn Drysdale (actor Raymond Bailey had passed away), she’s working for uptight government stooge C.D. Medford (Werner Klemperer for Hogan’s Heroes). Together, they travel from Beverly Hills back to the hills outside of Bugtussle in order to complete their quest — and of course, they get into plenty of trouble along the way.
The movie begins with scenes cut from later in the movie, which is confusing. Then we see Miss Jane approaching Jed’s old cabin and then much of the story is told in flashback. It’s a weird way around but obviously it was done to take advantage of the fact that Buddy Ebsen was back as Jed Clampett.
Honestly, Ebsen and Kulp are the saving graces of this movie. They fall easily into their old characters and neither have changed much in the ten years between the show and the film. Buddy Ebsen exudes the same laid-back charm and he never rises to meet the over-acting and mugging of the actors around him.
Once she’s at the cabin, Miss Jane proceeds to tell Jed about her adventures in Los Angeles — switch to a major movie studio where Jethro is producing blockbusters (?). Sadly, Max Baer Jr. refused to play the role, saying that it had taken him 10 years to shed his Jethro persona and he wasn’t about to go back. A minor character actor (with an impressive list of guest spots) named Ray Young filled the role. He tried his best to play the dumb as dirt but sweet as sugar Jethro but it never really works.
It’s interesting to note that previously, Young played Lil’ Abner in a TV movie with the original Mammy Yokum Billie Hayes. The Return of Beverly Hillbillies feels more like a Lil’ Abner spin-off than a remake of the original sitcom especially when you watch Imogene Coca doing her Mammy Yokum imitation as Granny’s Maw. (Yes, she plays Granny’s mother – a replacement for Irene Ryan who had also passed away.)
Back to the story. After a wild meeting with Jethro and his dancing girls, Miss Jane and Medford go to visit Elly Mae at her petting zoo. Donna Douglas reprises her original role, but it sadly doesn’t suit her anymore. She comes off more addle-brained than precocious and it’s not pretty.
Once the flashbacks end, the movie picks up speed and, if you keep an open mind, it’s enjoyable. The second half of the movie is about getting Granny’s Maw to whip up a new batch of moonshine without letting on that it’s for the government.
60’s and 70’s sitcom staple Charles Lane makes a brief appearance as the lawman out to shut down the illegal still. He’s assisted by the also familiar King Donovan and when it’s square dance time Earl Scruggs shows up with his banjo and that’s a true joy. If you check out the barefoot hill girls, you’ll also find a familiar face — Heather Locklear in her first movie role.
The Return of the Beverly Hillbillies isn’t a sophisticated comedy. It’s not even as well-written or charming as the original series. But for fans of the show, it’s nice to see everyone coming together to pay homage in a wacky 80’s way.
If you’re a die-hard Beverly Hillbillies fan, then you should pick this DVD up just for the extras. Linda Henning, daughter of creator Paul Henning, let’s you in on all the behind the scenes secrets. She talks about how they cast real hill folk in some of the roles and used a true hillbilly artist to carve a statue of Granny that is a small part of the plot.
There’s also a retrospective on Henning’s career, retro Corn Flakes commercials starring the cast and a rare pitch film for a children’s program starring Elly Mae and her critters.
This TV reunion movie, like so many others, is silly and campy and often misses the mark but Buddy Ebsen is always a joy to watch. Pick up this DVD, pop it in the player, take your shoes off and set a spell – then forget your troubles for 180 minutes while you celebrate with Jed and all his kin.