Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Witty, blatantly un- P.C. and rendered in eye-popping Technicolor hues, Li'l Abner is a
delightfully funny film adaptation of the Broadway show. It's transferred to the screen as a
cartoonish, highly stylized stage presentation and the result is a great picture that shouldn't
have stayed hidden away all this time. Except for a few TV screenings and a pale, mis-framed
VHS release, this is the first opportunity to see Al Capp's filmic Dogpatch in 46 years.
Daisy Mae Scragg (Leslie Parrish) wants to catch the romantically-indifferent Li'l
Abner Yokum (Peter Palmer) in the big Sadie Hawkin's Day race, much to the delight of the local justice of
the peace, Marryin' Sam (Stubby Kaye). But the event is in jeopardy: Senator Jack S. Phogbound (Ted
Thurston) has 'volunteered' their hometown of Dogpatch to be a new atom testing site, and the
military is anxious to have everyone evacuated in a couple of days so they can start dropping
bombs. With the local girl-chases-boy custom therefore nullified, wrestling champ Earthquake
McGoon (Bern Hoffman) announces that the Code of the Hills decrees that he can have Daisy Mae
as his very own, now that he's paid off her closest kin, the disgusting Scragg clan led by the
near-subhuman Romeo Scragg (Robert Strauss). Mammy Yokum (Billie Hayes) convinces the Pentagon
that her Yokumberry Tonic can be used to make all of America's soldiers into seven-foot musclemen
like Abner. The atom bombs are put away and the Sadie Hawkin's race is back on. To get his greedy
hands on the Yokumberry formula, tycoon General Bullmoose (Howard St. John) enlists the mesmerizing
talents of Evil-Eye Fleegle (Al Nesor) and Stupefyin' Jones (Julie Newmar) to fix the race. As part
of Bullmoose's murderous plan, Abner will marry the irresistable siren Appassionata Von Climax
(Stella Stevens), before he meets an unfortunate fatal accident.
Al Capp's crazy cartoon world of Li'l Abner was based on the satirical notion that the real
America was composed not of urbane intellectuals but hillbilly hicks, oversexed primitives delighted
by their own ignorance, backward mentality and child-like instincts. Capp liked nothing better than
to remind Americans that most of them were one step away from the plow and the pig-sty. From his
conservative position he saw this silent hick majority as the undignified but honest root of American
values, forever being threatened by slick city folk and predatory politicians. But the hillbilly
virtues always won out. Dogpatch remained unvanquished, just as it seemed Daisy Mae would never catch
that handsome lummox Li'l Abner. 1
The movie Li'l Abner is almost startling to look at cold - it's stagey in a way that suggests
a Tex Avery Cartoon, or an exaggerated Frank Tashlin movie. Many of the jokes are about sex in them thar
hills: underaged divorcées, incredibly oversexed females and broken-down males in Burlesque-style
baggy pants and scruffy beards with permanent leers on their faces. Abner's parents Mammy and Pappy
are about half his size, but Mammy Yokum wears the pants in the family - she silences guff with an
enthusiastic "I has spoken!" Tall, dark and mentally absent Abner likes Daisy Mae but simply hasn't
any immediate urge to chase her into a haystack, an activity that seems to be the only recreation in
Dogpatch. For her part, the chaste (but barely costumed) Daisy Mae is faithful unto the end, even
when it looks as though fate will push her into the arms of the unsavory lecher Earthquake McGoon. It's
the All-American story, reduced to the basics.
Li'l Abner was apparently adapted, produced and directed by the people who brought it to
Broadway - at least that's what the credits infer. There are several catchy, funny songs with
standout clever lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Using the English titles is recommended as a way of not
losing any of the jokes - there are several songs that memorialize Dogpatch's local hero, Civil
War coward and loser Jubilation T. Cornpone.
The physical casting in Li'l Abner is terrific, better even than that for
Popeye. I don't know how many
of the Broadway cast were retained for the screen but they're all good, and the chance to see fresh
faces in many roles is a real treat - this was the beginning of a film career for a number of them.
Peter Palmer is perfect as Li'l Abner, capping his physical resemblance with an agreeable toothy smile.
For Leslie Parrish it's a major step up from her other
film appearance that year
(I'll let you find out for yourselves). She'd soon be off to film history via a major role in
The Manchurian Candidate.
Parrish manages to maintain Daisy Mae's essential freshness, no matter how ridculous things get.
