Saturday, May 22, 2021

Mayberry, Everyone's Hometown

(This blog post is part of The American Exprience Blogathon hosted by Moon in Gemini)

In the United States, small towns with friendly inhabitants and exceedingly low crime rates are often referred to as "Mayberry." Of course, the name "Mayberry" originated as the name of the fictional small town in The Andy Griffith Show and later Mayberry R.F.D. In both shows Mayberry is a small town in North Carolina. It was peaceful, with the only real crime being moonshiners living outside of town. It was also filled with friendly, if at times colourful, townspeople. In The Andy Griffith Show, Andy Griffith played Andy Taylor, the sheriff of Mayberry County (of which the city of Mayberry was the county seat), who usually plays straight man to the many inhabitants of the town.

The Andy Griffith Show (and hence the town of Mayberry) originated with producer Sheldon Leonard. If the name "Sheldon Leonard" sounds familiar, it's because he had a long career as a character actor in movies, appearing in such films as Another Thin Man (1939) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946). In the Fifties he became a television producer, producing the classic sitcom Make Room for Daddy (AKA The Danny Thomas Show). Sheldon Leonard came up with the idea of a man in a small town who was its newspaper editor, sheriff, and justice of the peace. To test out this idea, he asked writer Arthur Stander to develop an episode of Make Room for Daddy that would also serve as a backdoor pilot for a potential sitcom.

It was the William Morris Agency that would provide the new show with its star. Andy Griffith had rose to prominence on the basis of the novelty record "What It Was, Was Football" and went onto star in the United States Steel Hour teleplay "No Time for Sergeants" (and later the Broadway play and movie of the same name) and the movie Face in the Crowd. Mr. Griffith was interested in starring in a television series. As a result, the William Morris Agency contacted Sheldon Morris about Andy Griffith's interest in starring in a TV show.

The casting of Andy Griffith would have an impact on the prospective new show. It was Mr. Griffith who suggested that the show be set in his home state of North Carolina, although initially Sheldon Leonard resisted the idea. Mr. Leonard simply wanted the show set somewhere in the South. It would also take some time before the town would be named "Mayberry." They came up with a variety of names, among them Mt. Pilot (which would later be used for a fictional, slightly larger town near Mayberry).  Andy Griffith pointed out that there was a placed called Pilot Mountain near his hometown of Mt. Airy. Eventually someone came up the name "Mayberry," a name very similar to "Mt. Airy." Andy Griffith believes it could have been writer Athur Stander who came up with the name.

It was then that the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina first appeared in the Make Room for Daddy episode "Danny Meets Andy Griffith," which aired on February 15 1960. That having been said, "Danny Meets Andy Griffith" does differ a bit from The Andy Griffith Show. Andy Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor and Ronnie Howard as his son Opie are the only characters from the show to appear in the backdoor pilot. Frances Bavier does appear in the episode, but not as Aunt Bee. On the show Andy Taylor was only Mayberry's sheriff and justice of the peace, but in "Danny Meets Andy Griffith" he was also the town's newspaper editor. While the idea of a drunk who locks himself in jail when he has had a few too many originated with the pilot, that drunk was Will (played by Frank Cady later of Petticoat Junction and Green Acres fame) rather than Otis Campbell (played by Hal Smith).

As a backdoor pilot "Danny Meets Andy Griffith" proved successful. General Foods had first access to the new show and they signed on immediately as its sponsor. The Andy Griffith Show debuted on October 3 1960 on CBS. In the beginning the show centred on Andy Taylor, the sheriff and justice of the peace of Mayberry, North Carolina. Andy was a widower with a young son named Opie, played by Ronnie Howard. Living with Andy and Opie was Andy's aunt, Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier), who served as their housekeeper and cook. As Mayberry County did not have much in the way of a population, Andy only had one deputy, Barney Fife (Don Knotts). Don Knotts and Andy Griffith had been friends since they had both worked on the Broadway production of No Time for Sergeants and later worked together on the movie version. When Andy Griffith told Don Knotts about his new show, it was Mr. Knotts who suggested to Mr. Griffith that Sheriff Taylor would need a deputy. In creating the character of Deputy Barney Fife, Don Knotts drew upon Mr. Morrison, the nervous and high-strung character he had played in the "Man in the Street" interviews on The Steve Allen Show, adding a streak of self-importance as well. Barney would prove to be the breakout character on the show, easily becoming its most popular character.

In the beginning Andy Griffith played Andy Taylor as a country bumpkin not on unlike the church deacon in "What It Was, Was Football" or Will Stockdale in No Time for Sergeants. It was during the first season that Andy Griffith and the producers decided the show would be better if Andy acted as a straight man to Mayberry's many colourful characters (particularly Barney Fife). Because of this The Andy Griffith Show began to focus much more on the citizens of Mayberry, to the point that the show was as much about the town as it was Sheriff Andy Taylor. In fact, creator and producer Sheldon Leonard would later express regret that the show was named The Andy Griffith Show, thinking Mayberry would have been a more fitting title.

