Saturday, October 17, 2020

Grey Gold

 


If you know your 1960s sitcoms, either because you were watching them during their original runs, or viewed them at  a much later date on some cable or digital channel, you'll immediately recognize the woman on the left, but who's the one on the right? Why, it's actress Irene Ryan, who plays the woman on the left (I don't know if you can tell, but it's supposed to be both sides of a mirror.) Obviously, it's 1960s trick photography, and all the more impressive as it's decades before the advent of Photoshop. But then it was equally impressive that the relatively metropolitan Ryan was able to transform herself, with just makeup, old-fashion attire, and supreme comic acting, into a backwoods harridan.


 Irene (maiden name Noblette) and Tim Ryan were a husband-and-wife vaudeville team, their act reportedly similar to the much more well-known George Burns and Gracie Allen, a scatterbrained wife and exasperated husband. By the 1930s vaudeville was in a steep decline, but the Ryans managed to get work in the medium that had largely replaced it: movies. Not full-length features but the shorts that preceded them, putting them on par with the likes of The Three Stooges and Our Gang (better known to later TV viewers as The Little Rascals.) They made 11 of these short movies. They were also heard on radio, on a show that substituted for the popular Jack Benny in the summertime. I don't know that any of this made them household names, but they seem to have worked steadily. The couple divorced in 1942, but Irene kept the last name anyway. She was a regular on Bob Hope's radio show for a few years, and played comical grump Edgar Kennedy's wife in a few shorts. Irene and Tim Ryan then reunited professionally, but not matrimonially, in four feature films, of the "B" variety, made for Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. On radio she joined the cast of The Jack Carson Show. When TV came along in the 1950s, she made appearances on several sitcoms, including The Danny Thomas Show, and My Three Sons. Finally, in 1962, the 60-year old actress was cast in the role that she became best known for, as the elderly-but-energetic senior member of an oil-rich backwoods family that moves West, Daisy Moses in The Beverly Hillbillies.


 You know, I have to take that back. She wasn't best known as Daisy Moses but as "Granny", the name everybody called her by, whether they were related to her or not (and not just on Hillbillies but also Petticoat Junction, when the two shows had a number of crossover episodes.) In fact, she only had one granddaughter Elly Mae Clampett (Donna Douglas), the daughter of her deceased daughter, Rose Ellen. Jed Clampett (Buddy Ebsen) is her widowed son-in-law (though in real life Ebson was only six years younger than Irene.) And what about Jethro Bodine (Max Baer Jr.)? What's the relationship there?


Even though Jethro refers to Jed as Uncle Jed, possibly out of respect for the age difference, he's not actually his nephew. Jethro is the son of Pearl Bodine (Bea Benaderet), Jed's first cousin, and that means Jethro is Jed's, uh, let me look at the above chart,...........................first cousin once removed. Jethro and Elly Mae would then be.............................................................................................................. ...........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................I think they have the same great-grandfather....................................................................................................................................................................................so Jethro and Elly Mae are second cousins., and that means Daisy Moses is Jethro's..................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................great-aunt through marriage?

I cheated  a bit. There's an episode where Jed tries to explain the whole connection to Jethro.

Jed: Anyway, I think you're a great-nephew.                                                                                                

Jethro: Thankee! And I think you're a great uncle!

We'll just call her Granny from here on in, as did Mr. Drysdale (Raymond Bailey) and Jane Hathaway (Nancy Culp), who were of no relation whatsoever.

Speaking of relations, there's the aforementioned Petticoat Junction. Though, like The Beverly Hillbillies, it was created and produced by Paul Henning, both shows were separate entities until the Hillbillies seventh season, Junction's sixth season, and Green Acres fourth season, when it was decided that, for some reason probably having to do with sweeps, all three shows shared the same continuity. The crux of this continuity is that Pearl Bodine and Kate Bradley are, as Uncle Joe (who's moving kind of slow) once explained,...





...distant kin. Well, if it works for The Patty Duke Show...



Back to Irene Ryan. Though despised by critics of that era, who saw it as an assault on sophistication, The Beverly Hillbillies was one of the most popular shows on TV, lasting nine seasons. When if finally did go off the air, it wasn't because of low ratings, but for having the wrong demographics (not enough upwardly-mobile people watched the show, which was ironic, since you can't get much more upwardly-mobile than the Clampetts.) Because of that popularity, there was a lot of merchandising surrounding the show, including this 45 record:


Conjures up some unsettling imagery, doesn't it?

