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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.
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 Appasionata 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 Damn Yankees, 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 The Apartment, 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 comics.
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 during his Bed-In with Yoko Ono.