With the emphasis on the show shifted to the city of Mayberry, The Andy Griffith Show developed a rather large ensemble of recurring characters. Among them was Mayberry's barber, Floyd. When Floyd first appeared in the first season episode "Stranger in Town," he was played by actor Walter Baldwin. It would be the very next episode, "Andy Goes Hollywood," that actor Howard McNear would take over the role of Floyd. Floyd Lawson was a bit absent minded and never particularly in a hurry, particularly when speaking. Floyd grew in importance as a character as the show progressed, with Floyd's Barber Shop becoming a hangout for many of the men in Mayberry. The aforementioned Otis Campbell (played by Hal Smith) would also become an important character on the show. Otis was the town drunk, although a somewhat responsible one. He would let himself in the jail when he need to sleep off one of his drunken benders. Not only did Otis Campbell become an important character on the show, but he was also one of the earliest citizen of Mayberry to appear on the show. He first appeared in the show's second episode, "Manhunt."

While Floyd Lawson and Otis Campbell would both prove to be important to The Andy Griffith Show, two of the most successful characters on the series would both bear the last name "Pyle." Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors) was a gentle, but none too bright gas station attendant at Wally's Filling Station. The character of Gomer Pyle was based on a an actual gas station attendant that writer Everett Greenbaum had encountered. He talked the new character over with fellow writer Jim Fritzell and producer Aaron Ruben, and so Gomer Pyle was created. As to how Jim Nabors was cast in the role, Andy Griffith caught his act at the Horn, a club in Santa Monica, California. Gomer Pyle first appeared in the third season episode "The Bank Job" and quickly became one of the show's most popular characters. He became so popular that Gomer was spun off into his own, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., on which Gomer had joined the Marines.

Gomer's place on the show would be taken by his cousin Goober Pyle (George Lindsay). Ultimately, Goober would appear more than any other character on The Andy Griffith Show except for the show's lead characters (Andy, Opie, Barney, and Aunt Bee). Gomer Pyle's cousin, Gomer often referred to Goober well before he made his first appearance on the show. Goober would make his first appearance on The Andy Griffith Show in the episode "Fun Girls," the only episode in which Goober and Gomer appear together (although Goober would later appear in one episode of Gomer Pyle U.S. M.C. and they would appear together in the reunion movie Return to Mayberry). Goober was somewhat backwards and not terribly bright, but he was also an excellent mechanic and repaired cars at Wally's Filling Station. Eventually he bought Wally's Filling Station. George Lindsay would continue playing Goober as one of the leads on Mayberry R.F.D. He guest starred as Goober on the first episode of The New Andy Griffith Show, on which Andy Griffith played Greenwood, North Carolina mayor pro tem Andy Sawyer (apparently Andy Taylor and Andy Sawyer were related). He also played the character in an unsold pilot, Goober and the Trucker's Paradise, in 1978, as well as twenty years of Hee-Haw (apparently Goober left Mayberry for Cornfield County).

Clara Edwards (Hope Summers) was Aunt Bee's best friend and sometime rival. Clara is a bit of a gossip, something which at times causes Andy some trouble. While, she and Bee are friends, they have something of a competitive relationship. She first appeared in the first season episode "Andy and Opie, Housekeepers." It would be some time before the show's creators settled on the name "Clara Edwards." In her first and second appearances, she is called "Bertha Edwards." By her third episode she had become "Clara Johnson." It wasn't until the sixth season episode "The Church Organ" that she would finally be named Clara Edwards.

One character who remains phenomenally popular did not actually appear that often. Ernest T. Bass (Howard Morris) only appeared in five episodes of The Andy Griffith Show. Ernest T. Bass was an unruly hillbilly who took great pleasure in causing trouble. He is adept at throwing rocks and takes great pride in breaking out windows in buildings in Mayberry. He tends to be overly boastful, often bragging about his feats of strength. His character can be best summed up by a phrase Barney often said of Ernest T. during his appearances, "He's a nut!"

While there were many recurring characters on The Andy Griffith Show, except for two of them, Andy's girlfriends did not stick around long. During the first season, Andy's girlfriend was pharmacist Ellie Walker (Elinor Donaue). Ellie only stayed for twelve episodes. After Ellie's departure, Andy went through a succession of girlfriends. County nurse Mary Simpson was Andy's girlfriend for two episodes, although she was played by two different actresses (Julie Adams in the first episode and Sue Ane Langdon in the second). As county nurse Peggy MacMillan, Joanna Moore lasted a bit longer on the show appearing in four episodes. Of course, Andy's final girlfriend and the one he would marry would be Helen Crump (Aneta Corsaut). Curiously, Helen was not initially meant to be Andy's girlfriend. She was merely meant to be Opie's schoolteacher in the episode "Andy Discovers America." As it turned out, actors Andy Griffith and Aneta Corsaut clicked, and as a result Helen Crump became Andy's girlfriend. She appeared for the remainder of the show's run.

While Andy would go through a number of girlfriends on The Andy Griffith Show, for Barney Fife there was only one. Barney did date a few other women in single episodes of the show and he had an ongoing flirtation with the unseen waitress Juanita from The Bluebird Cafe, in the end Thelma Lou (Betty Lynn) was his girl. Thelma Lou was sweet natured, if at times a bit sensitive. And while Barney occasionally sees other women, he is prone to jealousy if another male pays attention to Thelma Lou, even Gomer Pyle and Opie. Sadly, Barney and Thelma Lou would part ways when he moved to Raleigh. In the episode "The Return of Barney Fife" it is revealed that she had married a man named Gerald Whitfield. To say Barney was crushed would be an understatement. 

