Paramount's DVD release of Petticoat Junction: The Complete First Season has given me the opportunity to see a bunch of episodes I never saw before (the black-and-white episodes weren't syndicated, and the second half of the first season wasn't released on the Henning estate's previous DVD. This show is rightly regarded as the weakest of the Paul Henning Rural Trilogy, but as usual, the black-and-white episodes are better than the color ones, and this set contains some very good episodes -- mostly the few that Henning wrote himself. (Henning didn't run Petticoat, preferring to concentrate on running The Beverly Hillbillies.
The standout, which I'd never seen before, is "The Ladybugs," written by Henning and his Beverly Hillbillies writing partner Mark Tuttle and directed by none other than Donald O'Connor; inspired by Beatlemania, Uncle Joe organizes the girls (and guest star Sheila James from Dobie Gillis as the fourth member) into an all-girl group with Beatle wigs and ladybug sweaters. As Linda Kaye Henning (Betty Jo) and Pat Woodell (the black-and-white Bobbie Jo) explain in their introduction, this aired on March 24, 1964, little more than a month after the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan for the first time, and as a promotional tie-in, the girls appeared on the actual Ed Sullivan Show as the Ladybugs. The Sullivan footage is not on this DVD, unfortunately; since Paul Brownstein did the special features, I assume he either couldn't find it or couldn't clear it.
It's a funny script, as Henning's scripts usually were, but what surprised me the most was how good-natured it was about the Beatles phenomenon. Not just at the time but for years after, most pop-culture references to the Beatles were fairly derogatory -- remember Allan Sherman's "Pop Hates the Beatles." But this episode is different, even though it was made when the Beatles fad was almost completely new and unexpected. Of course it makes fun of the Beatles and the screaming reactions of their fans (Billie Jo rounds up some cute boys to scream and faint at their act the way girls do in Beatles audiences) and their hair and the rock n' roll business, with Jesse White as a bolo-tied concert promoter who calls himself "Colonel Partridge" -- get it? -- and wants to sign up the Ladybugs even though he hates rock music. But the girls, and young people in general, are not mocked for liking this kind of music, and they get to take a few digs at their parents for not understanding the fad. ("Mom's idea of a hip group," sighs Bobbie Jo, "is Guy Lombardo.") All the satire is genial and gentle with none of the nasty, what's-with-these-crazy-kids tone you usually got in TV episodes about Beatlemania. I just don't think it was in Paul Henning's nature to be nasty about anything; his writing is always so free from malice, and that's one of the things that makes his work hold up so well.
And when it's time for the Ladybugs' big performance in front of their invited audience of screaming boys and Colonel Partridge, Henning actually bothered to clear a real Beatles song for the girls to sing. So while the scene makes fun of this new musical fad, it also assumes that this is a song the audience might enjoy hearing for two and a half minutes.
The song is intact on Paramount's DVD, by the way. And I'm not really sure who's supposed to be who, except that (after an earlier argument about who gets to be Ringo) Betty Jo is their Ringo.
I hope this DVD sells well enough for us to get the second season (the last in black-and-white), when Henning installed his friend and fellow radio veteran Jay Sommers as head writer. Sommers co-wrote nearly all the episodes in the second season of Petticoat Junction, laying the foundation for the style of his own show, Green Acres.