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Sunday, June 28, 2009

PETTICOAT JUNCTION: THE OFFICIAL SECOND SEASON -- DVD review by porfle

Pretty much all I remember about "Petticoat Junction" from my younger days is that, of the two interrelated rural sitcoms taking place in the tiny hick town of Hooterville, "Green Acres" was the hilarious, surreal, wildly inventive one. "Petticoat Junction", the story of widow Kate Bradley, her three beautiful daughters, and her lazy-but-lovable Uncle Joe, who ran the rustic Shady Rest hotel, was low-key, homespun stuff for the sedate older crowd who didn't mind heapin' helpin's of corn along with their entertainment.

With CBS/Paramount's 5-disc, 36-episode DVD set PETTICOAT JUNCTION: THE OFFICIAL SECOND SEASON, I'm finding out that I don't mind it all that much myself. Talk about laidback--watching this show is almost like actually taking a vacation at the Shady Rest. Where "Green Acres" is frenetic and cartoonlike, this show is about as relaxing and down-to-earth as a barefoot stroll to the old fishin' hole. When the opening titles roll, the urban jungle might as well be on Mars as the Cannonball, an antique train that placidly shuttles Hooterville's scattered inhabitants to and fro, pulls up to the water tank where Kate's daughters Billie Jo, Bobbi Jo, and Betty Jo are taking a swim with their petticoats hanging over the side as Curt Massey's familiar theme song sets the mood.

One of the advantages of a show like this is that its main stars are great comic actors who play this stuff with the skill and timing of seasoned pros. Bea Benederet preceeded June Foray as the go-to female voice artist in the early Warner Brothers cartoons and later supplied the voice of Betty Rubble in "The Flintstones", in addition to playing George Burns and Gracie Allen's next-door neighbor Blanche on radio and television. "The Beverly Hillbillies" creator Paul Henning cast her as Jed Clampett's cousin Pearl Bodine in that show's early seasons, where her comic talents were sharper than ever. So it was only natural that when Henning created "Petticoat Junction" he would envision Bea Benederet in the lead role of Kate Bradley.

Kate's lazy Uncle Joe is played by screen veteran Edgar Buchanan (SHANE, RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY), who is a pleasure to watch as his character constantly schemes to avoid work and get rich quick. He claims to be an expert on everything, such as the time he boasts to a visiting commercial director of the acclaim he once received for his "eight milligram" film of a sackrace at the local picnic. In another episode, he buys a flea-bitten buffalo (actually a bull in a buffalo suit) and convinces an English lord that the Shady Rest is a hunting lodge where he can shoot all the buffalos he wants for the right price. Then he arranges for the girls to hustle the buffalo to different stops along the Cannonball's line so that the Englishman (whose gun is loaded with blanks) will think he's bagging his limit. When he starts to smell a rat, he exclaims, "This situation demands an explanation!", to which the ever-crafty Uncle Joe responds, "It sure does. Let's hear it!"

Various supporting characters common to both shows appear regularly, although they're not quite as bizarre here as they are on "Green Acres." They include Frank Cady's genial general store owner Sam Drucker and Hank Patterson as pig farmer Fred Ziffel, who dotes on his beloved pig Arnold. Playing the Bradley girls are original "Billie Jo" and "Bobbie Jo" Jeannine Riley and Pat Woodell (Riley would later be replaced by Gunilla Hutton and Meredith MacRae, while Lori Saunders would soon take Pat Woodell's place) and Paul Henning's daughter Linda Kaye Henning as tomboy Betty Jo. Despite their more limited comedic skills, they're a major asset to the show on a visual level, especially the stunning Woodell. (For some reason, she's absent from certain episodes and is replaced by an obvious stand-in, as in "Smoke Eaters.")

Another great film veteran, the ubiquitous Charles Lane, plays villainous Homer Bedloe, a railroad executive whose main goal in life is to shut down the Cannonball and put Kate out of business. ("I wouldn't trust him within a ten-foot pole," Uncle Joe remarks.) Rufe Davis is the tiny train's delightfully dimwitted conductor, Floyd Smoot, while the slightly-less-stupid engineer, Charley Pratt, is played by none other than the great B-western sidekick, Smiley Burnette. Last but not least, the amazing canine performer Higgins, who would go on to become the immortal BENJI, is introduced in the first episode of the set, "Betty Jo's Dog", a variation on the classic "But it just followed me home!" story. As Uncle Joe puts it in a later episode, "he incinerated himself into our affections."

At times the show skirts the boundaries of "Green Acres"-style surrealism. "A Matter of Communication" has Uncle Joe trying to create his own telephone company using the farmers' barbed wire fences as phone wires, which results in some of the biggest laughs of the season. "The Curse of Chester W. Farnsworth" is a ghost story about a former guest (Doodles Weaver) whose spirit can't rest until he's replaced all the towels he stole from various hotels during his life.

In "Bedloe's Nightmare", Kate Bradley's nemesis actually ends up tied to the front of the speeding Cannonball and terrorized until he agrees to drop his latest dastardly scheme. "For the Birds", which features the age-old sitcom device of a bird unexpectedly building its nest in an inconvenient place (in this case, the Cannonball's smokestack), zips through a lot of exposition in amusing style when the episode suddenly turns into a silent movie for a few minutes, complete with speeded-up film, melodramatic acting, and intertitles.

Marc Lawrence and former Ted Healy replacement-stooge Mousie Garner guest star in "The Hooterville Crime Wave" as escaped killers who take the Bradleys hostage. Other notable guests during this season include Bert Freed, Sig Ruman, Alan Mowbray, Grady Sutton, Dick Wessell, Stanley Adams, Lurene Tuttle, Parley Baer, Percy Helton, Willis Bouchey (THE HORSE SOLDIERS), Milt Frome, Iris Adrian, George "George Jetson" O'Hanlon, and Don Megowan. Semi-regulars include Frank Ferguson (ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN) as Doc Stuart, Virginia Sale as Kate's hatchet-faced rival Selma Plout, and the always creepy William O'Connell as Homer Bedloe's slimy toady, Evans.

These episodes are in gorgeous black-and-white and look just about pristine. The photography is exquisite, and is quite a stark contrast to the garish color episodes that would begin immediately after this season. As a bonus, each episode is introduced by original stars Linda Kaye Henning ("Betty Jo") and Pat Woodell ("Bobbie Jo") as they appear today. The two also take part in a 38-minute interview session in which they reminisce about the making of the show. A brief photo montage follows.

The opening lyric to the show's theme song goes: "Forget about your cares, it is time to relax at the junction." Watching PETTICOAT JUNCTION: THE OFFICIAL SECOND SEASON is like sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch of the Shady Rest, listening for the Cannonball's whistle coming around the bend. Not really all that exciting, but a very nice way to pass the time.

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