During the course of The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R. F.D. we learn a good deal about the town. It was named for its founder Lord Mayberry, although the episode "The Battle of Mayberry' states that it was nearly named "Taylortown" after one of Andy's ancestors, Colonel Carleton Taylor. Perhaps the most notable event in Mayberry's history was the Battle of Mayberry, a conflict between the settlers of Mayberry and the local Cherokee. While the inhabitants of Mayberry (including the local Cherokee) have built the event up to mythical proportions, in truth it was little more than the citizens of Mayberry and the Cherokee yelling at each other before making peace, hunting together, and getting drunk together. One fact that cannot be pinned down about Mayberry is its population. A sign in the final episode of The Andy Griffith Show reads "Population: 5,630." In the episode "The Song Festers," choirmaster John Masters gives Mayberry's population as "two-thousand people." In "The Statue," county clerk Howard Sprague gives Mayberry's population as 1,800.

While there had been fictional towns on television before Mayberry (Mayfield on Leave It to Beaver being an example), Mayberry may have been the first to have been fully realized. Not only could viewers name many of its citizens, but they could also name many of the locations around Mayberry as well, well beyond the Mayberry Courthouse that figured so prominently in The Andy Griffith Show. The church Andy attended was All Souls Church. Its denomination was never named (as was the custom on network television in the Sixties), although I suspect it was Southern Baptist. There can be little doubt that there were other churches in town (my hometown has a population of 1,600 and five churches), none were ever shown. Mayberry has one bank and it figured prominently in episodes of The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D. Strangely enough for a town with such a low crime rate, Mayberry Security was subject to robberies from time to time.

Several places to eat were named on The Andy Griffith Show. Although it was never actually shown, the Blue Bird Diner was frequently mentioned, particularly when Barney was on the phone with Juanita. Mayberry also had a diner downtown at which Andy and Barney ate, the Mayberry Diner. Morelli's was a more upscale restaurant just outside of Mayberry and appeared on both The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D. Snappy Lunch was another eatery in Mayberry, although it was only mentioned once (in the episode "Andy the Matchmaker").

Several stores were mentioned throughout the run of The Andy Griffith Show. The local grocery store was called Foley's Grocery or Crowley's Market, leading some to conclude Mr. Foley (Stanley Farrar and Frank Ferguson) owned the store, but Art Crowley (Frank Warren) managed it. Clothing stores included Luken's Style Shop and Mort's Clothing Store. Weaver's Department Store was the department store in town. Other stores included Morrison Sisters Flower Shop, Nelson's Hardware Store, Sterling Jewelry Store, and Willick's Shoe Shop. The Grand Theatre was the cinema in town where Andy and Barney took their dates and Goober watched many a monster movie.

Beyond Floyd's Barber Shop, Walker's Drug Store, Wally's Filling Station, and Emmett's Fix-It Shop, there were several other businesses named on The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D. These included Fleur De Lis Beauty Salon, Monroe's Funeral Parlor, Simmons Seeds, and F. Wakefield Beauty Salon.

The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D. were shot at the old RKO Forty Acres Lot, which Desilu Studios had bought in 1957. It had already been used on such classic movies as King Kong and Gone with the Wind. With regards to television, The Adventures of Superman and episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet were shot there. While The Andy Griffith Show was in production, the lot was occasionally used by other shows, including Batman, The Green Hornet, Mission: Impossible, and even Star Trek (the episodes "Miri" and "City on the Edge of Forever"). Sadly, the Mayberry lot would be torn down in 1978.

One common misconception about Mayberry is that there were no Black people in the town. While none of the lead characters or supporting characters on The Andy Griffith Show were Black, Blacks did in fact appear on the show. Black extras were seen as early as the first season episode "Ellie Comes to Town" and would also be seen in such episodes as "Andy's English Valet," "Opie and the Carnival," "Barney Comes to Mayberry," and others. That having been said, the only Black character to have lines in an episode of The Andy Griffith Show was Opie's football coach Flip Conway (Rockne Tarkington) in the episode "Opie's Piano Lesson." In a retrospective on the show, Howard Morris, who directed several episodes of The Andy Griffith Show in addition to playing Ernest T. Bass, said that many on the show wanted to include Black characters, but CBS was nervous that including Black characters would hurt the show's ratings in the South. Andy Griffith would later express regret that Black characters had not been cast on the show. Fortunately, the network had apparently changed their mind by the time Mayberry R.F.D. had debuted. Among the recurring characters was a neighbour of lead character Sam Jones (Ken Berry), Ralph Barton (Charles Lampkin). Ralph had a teenager daughter, Dorothy June (Amanda Sykes), and a pre-teen son Martin (Calvin Peeler).

Over time The Andy Griffith Show would see changes to its cast. The most significant of these was the departure of Don Knotts. Mr. Knotts left the show basically due to a miscommunication between him and Andy Griffith. Mr. Griffith had said that he would not do the show for more than five years. After five years, then, Don Knotts left to pursue a career in film. On the show it was explained that Barney had left Mayberry to take a job as a detective in Raleigh. Don Knotts would continue to appear as Barney in guest appearance on the show, appearing in five more episodes during the show's run. He also guest starred as Barney in the first episode of Mayberry R.F.D., "Andy and Helen Get Married."

