Saturday, July 05, 2014

Harper Valley P.T.A.

Too often are audiences in America’s heartland given short shrift by Hollywood filmmakers, who forget that not everybody lives in Los Angeles and New York. Perhaps that’s why it took a Midwesterner—a Cincinnati-based theater owner and booking agent named Phil Borack—to produce one of the most successful independent comedies of the 1970s by appealing directly to moviegoers in the middle of the country.

Filmed in tiny Lebanon, Ohio, which boasted a population of just under 10,000 at the time, HARPER VALLEY P.T.A. is a lowbrow (to say the least) comedy based on Jeannie C. Riley’s Grammy-winning country-western single of 1968. Successful to the tune of number-one on almost every BILLBOARD chart it was eligible for, Riley’s hit (penned by Tom T. Hall) tells the story of Stella Johnson, a sexy woman derided by the hypocrites on the Harper Valley P.T.A. for wearing her dresses way too high and having too much fun for their liking. “Story songs” were popular at the time, and while “Harper Valley P.T.A.” has enough plot for a three-minute single, can it be stretched to a ninety-minute movie?

The answer is no, at least not in the hands of screenwriting team George Edwards and Barry Schneider, whose previous credit was the horror film RUBY, and television directors Ralph Senensky (STAR TREK) and Richard C. Bennett (THE GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E.). But don’t think just because HARPER VALLEY P.T.A. is a bad movie that it didn’t hit the right chord with a lot of people. And I mean a lot.

Released to theaters independently by small distributor April Fool Productions, HARPER VALLEY P.T.A. cost about a million bucks to make and grossed $25 million. Then, when it premiered on NBC in February 1980, it was the number-one show on television. Number. One. Ratings were so high and NBC’s schedule so dismal at the time that it was a no-brainer for network president Fred Silverman to turn HARPER VALLEY P.T.A. into a weekly series. And that was a hit too, at least for a time.

Barbara Eden (I DREAM OF JEANNIE), perfect casting as a woman whose most notorious trait is wearing miniskirts, stars in a rare feature turn as the song’s heroine, Stella Johnson, and the mother of Dee (AUDREY ROSE's Susan Swift). Eden’s Ohio accent is askew, but otherwise she’s fine as the town harlot whose worst crime seems to be singing and drinking beer (Hudepohl, naturally) with her best pal Alice (Nanette Fabray) during the day.

The recipient of a nasty letter from the local PTA threatening Dee’s expulsion if Mama doesn’t tone down her act, Stella tells all the members off at the monthly meeting, exposing all their peccadilloes, such as one’s alcoholism and another’s gambling problems. Not enough revenge for their rude behavior, Stella goes after each member in episodic fashion, pulling humiliating pranks on them, which at least gives us the John Fiedler nude scene we’ve always been waiting for.

Another gag, which involves smashing a trio of pink-painted elephants through the bedroom walls of town drunk Pat Paulsen (THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR), got original director Senensky, who thought it was too dangerous, canned and replaced by the nondescript Bennett. The one PTA member to avoid Stella’s scorn is Will Newton, considered the town’s most eligible bachelor even though he’s played by Ronny Cox and not, I dunno, Lyle Waggoner.

Considering the film’s success in theaters and in prime time, it’s interesting to wonder how big the single-camera sitcom version of HARPER VALLEY P.T.A. could have been. It was initially planned as a one-hour comedy produced by THE DUKES OF HAZZARD’s Cy Chermak and would presumably have followed along that show’s lines (though likely without the car chases). A Writer’s Guild strike and pre-production tinkering eventually transformed it into a half-hour sitcom (with laugh track) produced by GILLIGAN’S ISLAND’s Sherwood Schwartz.

When the series finally debuted in January 1981—not quite a year after the film’s blockbuster airing—it also became a rare hit for NBC. But a second-season title change to HARPER VALLEY, a new character played by THE MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO’s Mills Watson, and likely the end of a fad drove the series to cancellation after thirty episodes.


George White said...

I saw this about ten years ago on telly on an Irish-language TV channel, which shows old films a lot, but not dubbed in Irish, though they do show the odd recent blockbuster as Gaeilge. I can't remember a thing about it, bar it had Barbara Eden and some kids with 70s haircuts lolloping around suburbs. They show a lot of Country 'n' irish music shows, and have shown other films based on country songs eg Convoy, Ode to Billy Joe...

Hal said...

I think it is likely they changed their mind on the hour long format due to the lack of action sequences, something that B.J. AND THE BEAR, LOBO and DUKES had in every episode. Not something that would flow naturally out of the HARPER VALLEY format.

The film premiered during the Winter Olympics week on ABC, and several NBC series were actually helped by being effective counterprogramming that week. LOBO and DIFFRN'T STROKES were both among the top 20 in the Nielsens, and NBC also aired the Burt Reynolds flick "The End", which was 3rd in the Nielsens the same week (ending 2/24/80)

Jeff Mclachlan said...

I'm surprised NBC didn't try to make a show out of The End, too, if it's ratings were so good. Maybe starring Bert Convy and Josh Mostel, with each episode centering on Convy coming up with a new fool-proof way to kill himself.

Grant said...

Yes, like a sitcom version of RUN FOR YOUR LIFE.

Marty McKee said...

There actually was a sitcom version of RUN FOR YOUR LIFE. Well, more accurately, a sitcom version of THE FUGITIVE. It didn't last.

Tim Mayer said...

Too bad the sequel, CHATTANOOGA CHOO CHOO never left the station. Same company, but I heard that most of the investors never got their money back on the sequel.