Cornpone Cultural Politics in The Beverly Hillbillies

granny from beverly hillbillies

In this excerpt from his book The South of the Mind: American Imaginings of White Southernness, 1960-1980 (University of Georgia Press, 2018), Zachary J. Lechner discusses The Beverly Hillbillies, a long-running, fish-out-of-water sitcom (CBS, 1962-1971) that followed the antics of a nouveau riche Ozark family of mountain people in their adopted southern California. Lechner argues that the program, like The Andy Griffith Show (CBS, 1960-1968) represented what he terms the Down-Home South. This popular view of white southernness downplayed–or simply ignored–the negative characterizations of white southerners (the Vicious South) prominent during the civil rights era, while promoting the small-town and rural white South as a place of traditionalism that functioned as a refuge from the ills of modern, technocratic American society.

The Beverly Hillbillies conveys a similar message [as The Andy Griffith Show] about the value of an inveterate southern existence—this time exclusively rural. But whereas Griffith and his collaborators strived to create a semiveracious TV version of white southern life, verisimilitude seemed of little concern to creator Paul Henning and his team. The white southerners of the Hillbillies are caricatures, although many Americans probably unthinkingly accepted them as fairly authentic representations of little-understood southern mountain people. It is ironic that a show that critiqued the banality of postwar American life was itself a prosaic, modern creation. Such was the power of the Down-Home South.

Like The Andy Griffith Show, the near total absence of black characters on The Beverly Hillbillies made the show’s southernness more viable to its millions of viewers. It taught them that erasing was easier than confronting the weighty problem of white southern racism. Even if Granny occasionally discusses the “War between the States,” and in one episode confuses the nearby filming of a Civil War movie with the actual reigniting of the conflict itself, the show is nearly silent on the issue of race. A notable exception is the 1970 episode “Simon Legree Drysdale.” Mr. Drysdale is the Clampetts’ banker and next-door neighbor. While staying at the Clampett mansion, one of Mr. Drysdale’s secretaries, Jean (played by black actress and Playboy playmate Jeannie Bell in one of her five appearances on the show), decides to help out with the chores. During a visit, her brothers see her performing menial tasks wearing old-timey garb and jump to the conclusion that Mr. Drysdale has—that is right—enslaved her. More misunderstandings ensue, as expected, and Mr. Drysdale ends the episode locked in a cage. Although the episode works only if one has knowledge of American slavery and its title references the vicious slavemaster in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, its racial politics are clunky and tasteless. “Simon Legree Drysdale” does not have anything—let alone anything serious—to say about race or race relations. Jean’s supposed “enslavement” was simply more goofy fodder for the show’s writers.

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“Simon Legree Drysdale” stands out for its unusual, by The Beverly Hillbillies’ standards, inclusion of prominent black performers and allusions to racial concerns. By taking the Clampetts out of the South, their distance from the southern civil rights anguish of the era was less noticeable—if one were willing to forget about West Coast raced-based incidents like the 1965 Watts Riots that played out near the fictional Clampetts’ new home. After all, in contrast to the blatant discrimination carried out by whites against blacks in the South, the deep and—for many Americans—difficult-to-grasp structural inequalities that undergirded urban rebellions outside of the South in the mid-to-late 1960s did not lend themselves as easily to the scapegoating of racist individuals or groups. Making the Clampett clan an Ozark family also mitigated against viewers comparing them to the angry Deep South whites who were ubiquitous in Vicious South television and print coverage. Mayberry is nearly uniformly white. Similarly, the mountainous Missouri Ozarks of the Clampetts has traditionally been considered a bastion of whiteness. Regardless, it is conspicuous that a show casting white southerners as clownish, but ultimately lovable and wiser than their nonsouthern counterparts, enjoyed an unprecedented popularity, premiering as it did during the Ole Miss integration crisis.