While Don Knotts left The Andy Griffith Show for movies, Howard McNear left the show in 1967 due to declining health. He died only around two years after leaving the show, on January 3 1969.  Floyd Lawson's absence from the show was explained as Floyd having retired. In 1966 Hal Smith ceased appearing as Otis Campbell on the show.

Just as various actors left The Andy Griffith Show, so too were actors added. Jack Dodson first appeared as county clerk Howard Sprague in the episode "The County Clerk." Howard was overly close to his mother, something of a Milquetoast,  and a bit socially awkward. Howard would become one of the central characters on The Andy Griffith Show in its later seasons, and was one of the leads on Mayberry R.F.D. Following the departure of Howard McNear, the character of Emmett Clark (Paul Hartman) was added to the show. Emmett Clark was the local handyman who ran Emmett's Fix-it Shop, which became the central hangout for Mayberry's men  following the closure of Floyd's Barber Shop. Like Howard, he would be one of the leads of Mayberry R.F.D.

It was the before the eighth and final season of The Andy Griffith Show that Andy Griffith decided to leave the show and return to making movies. This did not make either CBS or the show's sponsor, General Foods, particularly happy, as the show was still very high rated (it came in no. 3 in the Nielsen ratings for the 1966-1967 season). Andy Griffith was then convinced to do an eighth and final season. At the same time the character of farmer Sam Jones (Ken Berry) was introduced. Sam was elected to the city council and would increasingly play a large role in episodes as the season progressed. Andy and Helen also finally became engaged. Essentially, during its eighth season, The Andy Griffith Show was transitioning to Mayberry R.F.D.

Although often referred to as a spinoff, Mayberry R.F.D. should perhaps more properly be considered a continuation of The Andy Griffith Show without Andy Griffith. It was developed by Bob Ross, who had written several episodes of The Andy Griffith Show. It should come as no surprise, then, that the format of Mayberry R.F.D. resembled that of The Andy Griffith Show to a great degree. It centred on farmer and Mayberry city councilman Sam Jones, who, like Andy, was a widower with a young son (Mike played by Buddy Foster). Andy and Helen married in the debut episode of Mayberry R.F.D. and moved away, after which Aunt Bee became Sam's housekeeper. Goober, Howard, and Emmett remained on the show. They were  joined by a few new characters Millie Swason (Arlene Golonka) was Sam's girlfriend (curiously, Arlene Golonka had played Howard's girlfriend, Millie Hutchins, on two episodes of The Andy Griffith Show). Harold (Richard Steele) was Mike's best friend. As mentioned earlier, Ralph Barton was Sam's neighbour on the show. Both Clara Edwards and Emmett's wife Martha (Mary Lansing), from The Andy Griffith Show, continued to appear on Mayberry R.F.D.

Andy Griffith would guest star on Mayberry R. F.D. in its first season. Including the premiere episode, "Andy and Helen Get Married," he appeared in the episodes "Help on the Farm," "Youth Takes Over," and "Mike's Losing Streak." He made one last guest appearance on the show in the first episode of the second season, "Andy's Baby." It centred on the christening of Andy and Helen's new baby, Andy Jr.

Mayberry R.F.D. saw one cast change during its run. After the second season Frances Bavier retired from acting. In the third season episode "The New Housekeeper" it is said that Aunt Bee left to take care of her sister. She was replaced as Sam's housekeeper by his cousin Alice Cooper (Alice Ghostley). Alice was a sharp contrast to Aunt Bee. For one thing she was younger (Alice Ghostley was only around 46 when she joined Mayberry R.F.D., while Frances Bavier was in her sixties when she left). For another thing, the character of Alice had served in the Army for twenty years before becoming Sam's new housekeeper.

Mayberry R.F.D. proved to be popular on its debut, ranking no. 4 for the 1968-1969 season. It maintained that position in its second season, but dropped to no. 15 for its third season (probably due to new competition from Monday Night Football on ABC and The ABC Monday Night Movie). Of course, no. 15 in the Nielsen ratings for the year is still impressive and in any previous year it may have been renewed. Unfortunately, the 1970-1971 season was the season of the Rural Purge. For much of the Sixties ABC and NBC had pursued and attracted viewers in the key demographic of people aged 18 to 34 living in cities, who were perceived as more desirable by advertisers. For much of the Sixties, CBS ignored this key demographic in favour of the overall Nielsen ratings of any given show. All of this began to change around 1967, when CBS cancelled I've Got a Secret, To Tell the Truth, What's My Line?, and even Gunsmoke because their audiences skewed older. Gunsmoke was swiftly returned to the schedule as it turned out to be the favourite show of Babe Paley, wife of CBS chief executive William S. Paley. The three panel shows received no such reprieve.

It was then in the late Sixties that CBS decided to change their strategy and pursue the key demographic of urban individuals aged 18-34. This was complicated by the fact that the Prime Time Access Rule would go into effect during the 1971-1972 season. The Prime Time Access Rule was a FCC regulation that effectively reduced the amount of network programming during prime time, meaning the networks had to cancel many more shows than before. With an audience that was largely rural and older, CBS then decided to cancel every single rural show on the air, from the country variety show Hee-Haw to the sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies. Mayberry R.F.D. was then cancelled with its third season. Ranking no. 15 for the year, it remains one of the highest rated shows to ever be cancelled.

