Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The 50th Anniversary of Green Acres

American television for much of the Sixties was dominated by a rather large and long lasting cycle towards rural comedies. This cycle towards rural sitcoms was largely sparked by the success of The Andy Griffith Show, which debuted in 1960. The cycle would gain even more momentum with the phenomenal success of The Beverly Hillbillies during the 1962-1963 season. Not only would the success of The Beverly Hillbillies lead to the creation of yet more rural sitcoms in the Sixties, it would also lead to the creation of a universe shared by three different shows: The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres. It was fifty years ago today that the third of those three shows, Green Acres, debuted on CBS at  9:00 PM Eastern/8:00 PM Central.

That Green Acres should be set in the same reality as The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction should come as no surprise, as the show  was produced by Paul Henning, the creator and producer of both The Beverly Hillbilies and Petticoat Junction. While Green Acres shared the Hooterville setting of Petticoat Junction, however, Paul Henning was not the creator of Green Acres. Instead that honour goes to Jay Sommers. Like Paul Henning, Jay Sommers' career had begun on radio. He worked on radio's most famous hillbiily sitcom Lum and Abner, as well as writing for Milton Berle, Eddie Cantor, and Red Skelton. Like Paul Henning, Jay Sommers also made the move to television. Prior to Green Acres Mr. Sommers worked on such TV shows as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Dennis the Menace, as well as Petticoat Junction.

In fact, Green Acres actually has its roots in a radio show created, written and produced by Jay Sommers, titled Granby's Green Acres. Granby's Green Acres was in some respects a spin off of the popular Lucille Ball radio show My Favourite Husband. On My Favourite Husband Gale Gordon and Bea Benaderet (who eventually found her way to Petticoat Junction) played banker Rudolph Atterbury and his wife Iris Atterbury.  Granby's Green Acres essentially took the Atterburys, gave them new names, and placed them in a new setting. Quite simply, on Granby's Green Acres Gale Gordon and Bea Benaderet played banker John Granby and his wife Martha Granby, who moved to the country to take up farming. Eb (played by Parley Baer) was the Granby's old farmhand. Granby's Green Acres had a very brief run, only lasting from 3 July 1950 to 21 August 1950.

Green Acres centred on New York City lawyer Oliver Wendell Douglas (played by Eddie Albert) who decided to fulfil his dream of becoming a farmer, much to the displeasure of his glamorous wife Lisa (played by Eva Gabor).  Unfortunately, Mr. Douglas purchased a decrepit farm with a derelict house from Hooterville's local confidence artist Mr. Haney (played by Pat Buttram).  The sometimes temperamental Mr. Douglas knew pretty much nothing about farming, and his efforts more often than not ended in failure. He got little help from his young, glib, but none too bright farmhand Eb Lawson (played by Tom Lester), who regarded himself as the Douglases' adopted son (something on which he and Mr. Douglas differed). He also received little in the way of help from Hooterville's county agent, the scatterbrained Hank Kimball (Alvy Moore).  Being set in Hooterville, Frank Cady from Petticoat Junction appeared in his role as Sam Drucker, owner and operator of the town's general store. Other characters included the Douglases' neighbours, Fred (played by Hank Patterson) and Doris Ziffel (played by Barbara Pepper in the show's first three seasons and by Fran Ryan in its last two), who treated their pig Arnold as their son (as did everyone else in Hooterville, except Mr. Douglas).

Being set in Hooterville it was not unusual for characters other than Sam Drucker from Petticoat Junction to appear on the show from time to time. It was also not unusual for characters from Green Acres to appear in the occasional episode of Petticoat Junction. It seems likely that both Petticoat Junction and Green Acres were meant to be set in the same reality as The Beverly Hillbillies from the beginning. It is often forgotten that the town of Hooterville was first mentioned on The Beverly Hillbillies, in the sixth episode of the show, "Trick or Treat", well before Petticoat Junction was conceived. During the 1968-1969 the Clampetts from The Beverly Hillbillies, as well as their banker Milburn Drysdale and his secretary Miss Hathaway, finally visited Hooterville, spending both Thanksgiving and Christmas there. Afterwards Frank Cady would make a few guest appearances as Sam Drucker on The Beverly Hillbillies. There would be one last crossover episode between The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres, "The Clampett-Hewes Empire", that aired in the 1970-1971 season.

Like The Beverly Hillbillies, the cast of Green Acres tended to be relatively stable. In fact, there was only one change in the major cast during the show. Barbara Pepper had originated the role of Doris Ziffel on the show when it debuted in 1965. Unfortunately by 1968 her health had begun to fail, so she was forced to leave the show. She was replaced by Fran Ryan. Barbara Pepper died on July 18 1969.