The Hillbillies episodes occur mostly outside of the South, far from Oxford, Mississippi, and other sites of the civil rights struggle. The sitcom functions as a fish-out-of-water comedy, with the rural foibles of the main characters differentiated from the actions of snooty Southern Californians who often lack the hillbillies’ common sense. The show does offer viewers an opportunity to laugh at the outsized mountain people stereotypes as manifested in Jethro’s stupidity and Elly May’s animal husbandry skills. Audiences in the 1960s could also find humor in the always overzealous Granny’s use of their mansion’s swimming pool, or “ce-ment pond,” as a giant washtub, or the family’s confusion of the pool table for a dinner table. Still, the characters, or “nature’s noble savages,” as Washington Post columnist Lawrence Laurent termed them, are not simply punch lines. Paul Henning suggested as much in describing the apparent care with which he researched Ozark culture and, according to the Saturday Evening Post, his desire to implant an “ancient authenticity” in his characters. He failed decidedly in this task, but he achieved something much more significant: he and his writers consistently presented the Clampetts’ rural ways as superior to the practices of their rich, citified neighbors.

Despite the show’s silly antics and Henning’s claim that “there’s no message except ‘have fun,’” The Beverly Hillbillies’ critique of 1960s society, along with its accompanying greed and materialism, is clear. The upended Clampett clan might at first glance appear to suffer from the same rootlessness as the rest of society. But, as the series demonstrates, despite their best efforts, the people of California cannot change these Ozark folks. They remain people of the soil—like Andy Taylor and his fellow Mayberrians—firmly entrenched in their traditional rural values of hard work, simplicity, honesty, and, above all, commitment to family. As David Farber has argued, “In both The Beverly Hillbillies and . . . [ The] Andy Griffith Show, the moral integrity of a consumer-based lifestyle—as against a rooted way of life—was sharply and unceasingly mocked.” Jed and his clan enjoy a sudden, dizzying transition to prosperity, one to which they never fully adjust over the course of the series. They continue to hold fast to their way of life, except for fleeting moments like when Jethro briefly finds himself the anointed leader of the Sunset Strip hippies, which results in the show lampooning the counterculture’s supposed ridiculousness and vacuity.

Importantly, The Beverly Hillbillies’ rejection of technology and consumer culture fit into widely held cultural concerns and anticipated later imaginings of the South that censured modern U.S. society. Jed’s family never loses its identity and always triumphs over its Southern California neighbors, who are often the epitomes of deceitfulness and consumerism. For instance, the Drysdales are money grubbers who condescend to the “peasant” hillbillies. Mr. Drysdale soothes his ragged nerves by smelling a stack of cash. Other outsiders to the southern mountain tradition constantly seek to defraud the hillbillies, thinking that the family’s lack of sophistication indicates an innate stupidity. Yet the joke is on them, as the Clampetts, particularly the commonsensical Jed, always stifle their schemes. “The program therefore presents modern America, at least superficially, as venal, boorish, materialistic, and, ultimately, ethically and spiritually hollow,” Anthony Harkins explains in his study of hillbilly iconography.  This portrayal of the white South, particularly its rural areas, and accompanying negative depiction of the contemporary United States defines the former’s values as morally superior to those of the rootless non-South.

Not surprisingly, many television critics lambasted the program’s broad comedy as pandering to the lowest common denominator. United Press International (UPI) wrote that “the series aimed low and hit its target,” while the New York Times bewailed its “rural no-think.” “The more harsh critics of the TV scene,” surmised Los Angeles Times columnist Hal Humphrey, “say such low-brow corn [as The Beverly Hillbillies] is proof positive that a majority of home viewers are little better than morons.” Some viewers were equally unimpressed. William R. Kimball of Ogden, Utah, reproved it as “the trashiest, most inane TV show that one could imagine.” Such vitriol did not seem to exist for The Andy Griffith Show. In part, this must have had to do with the more believable characters that populated Mayberry and a premise based on Griffith’s own upbringing. “For a half hour each week,” a 1963 TV Guide article on The Andy Griffith Show’s popularity claimed, “viewers can feel warm and comfortable in a dream town,” but one that the likes of The Music Man composer Meredith Willson claimed was locked into the reality of small-town life.