Though clearly meant to capitalize on her Beverly Hillbillies success, Irene seems to be playing  a different Granny here. After all, a grandpa is mentioned, even though on the sitcom she was a widow (as was Pearl Bodine, and I said before Jed Clampett is a widower. Beneath all that canned laughter there must have been tears.) 

Here's Irene again on a 1966 installment of The Hollywood Palace, and this time she's the Granny:


Peggy Lee's got nothing on her.

Here's Irene at an earlier point in her career:


Irene had a lot to be happy about in 1972. The Beverly Hillbillies was off the air, but the 70-year-old didn't lack for work, for she was now...


...on Broadway! The Bob Fosse-directed show was called Pippin, a musical loosely based on Pepin, the son of  Charlemagne. Irene plays Berthe, Pippin's exiled grandmother, who tells the young prince (Ben Vereen, in a Tony-winning performance) that he should live a little, before it's too late:


 Pippin was a huge hit and ran for five years, but Irene only saw about five months of that. On March 10, 1973, she suffered a stroke on stage during a performance. She went back home to California, where her doctor discovered she had a brain tumor. She died on April, 26, 1973. Not a great way to end all this, except when you're telling the story of a person's life, there's only one way it can end. Irene Ryan's greatest professional successes came in the last eleven years of her life, and since there's no evidence she had any personal failures during that same time frame, I'd count that as a happy ending. 

20 comments:

  1. Great post. I guess that was in between as I watched The Beverly Hillbillies as a kid in reruns on old fashioned broadcast television back in the 1970s and 1980s. I never knew much about Irene Ryan. She had an interesting career.

    Neat stuff on the genealogy of the Clampett family.

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    1. Brian, it was still on the air up until I was in the third grade, and I vaguely remember seeing first-run episodes then, but it's been mostly reruns for me too.

      I didn't know anything about Irene Ryan either, but this blog is titled "Shadow of a Doubt" and one of the things I occasionally want to cast doubt on is the relationship between talent and fame. Irene didn't achieve fame until she was 60, but I doubt she lacked talent before then, and that's what made me want to research her life.

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  2. As soon as I read the name I thought Beverl Hillbillies. I thought she was the daughter, the blonde woman, Ellie May? but no. She was Granny May Clampent. What a fun post! Thanks.

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    1. Andrew, Donna Douglas, aka Ellie Mae Clampett, was the opposite of Irene Ryan, in that her greatest show biz success was at the beginning, rather than the end of, her career. She eventually became a gospel singer.

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  3. Occasionally Irene Ryan shows up in older films as a character actress. Because of her exaggerated role on television, sometimes it take a minute to recognize her.
    --Jim

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    1. Jim, the clip I have of Irene singing "The Luckiest Girl in Town" is from the 1940s. Because I already know it's her I can see a resemblance, but if I had just come across it channel surfing, I wouldn't have known.

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  4. Hi, Kirk!

    Happy 118th birthday in heaven to Irene Ryan! Before I forget, I also want to wish one of my favorite actresses of the 30s, 40s and 50s, Blacklist survivor and lifelong activist Marsha Hunt, a happy 103rd birthday today. Marsha outlived the scumbags who tried to put an end to her Hollywood acting career during the Commie witch hunt in the mid 20th century.

    I didn't know anything about Irene Ryan's career before she gained fame as Granny Clampett. It's interesting that she and her husband had a vaudeville comedy act similar to Burns & Allen, that they acted in eleven film shorts and were regulars on a radio show. I don't remember seeing her as a guest on any of those other TV shows including Danny Thomas and My Three Sons. I watched Danny's shows in their early years and also watched My Three Sons in its early years with Wm. Frawley as "Bub." I bailed on the series later when Wm. Demarest replaced Frawley. I also didn't know about Irene's later career on Broadway. The only other time I remember spotting Irene was in the uncredited role of "Southern Belle at Bar" in the 1949 adventure/drama/fantasy movie Mighty Joe Young, a film similar to King Kong that I first watched as a boy years before The Beverly Hillbillies went on the air.

