Saturday, June 18, 2016


From the director of The Devil Bat and The Abbott & Costello Show comes a film that lives in infamy as the humiliating final film of Basil Rathbone, even though he made one more film in Mexico. This sequel to Las Vegas Hillbillys -- I believe the producers had to use the illiterate plural to avoid confusion with The Beverly Hillbillies -- better fits a narrative of tragic decline, especially when you see how far down in the billing Rathbone is, below not only the title characters but fellow horror men Lon Chaney Jr. and John Carradine, who presumably were more accustomed to such work by this point in their careers. It's not merely the badness of this Woolner Bros. production but the mere idea of these beloved actors stooging for second-rate hillbilly actors -- and that's being too generous -- that offends fans of the horror genre and classic cinema in general. Seeing it offered in one of Turner Classic Movies' eccentric moods, I expected something dreadful, and got it. A trio of protagonists returns from Las Vegas Hillbillys, the entertainers Woody (Ferlin Husky) and Jeepers (Don Bowman) and "girl singer" Boots Malone, originally played by Mamie Van Doren but now incarnated by Joi Lansing. They're on their way to Nashville but interrupt their trek to allow the allegedly agitated Jeepers some r & r. Told that there are no hotels or boardinghouses in the small town where they stop for gas, they decide to squat in a mansion recommended to them. This is our haunted house, but it's actually infested by spies for Red China who intend to steal an important formula from a nearby military base. The spies seem to be divided into two factions. Gregor (Rathbone) and Himmel (Carradine) are straightlaced, almost effete characters, compared to their handler Madame Wong (Linda Ho), her henchman Maximillian (Chaney) and his sidekick, Anatole the gorilla. Tension flares up constantly between Himmel and Anatole, escalating from insults to banana stealing and, finally, murder. Into this volatile setting blunder the hillbillys, who stand their ground despite the spies' best efforts to scare them away, and in spite of the fact that hillbillys scare very easily. There's a twist to come, however, that upends everyone's plans....

Hillbillys may be the worst haunted-house comedy I've ever seen. The reason has nothing to do with the performances or misuse of the horror stars, and everything to do with Lansing, Husky and especially Bowman being without doubt the worst scaredy-cat comedians I've ever seen. The singers have no comic timing at all, and while Lansing at least can scream when required, the men seem incapable of emoting in any way, and Duke Yelton's script leaves them helpless like fish on a haunted beach. Here's his idea of something either funny or scary. Jeepers tries to soothe his alleged nerves by watching some television. Luckily for him, some station is showing a performance by Merle Haggard. The spies are able to interfere with the broadcast, so that Haggard's singing is intercut with random shots of Rathbone, Chaney, Carradine and Ho staring at the camera or making faces, while Bowman tries to indicate in his stunted way that he's frightened. Maybe a laugh track would have helped.

Of the horror men, Carradine probably does the best with what he's given. He gets to have mood swings from his mounting rage at Chaney and the gorilla to his friendly, familiar banter with Rathbone. One of the few interesting things about the picture is the way Rathbone and Carradine seem to be competing over who can underplay better in their scenes together. Carradine in particular is unusually relaxed and casual in those moments, and the veteran actors succeed, at this if at nothing else, in convincing you that Gregor and Himmel are longtime partners and friends for whom this preposterous mission is just another day on the job. By comparison, Chaney is on autopilot at best, and at worst has a pathetic scene when Maximillian, in all the actor's sodden, grizzled splendor, infiltrates the military base and must convince a talkative janitor that he's a scientist with high security clearance. It's hard to tell whether his obvious unfitness for the task was meant to be a joke in a comedy picture or not, but Chaney's actually a sadder sight than Rathbone for most of the picture.

While most viewers will resent the lack of comedy or terror in Hillbillys, the producers seemed most concerned that audiences would think there wasn't enough music. Thus, after the spies are defeated, we get a square-up reel that finds the Hillbillys finally in "Nashville" hosting a variety show with guest performances by Haggard and other possibly-popular singers of the moment, as well as a comedy song by "the Great Jeepers," all before a stock-footage audience, apart from occasional insets of about a dozen people. Because it's a performance setting, the echo-chamber effect you get in all the film's musical numbers -- including Lansing's pathetic "Beautiful Dresses," in which she's supposed to be an 18th century aristocrat in a bouffant hairdo --  isn't as glaring, but this musical epilogue is strictly for country-western fans of the old school. For the rest of us, it simply keeps a terrible film going for another twelve minutes or so.

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