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.

The New, Original Wonder Woman (1975)

Well, if Lynda Carter is untying Lyle Waggoner from another fine mess he’s gotten himself into, we must be watching Wonder Woman. Conventional wisdom has it that the first season of this show, the one on ABC that was set during World War Two, was pretty good before it devolved into yet another seventies super-agent series later on. However, this very dopey pilot movie isn’t really all that encouraging.

It could have been a lot worse. ABC had been interested in doing a Wonder Woman series for almost a decade. In 1967, with Batman beginning its tailspin, the network asked that show’s producer, William Dozier, for a very short test film. The result, with Linda Harrison as Wonder Woman, is allegedly a comedy but is the least funny thing ever taped. In 1973, Cathy Lee Crosby starred in a pilot which is notable – if that’s the right word – for having a Steve Trevor, played by Kaz Garas, who’s more interesting than the title character.

Finally, Douglas S. Cramer’s company got the go-ahead and he picked Stanley Ralph Ross to write a script that actually acknowledged an existing comic book character. It’s actually a perfectly acceptable pilot script, and both Carter and Waggoner play their roles fabulously. Unfortunately, they’re the only actors in this misbegotten seventy-five minutes who got the memo that this was an action drama. They underplay their characters and are perfectly watchable. Everybody else in the movie thinks this is an episode of Batman and they keep mugging at the camera, and delivering their lines as if they’re jokes.

And it’s a great cast, too, which is what makes this so darn painful. Kenneth Mars is the main Nazi, with Henry Gibson as his subordinate, who’s secretly a spy for the Americans. Red Buttons, Stella Stevens, and Severn Darden are Nazi spies working in the US. Everybody’s being comedy bad guys, but the script isn’t written to be funny. On the non-villain front, Cloris Leachman plays Paradise Island’s Queen Hippolyta as though there are one or two people in Burbank who couldn’t see or hear her. Both the roles of Hippolyta and General Blankenship, played here by John Randolph, would be recast when the series began a few months later.

Our son was mostly interested in the fight scenes, of course. We gave him a quick history lesson last night to get him prepped for the wartime setting, and explained that this was a time where everybody was spying on each other, and there were lots of bad guys posing as good guys. Surprisingly, though, the thing that confused him the most was a theatrical agent, played by Buttons, offering to hire Wonder Woman and do her bullets-and-bracelets trick onstage. When Buttons’ character turns out to be a spy, it feels for all the world like they already had one actor booked and didn’t want to pay a second.

Actually, I’ll tell you the strangest thing about this script: it spends the whole thing establishing Henry Gibson as the Allies’ man in Germany and he gets completely dropped after this. I cheated and looked ahead down Gibson’s insanely long list of credits, and while he did return to Wonder Woman for a week, that was once the show relocated to the present day and got lousy.

I’m really hopeful that the rest of the wartime series is better than this. It had a very odd network run; ABC ordered thirteen episodes after this pilot did well. They ran the first two as specials at the tail end of the 1975-76 season, and then the remaining eleven in 1976-77. ABC then canceled it, and CBS picked it up and brought it to the present day in a pair of 24-episode seasons.

I certainly remember enjoying the wartime Wonder Woman the most. Fingers crossed that it won’t let us down!