Paramount // 1959 // 113 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Maurice Cobbs (Retired) // April 25th, 2005
Gen. Bullmoose: She works for me. She gets a salary. She sorts of
lives with me.
Li'l Abner: Really? Does that mean you gets bed and board, ma'am?
Appassionata Von Climax: Extremely!
The comic strip Li'l Abner, written by Al Capp for 43 years, is one of the very best that American comics have offered, and a personal favorite of mine since I was a teenager. At its peak, the strip appeared in over 900 newspapers with a daily readership of 90 million people, and contributed Sadie Hawkins Day, Lower Slobbovia, and the Shmoo to the stockpile of Americana. A constant source of stinging satire and wry social commentary, not unlike Little Orphan Annie, which preceded it, and Pogo, which would follow, there were few topics that did not fall under Capp's critical eye -- from popular culture (witness his screamingly funny, ultraviolent send-up of Dick Tracy, Fearless Fosdick) to politics. A rather disappointing version of the strip, featuring Buster Keaton, had been filmed by RKO in 1940, but it is the 1959 Technicolor version that truly shines.
The tiny hillbilly community of Dogpatch, U.S.A., is preparing for the annual Sadie Hawkins Day race, and no one is more excited than the particularly well-put-together Daisy Mae Scragg (Leslie Parrish, The Manchurian Candidate). She's eager to catch Abner Yokum (Peter Palmer), much to the delight of Mammy and Pa Yokum (Billie Hayes and Joe E. Marks) and the local traveling preacher, Marryin' Sam (Stubby Kaye, Guys and Dolls). In fact, the only one who can't seem to work up much enthusiasm for it is Abner himself -- and his rival for Daisy's affections, the mountainous Earthquake McGoon (Bern Hoffman) . Earthquake has a plan to snare Daisy: He's discovered that Senator Jack S. Phogbound (Ted Thurston) has convinced the government that Dogpatch, the most "unnecessary" place in the country, would be the perfect place to conduct atomic bomb testing. At first, the citizens of Dogpatch are delighted to be so honored; but they soon realize that it also means the cancellation of Sadie Hawkins Day. This works to Earthquake's advantage, as he can then claim Daisy under "The Code of the Hills."
Soon the citizens are scrambling to find something -- anything -- that can show how necessary their town is. The answer comes in the form of Mammy's Yokumberry Tonic, a miraculous potion that can instantly turn the scrawniest of male specimens into seven-foot slabs of beefcake just like Li'l Abner. Abner, his heart bursting with civic pride, agrees to give the formula to the government, to the dismay of the avaricious business tycoon General Bullmoose (Howard St. John, Madison Avenue), who sees the tonic as the key to fulfilling his childhood dream of owning all the money in the world. And so he enlists his "Executive Secretary" Appassionata Von Climax (Stella Stevens, The Courtship of Eddie's Father) and the ratlike fugitive Evil-Eye Fleegle (Al Nesor) to set into motion a plan to entrap and then dispose of the unwitting Li'l Abner.
Oh, and Julie Newmar (Batman) has the cameo to end all cameos as the heavenly, mesmerizing Stupefyin' Jones. Although the character has no lines, she communicates well enough by...oh, my...
When I first saw this movie, I was vaguely aware of some indistinct figures moving around and taking screen time away from the movie's star, Julie Newmar, as well as the film's story line, which involved the dazzling Stupefyin' Jones on an average day, walking in the woods. I also noticed, strangely, that my head had morphed into that of a cartoon wolf's and that I was racing around the room and howling periodically. Strange. Upon a second viewing, however, I saw that I had, for whatever reason, completely misunderstood the premise of the movie, and that there was a lot more to see than the pulchritudinous charm of the magnificent Ms. Newmar. Odd that I had not noticed it before, just because Julie does that thing with her hips where she...ummm...
Ah...So, right. Li'l Abner. Based on the successful stage musical by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, with music by Gene de Paul and lyrics by the legendary Johnny Mercer (accented for the film with an Oscar- and Grammy-nominated score by the equally legendary Nelson Riddle, with Joseph J. Lilley), Li'l Abner may be one of the finest comics-to-film adaptations ever presented. Like Annie, Li'l Abner does a marvelous job of translating the characters into real-life approximations, but unlike the film version of the adventures of that beloved red-headed moppet, Abner also brings a touch of the comic strip's wit and penchant for satire and social commentary along for the ride (although it is not nearly as acidic as the strip). Like Dick Tracy (1990), great pains are taken to recreate the look and feel of the comic strip; but unlike the all-star cinematic misadventure of that hawk-nosed detective, Abner has substance behind its style. An eye-popping spectacle in glorious VistaVision Technicolor, the film also has the advantages that come with the cast of the stage production -- including Peter Palmer (who originated the titular role on stage), Joe E. Marks, Stubby Kaye, William Lanteau (who portrays Available Jones), Howard St. John, Carmen Alvarez (Moonbeam McSwine), and Al Nesor. Billie Hayes had been the first choice for Mammy in the stage version, but she had other obligations, and the part went instead to Charlotte Rae. When Rae left the cast to do another show, Hayes finally performed the role on stage and eventually brought it to the screen. Also reprising her role from the stage version is the radiant, ravishing Julie Newmar.