The obvious silliness of the Hillbillies hardly held back the show, which quickly shot to number one in the ratings, and it had its defenders, too. Kansas City’s Paul E. Robinson parroted fans of The Andy Griffith Show who appreciated the Hillbillies’ wholesomeness and refusal to “exalt moral degeneracy” (perhaps he had missed Elly May in her tight jeans, which, Time mused, actress Donna Douglas “somehow wears . . . as if they were a bikini”). Fans like Robinson were not alone in praising the show, with some reviewers appreciating Jed and his cohorts’ Andy Griffith–like critique of modernity. Arnold Hano recognized The Beverly Hillbillies’ antiurban bent and its proposal for “a return to . . . natural ways.” Robert Lewis Shayon, writing in the high-brow journal Saturday Review, called it a “challenge to our money oriented value system” and “valid social criticism.” The show’s cornball factor, then, did not fully obscure its cultivation of supposedly authentic rural southern characteristics.

Like the slew of other rural-oriented sitcoms, including Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, and the Andy Griffth Show spinoff Mayberry R.F.D., The Beverly Hillbillies fell victim to declining, if still respectable, ratings, particularly among urban viewers. CBS President Bob Wood responded by tearing apart the schedule, initiating the “rural purge” of 1970–1971. “They cancelled everything with a tree,” quipped Green Acres actor Pat Buttram, “including Lassie.” Replacing these programs were ones deemed by the network as more socially relevant, such as the urban-centered comedies All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Anthony Harkins infers that the declining popularity of shows set in or near the country—and “hillbilly vogue”—stemmed from “the country los[ing] interest in Appalachia as a ‘problem region.’” The actual reason was probably more simple: viewers had overdosed on formulaic rural sitcoms and now longed for something else. As Harkins notes, near the end of its run, The Beverly Hillbillies had drifted from its rock-solid premise: “Whereas the Clampetts were once emblematic of both rustic farce and bedrock American virtue, they now increasingly stood only for the former.”

While they lasted, The Beverly Hillbillies and The Andy Griffith Show’s “southern” values were prized by many viewers worried about the state of modern society. The imagined Souths of these television programs embodied antithetical values to those promoted in the rapidly expanding, urban-based consumer culture of the time. Their creators combined escapism with trenchant social analysis, allowing viewers to name, but also to defuse, their prominent cultural anxieties in the dreamed-up worlds of Mayberry and a Beverly Hills invaded by the Clampetts.

It would be easy to argue that these TV comedies’ rendering of the Down-Home South was completely adversarial to various media manifestations of the Vicious South; however, a closer look at these series’ near erasure of nonwhites disturbingly suggests a kinship between the two narratives for those Americans interested in making the connection. One could interpret the shows’ racial omissions as implying that black southerners were the cause of the South’s racial problems, since apparently only by shuttling them to the background and making them almost completely voiceless could southern life on TV achieve a state of wholesomeness bordering on perfection. This undercurrent surely fed some whites’ unrealistic and damaging nostalgia for a supposedly tranquil pre–civil rights movement America and South, before black southern “agitators” upset this “Down-Home” peacefulness. Along these lines, Phoebe Bronstein has detailed the racist connotations of The Andy Griffth Show, helpfully drawing on cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s notion of “inferential racism,” a surreptitious bigotry that “enable[s] racist sentiments to be formulated without ever bringing into awareness the racist predicates on which the statements are grounded.” As Bronstein writes, “Mayberry remained a world constructed by white supremacy and longing for a time that never was.” Although not overtly racist like the Vicious South, the benign characterizations of the white South on The Andy Griffith Show and The Beverly Hillbillies carried a similar and equally pernicious meaning and message: white southerners were committed to a white supremacist society in which they would prefer to keep blacks in the background or out of the picture entirely.

Excerpt from Zachary J. Lechner, The South of the Mind: American Imaginings of White Southernness, 1960–1980, © University of Georgia Press, 2018. Reprinted by permission of the University of Georgia Press.