Li’l Abner (1959)

All my talk at the beginning of this blog about not buying bootlegs and only using legitimate media starts to seem more and more hollow as time goes on. If it’s out of print, it’s probably on YouTube. Even if it’s in print, it’s probably on YouTube. I generally don’t like stage musicals very much, but 1959’s Li’l Abner is one of a handful that I appreciate, and I’d been looking for a reasonably-priced copy for quite a long time. I finally landed one from a seller in Australia, and it turned out to be a boot. I thought about arguing the point, but ended up appreciating the extremely good work they did on the printing, and accepted it. Money spent, movie watched.

So this was miles and miles outside our son’s comfort zone. It was his first look at a Broadway musical, although Marie reminded me that he has certainly seen other examples of musicals, mainly from Disney or the Muppets. Like all the kids who got dragged to the Dogpatch USA amusement park in its waning, dying days, he had no experience of the Li’l Abner comic strip, and the bulk of the story is about romancing and marrying. But I believed that, even though this was pretty far outside his experience, Li’l Abner had enough good-natured silliness, funny characters, gags, and entertaining songs to win over anybody who’d give it a chance, and I was right. His attention wandered a little bit – and to be fair, a couple of the dance numbers are really long – but he agreed that this was a good movie with a few great moments, chief among them the hysterical Sadie Hawkins Day Race, which had him guffawing.

It was a bit of a bad coincidence that this was scheduled for the Sunday after we learned that Billie Hayes had passed. Hayes plays Mamie Yokum, the strong-armed ma of our hero, Li’l Abner, who’d much rather spend his days with the fellas fishing than marrying the beautiful Daisy Mae Scragg. Our star-struck couple is played by Peter Palmer and Leslie Parrish, with ample support provided by some heavyweights like Stubby Kaye as Marryin’ Sam, Julie Newmar as Stupefyin’ Jones, and Stella Stevens as Appasionnata von Climax. Even Jerry Lewis gets a walk-on part, possibly because it was 1959 and he was contractually bound to appear in every movie that year.

This was a movie that I spent a long time mocking, because I didn’t appreciate its hayseed humor, and I deeply resented it for getting the song “Jubilation T. Cornpone” stuck in my head for the last three decades. The whole movie’s full of earworms, which the credits help explain: Broadway and Hollywood producers didn’t hire the likes of Johnny Mercer and Nelson Riddle to write forgettable music. Eventually I caved to its goofy and incredibly colorful charms, and appreciated all the physicality and the great wordplay. There’s a character called Evil Eye Fleagle who moves in a constantly twitching shuffle, and, like Stupefyin’ Jones with a shake of her hips, can stop anybody else in their tracks. Actually, Jones, who is apparently a robot, seems to have no power over women, which strikes me as a design flaw.

So sure, this is a movie filled with unflattering cultural stereotypes, as the citizens of Dogpatch are shown to be remarkably lazy, dirty, gullible and, in the eyes of the rest of the world, quite unnecessary, and the battle of the sexes is very, very much of its time. A standard Dogpatch wedding brings a fair maiden “three weeks of bliss and fifty years of quiet desperation,” which is why all the menfolk are so desperate to avoid it.

But the sharpest barbs are pointed at the government, and capitalism’s nasty greed, and the only real zingers aimed at the country folk and yokels are at their blind patriotism, accepting anything their senator tells them. Since Li’l Abner’s creator, Al Capp, turned into a whiny-ass “kids these days” crankpot in his later years, it’s nice to be reminded that at the strip’s peak in the 1950s, it was genuinely and consistently funny. I’ve read a fair amount of the Abner strip, and this production reflects what a witty and intelligent comic it was in the 1950s. It comes together really well here. It’s dated in a lot of respects, but it’s a crowd-pleaser, sunny, colorful, and very fun. I’m glad the kid enjoyed it. And a little relieved.

Twelve years later, Billie Hayes returned to the role of Mamie Yokum for a really, really colorful Li’l Abner TV pilot for ABC. Getty Images gets a little angry if you copy and post things with their copyright, so I strongly encourage everybody to visit Getty’s site, do a search for Li’l Abner, scroll down past all the pictures of Newmar, and check out some pics from the 1971 show. It was directed by Gordon Wiles and starred Ray Young and Nancee Parkinson as Abner and Daisy Mae. It was an astonishingly ill-timed pilot, since the networks’ rural purge was bringing the hatchet down on everything set between Mayberry and Hooterville. Returning to Dogpatch wasn’t going to happen in 1971. But speaking as I was of bootlegs, it seems possible that the pilot is lost, because not even YouTube has a trace of it. (Black and white copies of a 1966 trial have survived, however.) Even IMDB has only partial cast and crew credits. I’ve no idea what company made it, but since Hayes was in it, I’d like to see it one of these days.

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