    I never heard the song "Granny's Mini Skirt" in which she buys a short skirt to show off her skinny legs and frame and perform various 60s dances. The shock ending reminds me of The Who song "Squeeze Box":

    Mama's got a squeeze box
    She wears on her chest
    And when daddy comes home
    He never gets no rest
    'Cause she's playing all night
    And the music's all right
    Mama's got a squeeze box
    Daddy never sleeps at night

    Quite frankly, I don't want to hear "Granny's Mini Skirt" ever again. I threw up in my mouth a little, and it's gonna take the jaws of life to pry that terrible image from my head.

    However I did enjoy the clever, funny song Irene performed on Hollywood Palace boasting about he extraordinary strengths and skills she possesses as a woman.

    This is a charming tribute to an actress millions knew and loved in one TV role. As you explained, there was a lot more to this versatile entertainer named Irene Ryan. Thanks, Kirk!

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    1. Shady, I see Marsha Hunt is still alive. If she's a Beverly Hillbillies fan and likes to read about that show on the internet, maybe she'll google this and see your birthday greeting. I remember you doing a post on your own blog about her a while back, and at the time I didn't recognize the name, but, looking at her filmography, I have seen several movies she was in, including Pride and Prejudice, where she plays Greer Garson's sister, and in The Humane Comedy, where she's the girlfriend, later wife, of Mickey Rooney's boss in the telegraph office. That blacklist was a terrible thing that damaged, at least temporarily, many careers, including those of Lee Grant, Zero Mostel, Betty Garrett, Will Geer, and probably the most famous red scare victim of all, Dalton Trumbo, who in addition to his many screenplays also wrote the none-too-escapist antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun. I haven't seen the 1971 movie based on that rather unsettling book, but according to Marsha Hunt's filmography, she plays the unfortunate title character's mother. It's her last film to date. Even at her advanced age she's apparently still very much involved with social causes, including LGBTQ rights.

      My Three Sons. I'm afraid I only have memories of Uncle Charlie, aka, William Demarest. I didn't find out the guy who played Fred Mertz preceded Demarest until I was in my 20s and was watching some kind of documentary on old sitcoms. I also found out at the same time that the Fred MacMurray character actually had FOUR sons, Ernie being adopted (I guess that explains why he's the only one in that family with glasses.) But I have yet to see a complete pre-Uncle Charlie, pre-Ernie episode. Nor does anyone ever mention that firstborn son on any episode I've ever seen. I think he was exiled to the same island or in the same Turkish prison or the same Foreign Legion unit as Chuck Cunningham (Happy Days).

      I've seen Mighty Joe Young twice, and neither time did I recognize Irene Ryan. It was only two nights ago when I was researching this piece that I saw her on YouTube as the Southern Belle at Bar.

      As for "Squeeze Box", we mustn't forget the "innnnnnnnn and ouuuuuuuutt" part. Otherwise, people might get the wrong impression and think the song is dirty.

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  5. I loved Granny and all the Clampetts! I watched the show as a kid during its original run on TV.

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    1. Debra, as I told Brian, I watched the tail end of the original run, then in reruns. Same thing with My Three Sons.

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  6. Irene Ryan was a hottie in the 20's. She was 70 when she died. She was just a kid!

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    1. Mike, I suppose it would have been impossible for her still to be alive in 2020 under any circumstance, but had the brain tumor been discovered in time and successfully treated, she could have hypothetically made it to the 21st century.

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  7. My parents love The Beverly Hillbillies. I thought the opening theme song very catchy and still often catch myself whistling or humming it.

    I do call our swimming pool a "cement pond".

    I have seen a couple episodes, whenever channel surfing and it's on.

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    1. JM, bluegrass legends Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs wrote the melody to the theme song. They also played themselves in many episodes.

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  8. I don't know why but just last week I started looking up info on Irene Ryan and watched these videos. Missed the Pippin music, though!

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    1. Mitchell, it's Serendipity, the only god I worship.

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  9. Don't know her, but The Beverly Hillbillies did reach us over here in Scotland. Didn't watch it.

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    1. It was a funny show, Ananka, if you don't mind your comedy on the cornpone side. Noel Coward it ain't.

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    1. John, I think you meant this for the post that comes after this one concerning Mole Day, but that's OK. I agree, he wasn't a looker. Maybe that's why he went into science instead of becoming a male model.

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