Of course, this did not mean Mayberry had disappeared forever. It could still be seen in syndicated reruns of The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D. The character of Goober could be seen in new episodes of Hee-Haw, which entered syndication following its cancellation by CBS. If anything, The Andy Griffith Show would become even more popular in syndication as new generations discovered the show. It was then in 1986 that the television reunion movie Return to Mayberry aired.

Much of the original cast returned for the movie, including Andy Griffith as Andy Taylor, Don Knotts as Barney, Ron Howard as Opie, Howard Morris as Ernest T. Bass, Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle, George Lindsay as Goober Pyle, Jack Dodson as Howard Sprague, Aneta Corsault as Helen, and Betty Lynn as Thelma Lou. Howard Sprague was constantly changing his hair colour in an attempt to look young. Otis Campbell was no longer an alcoholic and was now Mayberry's ice cream man. Gomer now co-owns the gas station with Goober, now named G 'n G. It turns out that Thelma Lou got a divorce after one year of marriage. She and Barney rekindle their romance and finally marry. For the most part Return to Mayberry maintained continuity with The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D. except for one glaring error: Andy and Helen's son Andy Jr. from the Mayberry R.F.D. episode "Andy's Baby" is never mentioned. The Mayberry set at 40 Acres having been torn down several years ago, Los Olivos, California stood in for Mayberry.

Return to Mayberry proved successful in the ratings. The TV reunion movie was so successful that it could have led to more Mayberry projects had Andy Griffith not already been committed to the TV series Matlock (then in its first season). Return to Mayberry would then be the last viewers would see of Mayberry, North Carolina.

There can be no doubt that the success of The Andy Griffith Show and its successor Mayberry R.F.D. was largely due to how well realized Mayberry was. Earlier sitcoms had featured fictional towns, such as Springfield on Father Knows Best and Hilldale on The Donna Reed Show, but on those shows it was individual families that took a central role, not the town. On both The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D. it was arguably Mayberry that took centre stage. The town of Mayberry as a whole was as much of a character on the show as Andy, Barney, or Floyd. People from small towns could watch The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D. and identify with many of the situations and even characters on the show. I suspect there are many small towns with a Gomer Pyle, a Floyd Lawson, or even a Barney Fife. In making the town central to the show, The Andy Griffith Show was something of a pioneer. Mayberry is the spiritual ancestor of every fictional small town and community to appear on American television ever since, including Walton's Mountain on The Waltons; the unnamed town on Newhart; Evening Shade, Alabama on Evening Shade; Twin Peaks on the show of the same name; Cicely, Alaska on Northern Exposure; Stars Hollow on Gilmore Girls; and Pawnee, Indiana on Parks and Recreation.

Of course, because The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D. centred on Mayberry, the show was very much a character driven comedy. The show's humour did not arise from one-liners or even from contrived situations, but from the characters themselves. On The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D., the characters drove the plot rather than the plot driving the characters. What is more The Andy Griffith Show differed from the domestic comedies of the Fifties and even its contemporary sitcoms in other ways. The Fifties had seen a rise in domestic comedies, such as Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show, that could justifiably be described as gentle. The late Fifties and early Sixties saw a shift to broad comedies such as Dobie Gillis and The Beverly Hillbillies, comedies that could be so broad that they could be surreal at times. The Andy Griffith Show struck a middle ground between these two extremes. It could be very broad at times (such as the episode "The Loaded Goat," in which a goat has eaten dynamite), but it was never so broad that it departed from reality. While many of the situations on such comedies as Gilligan's Island and The Monkees were very unlikely to happen, most of the situations on The Andy Griffith Show conceivably could.

If there is one criticism that can be directed at the portrayal of Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show and to a lesser degree Mayberry R.F.D., it is the town's lack of diversity. I grew up in and still live in a small town not unlike Mayberry. We have a relatively large Black population and many of our most prominent citizens are Black. By the same token, I am part Cherokee and one of my close friends in my youth was nearly full Cherokee. Had Mayberry been realistically portrayed, many of the characters would have been Black and some may have even been Cherokee. As it was, while Black extras appeared on The Andy Griffith Show, only one Black character (Opie's aforementioned football coach) had lines on the show  and only one Cherokee character appeared (Tom Strongow in "The Battle of Mayberry," played by Norman Alden, who was white rather than Naive American). Of course, here it must be pointed out that most other sitcoms of the era did not feature characters belonging to ethnic minorities either, not The Beverly Hillbillies, not Bewitched, not Green Acres. Sadly, while African Americans would increasingly be featured in roles in dramas as the Sixties progressed (examples being I Spy, Star Trek, and Mission: Impossible), the broadcast networks were very reticent to include them in situation comedies. It would take the show Julia, starring Diahann Carroll, in 1968 to break the colour barrier in sitcoms. While I would have preferred The Andy Griffith Show to have included Black and even Native American characters in its cast, I also realize that it would not have been realistic to expect them to have done so given the attitudes of the networks in the Sixties. Here I must also point out that things have not changed terribly much in American television. Native Americans are still nearly invisible on the small screen, while East Asian Americans and Latinos are often absent even from shows set in cities with large populations of each (for instance, Los Angeles and New York City).