Like Petticoat Junction before it, CBS was bought without a pilot. It was a wise move on CBS's part, as like The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction, Green Acres proved to be a hit in the ratings. In its first season it ranked no. 11 for the year. The show would remain fairly high rated for the next several seasons, ranking no. 6 during the 1966-1967 season, no. 15 during the 1967-1968 season, and no. 19 during the 1968-1969 season. During this whole time the show remained on Wednesday night, with it making only a slight move in the 1968-1969 season from 9:00 PM Eastern/8:00 PM Central to 9:30 PM Eastern/8:30 PM Central. During the 1968-1969 season Green Acres dropped out of the top 30 highest rated shows for the season, something that can largely be attributed to the show moving to Saturday night at 9:00 Eastern/8:00 Central. Regardless, Green Acres still received respectable ratings in the time slot.

Green Acres was still doing well during the 1970-1971 season, when it ranked no. 34 for the year. In previous years this would usually have meant a renewal for the show. Unfortunately 1970-1971 was the year of the Rural Purge. As early as the 1966-1967 season CBS had wanted to appeal to a younger, more urban demographic. It was during that season that CBS cancelled What's My Line, I've Got a Secret, To Tell the Truth, and Gunsmoke because their audiences skewed too "old (Gunsmoke would be saved by none other than CBS chairman and founder William S. Paley and go on to run several more seasons). With all three networks having to cancel more shows than ever due to the implementation of the FCC's  Prime Time Access Rule (which took several hours a week away from the networks), CBS decided to rid itself of shows whose audiences were too rural, too old, or both. In the end CBS very nearly cancelled every show that appealed to rural audiences (The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour actually survived), including Green Acres.

While Green Acres was gone from network airwaves, it was hardly gone forever. In fact, it would go on to an extremely successful run in syndication. It would be run on Nick at Nite in the Eighties and Nineties, and more recently it has been run on classic television broadcast network ME-TV. Of course, it still runs on local stations around the country. The first three seasons of Green Acres have been released on DVD, and the entire series is available digitally through Amazon.

The continued success of Green Acres would result in a reunion movie aired on CBS on May 18 1990. Unfortunately Return to Green Acres departed from the show considerably, and as a result many, perhaps most, Green Acres fan were disappointed.

While Green Acres shared its Hooterville setting with Petticoat Junction, it was much closer in spirit to The Beverly Hillbillies. While Petticoat Juncton was essentially a gentle, if broad, traditional comedy, Green Acres, like The Beverly Hillbillies before it, was in many ways an absurdist farce. While The Beverly Hillbillies was essentially a comedy about a conflict between cultures (the Clampetts' backwoods culture with that of Beverly Hills), Green Acres was a comedy about perceptions of reality. Quite simply, there is the reality that Mr. Douglas perceives and the reality that everyone else in Hooterville perceives (even his wife Lisa). For instance, while Mr. Douglas had problems accepting Arnold Ziffel as anything other than a very bright pig, the other Hootervilians (including his wife Lisa) insist on treating him like a human child, even to the point that he attends school. It must also be pointed out that Mr. Douglas seems to be the only character on Green Acres who does not know that he is on a  television show. An example of this are those instances where Lisa can hear the theme music and see the credits, while Mr. Douglas is totally unaware of them. In his review of The Beverly Hillbillies in the December 15 1962 issue of TV Guide, Cultural critic and writer Gilbert Seldes described the show as "unreal people in unreal situations". Arguably, not only was Mr. Douglas a "real person in an unreal situation", but he was a real person surrounded by unreal people in what can only be described as an unreality.

It is perhaps because of the very self-referential nature of Green Acres that it has lasted throughout the years. It set it apart from most other comedies on the air at the time (the very self-referential The Monkees being an exception). It also gave the show an appeal that went far beyond the rural audience it largely had at its cancellation. "City folk" may not be able to identify with the setting of Green Acres, much less many of the characters, but they can appreciate the very meta nature of the comedy of Green Acres. In the end the broad, surreal, self-referential comedy of the show gives Green Acres an appeal that goes well beyond that of many of the rural shows of the Sixties. I rather suspect people will still be familiar with Green Acres fifty years from now.


Hal said...

Loved THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES and liked GREEN ACRES almost as much. I do think that ACRES was the better of the two shows during the last 3 seasons both were on the air. Eddie Albert was as perfect a straight man as you could have this side of Bob Newhart.

One crossover sticks in my mind as incredibly funny, a HILLBILLIES episode titled "The Hired Gun" from 1969, in which PETTICOAT JUNCTION's weaselly Homer Bedloe is enlisted to Drysdale to assist on a scheme to convince the Clampetts to shut down various 'businesses' that they insist on running out of the bank building. We learn that Bedloe worked for Drysdale's father, and some of the details about the late Senior Drysdale are positively jaw-dropping. Just hilarious.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I think I prefer The Beverly Hillbillies of the two shows, but I definitely think the final seasons of Green Acres were far better than the final seasons of The Beverly Hillbillies. Sadly, I think The Beverly Hillbillies was just a pale shadow of its former self after about 1968, whereas Green Acres maintained its quality throughout its run!

I remember that crossover. It was one of the better ones!