In addition to most of the stage cast, the movie also provides an inspired cameo: Jerry Lewis brought his spastic comedy mugging to the role of Itchy McRabbit, and sent Paramount studios a gag invoice for $1.60 for his part -- and received a gag check from the payroll department in that amount. And to top it off, you can try to spot some stars before they were stars: Donna Douglas (who would continue the hillbilly theme on The Beverly Hillbillies, which Al Capp derided as a cheap imitation of his strip), Beth Howland (Alice), and Valerie Harper (The Mary Tyler Moore Show). New actors brought into the show include Leslie Parrish, who supposedly bested fifty actresses for the role of Daisy Mae; Robert Strauss (Stalag 17), barely even recognizable behind the dirty, bearded face of the repulsive Romeo McScragg; and former Playboy playmate Stella Stevens as the breathy femme fatale Appassionata Von Climax, who manages to trap Li'l Abner into marriage after he's momentarily stunned by Stupefyin' Jones's...ummm...
Ah...Where was I? Oh, yes! While the movie is a wonderful adaptation of the stage musical, several scenes and songs were cut. Some songs, like the lazy "If I Had My Druthers" and the ending number, "Matrimonial Stomp," were shortened; others, like the scathingly satiric "Oh, Happy Day," a song about the "wonders" of modern medical science, and General Bullmoose's anthem to avarice, "Progress Is the Root of All Evil," are regrettably cut altogether. Still, what remains is outstanding. If you're looking for catchy tunes and witty lyrics, you can hardly do better than Li'l Abner, from the energetic "Jubilation T. Cornpone," celebrating the cowardly and incompetent Confederate general who is the hero of Dogpatch, memorialized in marble on the "town square," to the pointed and satiric humor of "The Country's in the Very Best of Hands," which is Abner's report on the state of the nation after visiting Washington, D.C. While choreographer and director Michael Kidd (whose work on the stage version of Li'l Abner had been extremely well received) refused to work his magic on the screen version due to a contractual dispute, his assistant Dee Dee Wood wisely decided to keep as much of his dance work as possible intact. And they are stunning dance numbers, filled with energy, flair, and humor. One standout number is the "Sadie Hawkins Ballet," in which the Dogpatch bachelorettes pursue the unattached men of the town, capturing them for marriage, with the occasional help of Stupefyin' Jones, who stops them dead in their tracks by...
Ah, let's see...Li'l Abner looks fabulous, and not just because of Stupefyin' Jones. There are loads of extremely well-put-together young gals, and you can view them all in glorious Technicolor, which makes full use of the beautifully cartoonish sets and costumes. Don't get jealous, ladies; several muscle-bound specimens are presented also for your perusal -- the result of Mammy's Yokumberry Tonic -- showing off their well-oiled physiques in a government lab, names proudly emblazoned across the rear of their bikini briefs. Peter Palmer is great as Abner; he's broad and likeable, all white teeth and bulging muscles, and has a disarming screen presence. Leslie Parrish is winsome and imbues Daisy Mae with a sort of innocent yearning for Abner that is as endearing as it is funny. The rest of the cast is equally good; I particularly liked Ted Thurston as the pompous and somewhat corrupt Senator Phogbound -- "There's no Jack S. like our Jack S.!" say the citizens of Dogpatch, with pride. Stella Stevens is lusciously seductive as Appassionata, a clear parody of the Marilyn Monroe type of sex kitten, and one that she carries off well. The sound mix is Dolby Digital mono, but the DVD does not suffer appreciably for it; there is no distortion or noise, and coupled with the crisp, colorful print this makes for a satisfying release -- especially considering the washed-out, terribly framed VHS that had previously been the only way for most folks to see this wonderful film.
If the DVD has a flaw, it is the distinct lack of special features. This is a bare-bones release, and it's a crime -- both Al Capp and his celebrated strip are more than fascinating enough to rate a documentary or two, and since many of the cast members are still around, a commentary or making-of feature would have been both welcome and appropriate. Also, the DVD cover is rather odd. It seems to be a publicity photo from the film with Abner, Mammy, and Pa, but Daisy has been pasted into the shot -- badly: It's obviously from the wrong perspective. What makes this so strange is that on the spine of the case, as well as on the lower right-hand corner, is a great picture of Daisy and Abner standing back to back. It's also on the disc itself and would have made a great cover image. What gives, guys? Plus, there's only one image of Julie Newmar on the back cover -- a gross injustice. Granted, it is a picture of the scene in which she does this thing and...ummmm...
Some audiences will no doubt find Li'l Abner dated and corny, but I think that it is a wonderfully fun Technicolor romp. It works as a comic strip adaptation, and it works as a musical adaptation, and dag-nabbit, it works as just a fun movie. The cast is excellent and energetic, the costumes and sets are colorful and eye-catching, and the affable love story goes down well with the skewering criticism. It's a colorful, foot-tappin', fun-filled, sing-along spectacle, and it's long overdue on DVD. Plus, Julie Newmar...um...ah...
Huh? What? Oh, ummmm...not guilty!
Review content copyright © 2005 Maurice Cobbs; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* The Official Li'l Abner Site