'Hillbilly Hollywood' - Country Music Movies Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Hillbilly Hollywood' - Country Music Movies

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Stereotypical hillbillies are those good-hearted yet incredibly dumb bumpkins who come out of the hills and from the rural backroads of America and make us laugh due to their ignorance of urban and sophisticated society.

Hollywood has a fairly long history of using this hillbilly stereotype to good effect, from the Ma and Pa Kettle1 and Li'l Abner2 movies of the 1930s and '40s, to the butt-clenching terror of Deliverance, to some of the nastiest slash-and-eat horror movies of the 1970s. But from 1958 to around 1970, another type of hillbilly movie held sway - the country music movie.

Hillbilly Movies - the Basic Definition

Country music movies often featured some sort of plot involving rural idiots getting themselves into all kinds of trouble. But these movies were not just the wacky hi-jinx of hilarious hillbillies; they were the wacky hi-jinx of hilarious hillbillies who had famous country music stars as friends.

'Hillbilly Hollywood' took its cue from that other cinematic trend of the '50s - the Rock 'n' Roll movie. Like those teenager-pleasers, the plots are minimal, the acting marginal, and the time between staged musical numbers mercifully brief. Most often the plot involved a slight and forgettable plight that is resolved with a good dose of music featuring some of the then-top stars of country.

A good example is 1966's Las Vegas Hillbillies. In it, country bumpkin Ferlin Husky (himself a country star with several big hits) lands in Las Vegas and inherits a dilapidated casino. In a classic Busby Berkeley3 'let's-put-on-a-show' style storyline, our hero turns it into a moneymaker with help from Jayne Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren and a couple of perfectly legitimate country acts, including Sonny James and Del Reeves. The plot is negligible, the breasts enormous, and the music performances actually quite good.

A Showcase for Talent - a Graveyard for Actors

In addition to showcasing the era's top country talent, 'Hillbilly Hollywood', like many awful movie fads before and since, was often the final celluloid resting place of faded stars and thespians who had previously known better than to get involved in hokum like this.

For example, 1967's Hillbillies in a Haunted House (a sequel to the well-proportioned Las Vegas Hillbillies) has the dubious distinction of being the last film to feature the previously-renowned actors John Carradine and Basil Rathbone. In a Sartre-like4 preview of hell, they both stand around in a tawdry basement mumbling lines that have nothing to do with the plot, looking very tired indeed.

Another prime example is 1965's Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar, which featured Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall, two of the most famous Bowery Boys. Notwithstanding the hideously obvious fact that it had been a long time since they had actually been boys, their appearance in this film borders on the surreal. They're supposed to be wacky stagehands who unleash their 'special brand of physical comedy' in little backstage vignettes sprinkled throughout the movie. Not until Mae West was propped up on stage for a final guest star appearance in 1978's Sextette did physical comedy manage to become so, well, unphysical.

But the music is practically non-stop and features some of the top country starts of the time. Performers include Little Jimmy Dickens, Lefty Frizzell, George Hamilton IV, Sonny James, Bill Monroe, Minnie Pearl, Connie Smith, Kitty Wells, and many more. Although the performances are, unfortunately, lip-synched, the musical quality of the film is excellent.

Why Were these Movies Made?

For one thing, they sold as well as any other exploitative B movie of the time. And in the impossibly remote antiquity before music videos, these movies were a major outlet for country music to be exposed to wider audiences. In some of them, the performances are actually live rather than lip-synched, and they are pretty exciting to watch (providing of course you like country music). A couple were filmed in 'rockumentary' style, and are actually fairly serious looks at an industry that often crossed over into the pop market in the '60s. But while those are more serious, the fun is in the really bad movies, and there are plenty of those!

A Partial List of 'Hillbilly Hollywood' - 1958-1970

  • Country Music Holiday (1958)
  • Country Music Jubilee (1960)
  • Hootenanny Hoot (1963)
  • Country Music on Broadway (1964)
  • Country Music Caravan (1964)
  • Tennessee Jamboree (1964)
  • Forty Acre Feud (1965)
  • Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar (1965)
  • Country Boy (1966)
  • Nashville Rebel (1966)
  • Las Vegas Hillbillies (1966)
  • Music City USA (1966)
  • The Gold Guitar (1966)
  • Road to Nashville (1966)
  • The Girl from Tobacco Row (1966)
  • That Tennessee Beat (1966)
  • Hillbillies in a Haunted House (1967)
  • Cottonpickin' Chickenpickers (1967)
  • Hell on Wheels (1967)
  • Country Music Hoedown (1967)
  • From Nashville With Music (1969)
  • The Nashville Sound (1970)
1Ma and Pa Kettle were the rustic bumpkin stars of a series of films in the 1940s and '50s. Marjorie Main, the actress playing Ma Kettle, actually got an Oscar nomination for the first film, The Egg and I (1947).2Li'l Abner was a cartoon character created by Al Capp in the 1930s, featuring the eponymous Abner as a simple hillbilly.3Busby Berkeley was an acclaimed director and choreographer, whose dance sequences became famous in their own right.4Jean-Paul Sartre was a French Existentialist philosopher who most famously said L'Enfer, c'est les Autres, or 'Hell is other people'.

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