Regardless, The Andy Griffith Show would have a lasting impact. Even today it can be found as a syndicated rerun on local stations and cable channels around the country. As mentioned earlier, it would have an influence on every sitcom and drama to feature a small town ever since. It has even had an impact on American English. As mentioned earlier, small towns with relatively low crime rates and friendly inhabitants are often referred to as "Mayberry." A self-important, high-strung police officer might find himself nicknamed, "Barney Fife." Rural people who are not terribly bright might be described as "Gomer Pyle." To a degree it can be said that Mayberry's appeal lies in its nearly utopian portrayal of a small town. It has relatively little crime and any problems that arise can be worked out with a bit of time and understanding. I have no doubt that many watch The Andy Griffith Show and  Mayberry R.F.D. purely for escapism. For many living in small towns, however, they can see something of Mayberry in their own hometown, from the various characters that inhabit the town to the situations that sometimes arise. If Mayberry became a synonym for small towns across the United States, it is perhaps because at the same time it portrays a somewhat idealized vision of those towns that still has some semblance to reality. To wit, Mayberry was the first small town to be fully realized on American television, and it remains the most famous.

Friday, May 21, 2021

An Appointment with The Wicker Man (1973)

(This post is part of The Christopher Lee Blogathon hosted by Cinematic Catharsis and Realweegiemidget Reviews)

Among Sir Christopher Lee's most famous movies is The Wicker Man (1973). Although often described as a cult film, The Wicker Man can be counted as a classic horror movie. The magazine Total Film listed it as the sixth greatest British film of all time in 2004. Empire listed it at no. 485 in its list of "The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time" in 2008. In its list of the "25 Greatest Horror Films of All Time" from 2010, The Guardian placed it at no. 4. Sir Christopher Lee considered it his best film, while Edward Woodward counted it among his favourite films he had made.

The Wicker Man stars Edward Woodward as Sgt. Neil Howie, a Scottish police officer well known for his Christian piety. Sgt. Howie is sent to Summerisle, an island off the coast of Scotland, to investigate the case of a missing girl. Summerisle is well known for its produce (particularly its apples). What is not so well known is that the island has entirely returned to Celtic paganism. Sgt. Howie then finds his Christian beliefs in conflict with the pagan beliefs of the natives of Summerisle, particularly as embodied by Lord Summerisle himself (Sir Christopher Lee).

The origins of The Wicker Man go back to a meeting in 1971 between screenwriter Anthony Shaffer and Sir Christopher Lee. At the time Sir Christopher Lee was eager to do something different from the Hammer Horrors he was best known for, as well as play more challenging roles. At the time Anthony Shaffer was part of a production company that made commercials and informational films. It had been founded by Mr. Shaffer and Robin Hardy in the late Sixties. Robin Hardy, who would direct The Wicker Man, had made educational programs in the United States, some of which aired on Esso World Theatre on National Educational Television (NET), the forerunner of PBS. It was in the late Sixties that he returned home to Britain, where he formed a production company that made commercials and informational films with Anthony Shaffer.

Like Anthony Shaffer, Robin Hardy also wanted to make a horror movie. Inspiration struck Mr. Hardy when he read the novel Ritual by David Pinner, in which a Christian police officer investigated the murder of a young girl in a Cornish rural village. Messrs. Hardy and Shaffer then paid David Pinner £15,000 for the film rights to the novel. It was while he was initially working on the screenplay that Anthony Shaffer decided a faithful adaptation of Ritual would not play well on the big screen. In the end he developed a plot loosely based on that of the novel, while drawing upon the practices of pagan Celts as portrayed in Julius Caesar's account of his wars in Gaul and other works on Celtic paganism. Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer also decided the Celtic paganism in the film would be portrayed objectively and as accurately as possible. They also decided that it would be a more literate and intellectual horror movie than most, with as little blood and gore as possible.

As mentioned earlier, Sir Christopher Lee was a part of the project from the very beginning, That having been said, the cast could have been slightly different if things had not gone as they had. Producer Peter Snell had wanted Edward Woodward, then best known for the British TV show Callan, for the role of Sgt. Howie from the very beginning. Despite this, the role was first offered to Michael York, who declined it. Robin Hardy then approached David Hemings, known for the movie Blowup (1967), but he also passed on the role. Sir Christopher Lee approached his frequent co-star and long-time friend Peter Cushing about the role, but he was unavailable. It was then that producer Peter Snell and Anthony Shaffer recommended Edward Woodward, who was cast in the part.

Britt Ekland was cast in the important role of the innkeeper's daughter Willow MacGregor. At the time Miss Ekland had already appeared in several movies, including The Night they Raided Minsky's (1968) and Get Carter (1971). Her singing voice was dubbed by Scottish singer Annie Ross, although rumours persist that her speaking voice was as well. Furthermore, her famous nude scene in the movie would be shot using body doubles. At the time Britt Ekland was three months pregnant. Anthony Shaffer had seen Diane Cilento on stage and she was cast in the role of schoolteacher Miss Rose. She had already appeared in several movies, including Tom  Jones (1963).