Stubby Kaye is halfway between his stand-out performances in Guys and Dolls and Cat Ballou
and does fine work with those twisted lyrics in the musical numbers; younger viewers will remember
him as Marvin Acme in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Howard St. John is the unprincipled
General Bullmoose, who has based his life's quest on a childhood dream - to possess all the money
in the world. Connoiseurs of vintage cheesecake will be, ah, excited to see two classic sirens
in smaller parts. The legendary beauty (and cultural mascot for gays) Julie Newmar has a nonverbal
but highly communicative role as Stupefyin' Jones, a six-foot Venus who can freeze men in their
tracks with a bump of her hips. Future cocktail goddess Stella Stevens is beyond luscious as the
daringly-named Appassionata Von Climax, Bullmoose's temptress-on-the-payroll.
The bits yield a regular gold mine of talent. The clownish Robert Strauss
(The Seven-Year Itch,
The Bridges at Toko-Ri,
4D Man) is almost hidden
behind his hillbilly beard. Robert Banas acted in danced in several major musicals, including
West Side Story
and Mary Poppins. Although
nobody ever seems to link Li'l Abner to TV hillbillies or Hee-Haw- type shows,
Donna Douglas of The Beverly Hillbillies is a man-hungry citizen of Dogpatch, along with
Valerie Harper (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Valerie) and Hope Holliday
Irma La Douce. You might
recognize Hope Holliday's voice before you see her!
Other featured roles are played by noted stage actors that didn't have many major film credits. Billie Hayes
(Mammy Yokum) is famous as 'Witchie-poo' on the kiddie show H.R. Pufnstuf. Joe E. Marks
(Pappy Yokum) has only a few film bits, but one of them is the memorable costume salesman in
The Night They Raided Minsky's. Al Nesor is excellent as the itchy-faced, ratlike Evil-Eye
Fleegle, dressed all in green. Carmen Alvarez gets a lot of screen time as Moonbeam McSwine
and Diki Lerner is Lonesome Polecat, the local "Injun" stereotype.
Paul Frees supplies a radio voice and Jerry Lewis does a brief cameo as a character called Itchy McRabbit.
Several members of Mae West's muscleman team (soon on their way to Italy to become Steve Reeves imitators)
play the Dogpatch boys after being subjected to Mammy Yokum's phenomenal Yokumberry Tonic: Nick Dimitri,
Brad Harris and Gordon Mitchell. A tonic side effect makes them lousy lovers interested only in their own
muscles; I'm sure there's plenty of room for an interpretation of this part of the show along gay lines.
Li'l Abner was reared on Yokumberry Tonic - does that explain his disinterest in Daisy Mae's charms? If Al
Capp had anything to do with this plot point, he would more likely be saying that Momism has turned Abner into
a semi-sexless mama's boy.
If there were a Hillbilly lobby, I'm sure that Li'l Abner would be picketed. Native Americans might
also be offended by a few jokes that demean Indians, and the entire enterprise is sexist at its base: in
Dogpatch, the females do all the work while the menfolk go fishin'. But you can be darn sure that the film
version toned down the Burlesque possibilities in the stage play's sexy females and baggy-pants
Paramount's DVD of Li'l Abner looks fantastic, with colors so bright they threaten to burn one's
retinas. The cartoonish set designs are especially interesting, now that we've been through a couple of
decades of Tim Burton creativity. We're well prepared for this picture's crazy look - Tex Avery
pushed in the direction of Dr. Seuss. The Mono audio is also solid.
The pity is that Paramount could not take the time to put some extras on the disc, as many of the film's
principal actors and creators are still around. Savant has even seen terrific home movies from the set.
With the comic strip already gone for thirty years, modern audiences need some o' that educatin' to catch
up with the wild world of Al Capp and Li'l Abner.
Here's an official Li'l Abner website. The "Other Li'l Abner
Characters" page is a good preamble to watching the movie. As Mammy Yokum might say, "You is now edgikated!"
The cover illustration is almost good - Daisy Mae has been carefully pasted in, but from a still
with a noticeably different perspective.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Li'l Abner rates:
Supplements: None, dang-nabbit
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 6, 2005
1. Actually, Daisy Mae did
eventually marry her hillbilly swine ... swain. The 1952 wedding became a national event that made the
cover of Time magazine. My mom remembers being angry because she followed the comic strip for
years, only to miss the nuptials while on a boat returning from Japan. As for Al Capp, his charm
eventually soured; he can be seen in newsreel footage trying unsuccessfully to humiliate John Lennon
Bed-In with Yoko Ono.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson