The Beverly Hillbillies, “The South Rises Again,” Season 6, Episode 13. Directed by Joseph Depew. Written by Paul Henning and Buddy Atkinson.
Release Date: November 29, 1967.
Some of you may think The Beverly Hillbillies is a strange choice for my first review, but it makes perfect sense to me. Watching this episode in afternoon syndication is one of my first memories of the Civil War in popular culture. Critics generally think Season 6 is when The Beverly Hillbillies “jumped the shark” because it began with a woeful multi-episode trip to England, but it does contain this gem. I call it a gem because most of the jokes are still funny. What’s more, they’re Civil War jokes—and Civil War jokes (at least good Civil War jokes) are not easy to find.
I typically won’t spend much time here summarizing plots, but I’ll make an exception this time because “The South Rises Again” is a little tough to track down. The climax of a three-episode arc, it focuses on Granny’s (Irene Ryan, hilarious) mistaken belief that the Union Army is invading Los Angeles. A movie production crew is filming a Civil War battle down the street from the Clampett mansion and Granny thinks the Blue- and Gray-clad actors are the real deal. Of particular concern, Ulysses S. Grant himself (William Mims—who went on to briefly play William H. Seward in North & South) appears to be leading the army, despite having been dead for almost a century.
Much of the humor comes from two sources, both relevant to this blog: Granny’s status as a thoroughly unreconstructed southerner and Grant’s alcoholism. Grant, of course, isn’t actually in Beverly Hills, but is being played by a fictional actor who, for maximum joke efficiency, happens to be a full-blown alcoholic with a raging hangover. This both legitimizes Granny’s view of Grant as a boozer and also opens up the script for numerous drunk jokes.
Of course, Grant’s incompetence and alcoholism are key tenets of the Lost Cause and Granny is a veritable encyclopedia of pro-Confederate rhetoric. Yankees are “bushwhackin’ foreigners” whose military prowess doesn’t approach that of her “boys in gray.” Indeed, Granny is so thoroughly embedded in this mythology that she’s taken it to its logical conclusion and convinced herself that the Confederacy actually won the Civil War. Early on, Granny describes Sherman’s “retreat to the sea” and later encourages a group of Confederate soldiers to rally because “we beat ’em once, we can do it again.” Furthermore, Granny is clearly well-schooled in the Lost Cause interpretation of Union occupation policy. The episode opens with her ordering Jethro (Max Baer, Jr.) and Elly May (the recently deceased Donna Douglas) to gather up all of the animals on the property and hide them from the Yankees—even a bear, which Granny believes are now extinct in Georgia thanks to Sherman.
And yet, although the episode makes heavy use of Lost Cause tropes, it doesn’t endorse that interpretation. Airing in 1967, “The South Rises Again” came on the heels of the Civil War centennial, which was marked, in part, by its tolerance for the Lost Cause. It would be easy to only see the episode as a reflection of the Lost Cause’s cultural dominance in the 1960s—in many ways it is—and Granny as embodying the image of the fiercely loyal Confederate woman fostered by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the late 19th and early 20th Century.
But here’s the thing: The episode may well speak the language of the Lost Cause but it considers that language ridiculous, even delusional. Granny’s zealotry is always played for laughs and never meant to generate sympathy. Surely some of this is attributable to the writers looking mainly for laughs with little regard for which historical narrative they were or weren’t promoting—after all the “rural comedies,” of which Hillbillies was the forerunner, derived much of their humor from mocking the rural lower class—but there’s also a general undercutting of bad history and regional boosterism. Indeed, there’s only one character who seems at all knowledgeable about the Civil War and it’s noteworthy that the writers made him an active USA Army General (and not Granny’s version of the USA: “Undefeated Southern Americans”). In the twentieth century, Hollywood loved the Lost Cause, but I’m not convinced it was ever 100% comfortable with it. I can already think of a few additional examples of Hollywood using the Lost Cause, but maintaining a counter-narrative; sometimes subtly, sometimes not. I’ll be testing this theory as we move forward.
Additional Dispatches (with apologies to the AVClub for ripping off their “Stray observations” concept):
- Granny assesses Yankee martial skill after seeing Elly’s monkey wearing a Union uniform: “With his brains, the Yankees will promote him to major by sundown.” After the monkey grabs a pig, she attacks Yankee morality: “See, the minute they put on a blue uniform, they go to pilferin’.”
- Granny even uses Confederate superiority to explain Grant’s remarkable longevity: “The only way I can explain it, is if he was smokin’ Virginny tobaccy and drinkin’ Tennessee whiskey.”
- In an attempt to ingratiate himself to Granny, the Clampett’s banker Mr. Drysdale poses as a Confederate general and calls himself “General Milburn Beauregard Nathan Bedford Stonewall Drysdale.” Again, the Lost Cause is something the writers understand but clearly don’t take seriously.
- There’s also an interesting gender dynamic going on between Granny, Jed, and Drysdale. Granny is the UDC ideal: motivating her men to fight even when they refuse (as Jed does) or carrying on when they lose their nerve (as Drysdale does). Drysdale also revels in his role as a patriarchal protector of the Clampett homestead, declaring: “My body shall provide a human shield to protect the flower of southern womanhood.”
- The episode ends on a reconciliationist note. Once Granny captures Grant on the battlefield, she attempts to nurse his light wounds by giving him moonshine. They bond over their love of hard liquor, get drunk, and finish the episode singing “Dixie.” Grant also promises Granny he’ll shoot Phil Sheridan for burning the Shenandoah Valley.
- Unsurprisingly, the episode makes no mention of slavery. Indeed, there isn’t even a single African American on camera. I think I might keep a tally of how many other items I review here ignore slavery.
- You can watch many of the best jokes from this three episode arc here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l_2eHbbGV2s
- Thanks to my parents way up in Canada for tracking down a copy of this episode.
Next Entry: Point of Honor, “Pilot”