Ultimately one other veteran of Hammer Films would play a major role in The Wicker Man. Ingrid Pitt was already well associated with horror films, having appeared in Hammer films' The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Countess Dracula (1971), as well as Amicus's The House That Dripped Blood (1971). She was friends with Sir Christopher Lee and had heard about The Wicker Man only a few days before it was about to shoot. She called Robin Hardy on the phone and asked if he had a part for her in the film. Fortunately, the role of the Librarian was still open.

Even though The Wicker Man was set around May Eve and May Day, the movie was shot from October 9 1972 to November 25 1972. It was largely shot in villages in Dumfries & Galloway in Scotland. Culzean Castle in Maybole, South Ayrshire served as Lord Summerisle's castle. Sgt. Howie's seaplane landed at Plockton, Highland. As to the famous climax, it took place at Burrow Head on the Isle of Whithorn. The fact that the movie took place in spring, but was shot in autumn, did present some problems. Artificial blossoms and leaves had to be glued on trees in many scenes. An overhead shot of orchards wasn't shot in Scotland at all. It was shot in South Africa, where, being south of the equator, it was spring.

As might be expected in Scotland in October and November it was very cold, which presented a problem for the actors, who were dressed as if  it were spring. The day that the climax was filmed on the Isle of Whithorn was particularly cold and windy. According to a story told on the commentary on The Wicker Man: Special Edition Director's Cut DVD, coats were brought out to the three lead actresses to wear in between takes. Britt Ekland eagerly took her coat. Diane Cilento graciously took her coat and said, "Thank you."  Ingrid Pitt, in solidarity with the supporting actors, refused her coat, stating flatly, "If the extras don't have time to put on their coats, then neither do I!"

Unfortunately, the release of The Wicker Man would go even less smoothly than shooting had.  British Lion Films, the production company behind the movie, underwent a change in ownership not long after The Wicker Man had finished shooting. Sir Christopher Lee claimed that Michael Deeley, the new managing director at British Lion, said that The Wicker Man was one of the ten worst movies he had ever seen. Michael Deeley denied that he ever said this, instead saying that while The Wicker Man was fascinating and genuinely ahead of its time, it was also self-indulgent and could be difficult for audiences. Regardless, Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer have both said that the marketing people at British Lion did not know what to make of The Wicker Man.

With a film that British Lion was unsure how to market, a copy of The Wicker Man was sent to low-budget movie legend Roger Corman to get his opinion on the film. Mr. Corman suggested some cuts to the film. The film's editor Eric Boyd-Perkins then cut about 12 minutes from the movie. In the United Kingdom it was released on a double bill with Don't Look Now (1973), a cerebral film that touched upon the occult. Unfortunately, the double bill of The Wicker Man and Don't Look Now did not prove to be successful in Britain.

With regards to the American release of The Wicker Man, National General offered $300,000 to distribute the movie in the United States. Unfortunately, National General took bankruptcy only four days after the deal with British Lion was signed. Warner Bros. then acquired the North American distribution rights to The Wicker Man. Warner Bros. held test viewings of The Wicker Man in drive-in theatres and a college theatre in Atlanta starting in May 1974. Later in the year it would be shown in Southern California. It was in May 1974 that Variety gave The Wicker Man a very positive review. Even given the review in Variety, the distribution of The Wicker Man in the United States would still prove to be somewhat spotty. In 1977 it was shown in Minneapolis, Mississippi, and Louisiana. In 1978 The Wicker Man was shown in Oregon, Connecticut, and Chicago. It was in 1979 that the 96 minute, reconstructed version was released to American theatres (more on that later).

Even as The Wicker Man was popping up in scattered, American theatres in the mid to late Seventies, its reputation in the United States was growing. It was in volume 6, issue 3 of Cinefantastique in 1977 that the magazine published an article on the film, referring to it as "the Citizen Kane of horror movies." It would be the growing interest in the United States that would also revive interest in The Wicker Man in its native Britain.

It was also the growing interest in the United States that led Robin Hardy to look into restoring The Wicker Man. He discovered that Warner Bros. had sold the American distribution rights to the film to a small firm called Abraxas for only $20,000. Robin Hardy contacted Abraxas and together they tried to find its original footage. Unfortunately, the film's negatives could not be found. It has been alleged that they were stored in a vault at Shepperton Studios in Surrey. After Shepperton Studios changed owners, its new owners asked that everything in the vault be destroyed. Fortunately, Robin Hardy remembered that the film had been sent to Roger Corman, who still had a copy. This 96 minute version was then released in the United States in 1979.

Later Canal+ obtained the rights to The Wicker Man and in 2001 sought to release the complete film. This restoration used a telecine transfer to 1-inch videotape of Roger Corman's copy (which had been lost), which was then combined with material from the earlier versions of the film to create a 99 minute version of The Wicker Man.  While many fans believe this version to be incomplete, it appears that the legendary 102 minute version of The Wicker Man does not exist. According to John Simon of Abraxas, he simply mistimed Roger Corman's copy of the movie. He has said, "I guess I just looked at my watch at the beginning and end of the screening, and I had always assumed that someone else would double-check the timing."

Yet another version of The Wicker Man would be released by StudioCanal. In 2013 StudioCanal sought to find the material still missing from The Wicker Man. This led to the discovery of a 92 minute, 35mm print in the Harvard Film Archive. StudioCanal then released a 91 minute version of The Wicker Man on DVD under the title The Wicker Man: The Final Cut. Longer than the 88 minute version originally released to theatres, it is shorter than the 99 minute version that had been released in 2001.

If anything, since The Wicker Man became a cult film in the United States in the late Seventies, its reputation has only grown. As mentioned earlier, it has made lists of the greatest films ever made. Much of the reason for the reputation of The Wicker Man is that it was unlike any horror movie made before it. The majority of the film is set in broad daylight, with only a few scenes set at night. Furthermore, until the climax, The Wicker Man is not so much horrifying as it is unsettling, as the viewer is forced to confront the paganism of Summerisle much as Sgt. Howie has to. Setting it further apart from previous horror movies is that there is a good deal of music in The Wicker Man, enough that it very nearly qualifies as a musical. The songs in the movie consist of both folk songs (such as "Sumer Is Icumen In) and originals by the film's composer Paul Giovanni (my favourite being the wonderfully bawdy "The Landlord's Daughter").

Out of everything else, what really sets The Wicker Man apart from horror movies before it is that the film really features no heroes or villains. The Wicker Man does not condemn the inhabitants of Summerisle, nor their particular brand of paganism. At the same time, the film presents Sgt. Howie's Christianity (which at times borders on fanaticism) with respect, condemning neither him nor his faith. Neither the inhabitants of Summerisle nor Sgt. Howie are held up to ridicule, In the hands of lesser filmmakers, either Lord Summerisle or Sgt. Howie would have been portrayed simply as villains.

Of course, none of this would have worked without strong leads. Sir Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward were both masters of their craft, and they both give incredible performances in The Wicker Man. Edward Woodward portrays Sgt. Howie as a deeply religious man, so much so that he could even be considered a fanatic. Despite this, he remains a sympathetic figure, a man who truly cares about his fellow human beings. As portrayed by Sir Christopher Lee, Lord Summerisle is easy going and very open minded, yet at the same time he is as devoted to paganism as Sgt. Howie is to Christianity. Indeed, among the great things about The Wicker Man are the exchanges between Sgt. Howie and Lord Summerisle. Both men are allowed to express their beliefs without either one of them coming off badly. As portrayed by Messrs. Lee and Woodward, Lord Summerisle and Sgt. Howie are equals in every way, and it is up to the audience to decide who they think is right or wrong.

It has been nearly fifty years since The Wicker Man was first released. In that time it has gone from a film that was treated poorly by its production company and distributors to a cult film to a film not only widely considered a classic, but one of the greatest films ever made. Sir Christopher Lee considered it his favourite film, and it is easy to see why.


Monday, May 17, 2021

The Late Great Lloyd Price

R&B legend Lloyd Price died on May 3 2021 at the age of 88. The cause was complications from diabetes.

Lloyd Price was born on March 9 1933 in Kenner, Louisiana. As a child he sang in his church's choir and he had lessons in playing both the trumpet and the piano. He played in a music group in high school. In 1952 Art Rupe of Specialty Records, visited New Orleans in search of music artists there. After hearing Lloyd Price's song "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," the song was recorded and released on Specialty Records. It became Lloyd Price's first hit, reaching no. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart. Lloyd Price followed it with four more hits on the Billboard R&B chart, "Oooh, Oooh, Oooh," "Restless Heart," "Ain't It a Shame," and "Tell Me Pretty Baby."

In 1954 Lloyd Price was drafted into the United States Army and served in Korea during the Korean War. Unfortunately, after he was demobilized, he would not have another hit for some time. He formed KRC Records with Harold Logan and Bill Boskent. His first single on the new label would also be his first hit in years. "Just Because" went to no. 29 on the Billboard singles chart and no. 3 on the Billboard R&B chart. In 1958 he would have his biggest hit, his version of the folk song "Stagger Lee," which went to no. 1 on the Billboard  Hot 100 and  no. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart. It was not long afterwards that he would have another huge hit with "Personality," which went to no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 1 on the R&B chart. "I'm Gonna Get Married" would also prove to be a hit, going to no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart.

Lloyd Price would continue to have hits from the late Fifties into the Sixties. In 1962 he formed Double L. Records with Harold Logan. During the Sixties his only major hit would be "Misty" in 1963, which went to no. 21 on the Billboard Hot 100. Following the murder of his partner in Double L. Records, Harold Logan, in 1969, he founded the label Turntable.

Lloyd Price continued to release albums into the 21st Century, his last album being I'm Feeling Good! in 2012. He was also an entrepreneur. In addition to the labels he founded, he founded a club called Birdland with Harold Logan in New York City. He helped boxing promoter Don King promote fights. He managed the food company Global Icon Brands and also owned two construction companies. Lloyd Price continued to tour. In 1993 he toured Europe with Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. In 2005 he toured as part of the Four Kings of Rhythm and Blues tour with Jerry Butler, Ben E. King, and Gene Chandler.

Lloyd Price was a true pioneer. His song "Lady Miss Clawdy" was one of the first songs to break down barriers between Black and white music, paving the way for rock and roll. His further hits, such as "Oooh, Oooh, Oooh" and "Restless Heart," would further integrate music. Along with Little Richard, a good argument can be made that Lloyd Price was pivotal in the development of rock 'n' roll. In addition to being a music pioneer, Lloyd Price was an immensely talented singer, delivering powerful vocals on his songs.