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.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

In one way, this blog’s always been a race against time, showing our son classic movies before he stumbles upon them somewhere else, at a friend’s place or after school. I offered to show him Toy Story a couple of times and he always declined. Turned out he’d seen the movies a dozen times each in afterschool care already. Preserving surprises of any kind will get tougher and tougher as kids get older. Once upon a time, I was planning to one day show my older son the classic monster movie Them! and not tell him what it was about, only for him to come home from the library with a book about creature features. Eyes wide, he told me “This movie about giant ants sounds amazing!”

Roger Rabbit and Baby Herman have been forgotten and ignored by Disney for the last several years. Director Robert Zemeckis has speculated that Disney don’t like Roger’s shapely wife Jessica at all and are unlikely to approve a sequel or draw very much attention to the original. This worked in our favor; our son had never heard of the character or seen him anywhere.

So I drew him in last night by reminding him of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and the days of tough guy detectives in coats and fedoras, and then this morning, the movie cued and no hints from the menus or the DVD packaging, re-explained that how, once upon a time, before you saw the main feature at the movie, you’d see a cartoon first. Who Framed Roger Rabbit begins with a short called “Somethin’s Cookin’,” which had our son guffawing, and then at a critical point in the cartoon, Roger blows a special effect, a director yells “Cut!” and the camera pulls back to blow our son’s mind.

I love surprising my son this way. If you’ve got kids of your own, try your darndest to introduce them to the movie this way.

Roger Rabbit is celebrated for its mix of live-action and animation, but it wouldn’t work if it didn’t have a clever and entertaining story underneath it. It’s a delightful throwback to hard-boiled detective fiction, starring Bob Hoskins as a down-on-his-luck PI who’s descended into alcoholism since the death of his partner five years previously. Stubby Kaye plays the industrialist who gets murdered, and poor Roger, a big hearted dimwit of a cartoon character who only has great things to say about his fellows in the business, is set up for the fall. And of course Christopher Lloyd gets to steal the show as the menacing Judge Doom, who, thanks to some odd quirk of the California municipal code, has the power of life and death over all cartoon characters.

The result is a completely delightful movie, full of sight gags, very good acting, and how-the-heck-did-they-DO-that camera tricks. I’ve always enjoyed this film and really had a ball watching it with our kid. It’s a shame there probably won’t ever be a sequel, but fifteen years later, Warner released another live-action/animation hybrid, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, which owes an astonishing amount to this film. It’s certainly not as unique or as original as Roger Rabbit, but it’s still a very fun ride and we’ll look at it one Sunday in 2020.

Doctor Who: Delta and the Bannermen (part three)

Sylvester McCoy may have come in to Who on the end of its run, but he benefited from something that the program should have done many years before: shorter stories. Half of his serials are a lean three episodes each. They’re not all as trim and well-designed as this one – “Ghost Light” in particular could have used another half-hour – but there’s no flab or padding, and for a brisk and light romp in the pretty Welsh summer of 1987, it’s the perfect length.

Our son really enjoyed this one, and I couldn’t agree more. Don Henderson, who is best known for playing a cop called George Bulman across three separate programs over a dozen years, plays the ugly and mean villain, and comedian Hugh Lloyd is a local beekeeper who observes everything with a quiet and kind detachment. Along with Stubby Kaye, who had played Marryin’ Sam in Li’l Abner and was in the UK filming Who Framed Roger Rabbit, it’s a great guest cast. (Bulman, incidentally, started out as a kind of equivalent to Inspector Zenigata in the Lupin III franchise. He was the antagonist to a heroic master criminal called Spider Scott. I’d like to see that someday.)

There’s a scene where the bad guys break into a shed outside the beekeeper’s house while a cover of that dopey old song “Lollipop” plays on an old clock radio and set off a trap. Shelves full of jars of honey crash down on them and they slip and slide on the floor, then get stung by hundreds of bees. “This is hilarious!” our son shouted. I wouldn’t quite go that far, but it’s definitely fun, which is what Doctor Who should be, and which it hadn’t been for such a long time. The story ends with a sweet little doo-wop song with the vocalist singing “Here’s to the future,” and you’d have to be a real sourpuss to disagree.

Doctor Who: Delta and the Bannermen (parts one and two)

Sometimes, kids offer the oddest observations. I was certain that the character of Jesse Colton, who we met in a couple of MacGyver episodes, was described as a bounty hunter, but our son, who turned eight yesterday, exclusively associates the term with Star Wars, just like he might with “Jedi Knight” or “Sith Lord.” Fantasy is that much bigger than reality. Real bounty hunters are nowhere as glamorous as IG-88 or Boba Fett.

There is, briefly, a bounty hunter in the first two parts of the absolutely wonderful “Delta and the Bannermen.” It’s a story that I originally considered the weakest of the four in season twenty-four but later came to love. It’s a huggingly wonderful and silly story full of great dialogue, broken hearts, and rock and roll. But in 1987-88, when Who fandom had so many loud voices demanding SRS BSNSS from this show, “silly” was not what the Hive Mind wanted. I never really noticed, then, the delightful moment in part one when the lovestruck Ray, realizing her fella only has eyes for a girl from space, hugs the Doctor and buries her tears in his shoulder, and the Doctor responds with an awkward “there, there,” utterly unsure what he’s supposed to do about this.

So much of this story is unsaid, but it moves at such a brisk pace that it never seems to matter. It appears that the Doctor and Mel arrive at the Tollbooth without travelling in time. They seem to have just met the evil and ruthless Bannermen; the unfortunate aliens who just wanted a time-travel tour of 1959 Disneyland also know who they are. So they’re all leaving a time when these villains are known to everybody around them, and the explanations that would slow down the narrative are unnecessary. The audience doesn’t need to know. They’re the guys with black hats; we get it.

Then there are the two aging American agents bumbling around the Welsh countryside looking for a satellite with a telescope in the middle of the afternoon. One of them’s played by Stubby Kaye, who gets to impotently protest “Hey, that’s the property of Uncle Sam…” after the villains blow up his radio. I love how these well-meaning clowns just happen to be in the right place at the right time. They must have done something right, once, but very little since, and so their bosses, who are probably much younger and much more competent, just send them as far away from the action as possible because for some reason they can’t fire them. Thus Wales, and a telescope.

I’m glad that our son has developed an understanding of the comedy of anticipation. He had some chuckles and some thrills as the story progressed, but his favorite moment was when the Bannermen’s spaceship lands behind the two agents as they look for their missing satellite. He knew these two fellows’ day was about to get a lot worse. He later protested that the Bannermen aren’t only doing the wrong thing, but doing it the wrong way. He knew that the villains should have searched the tour bus for the woman that they’re hunting before blowing it up. We’ll see whether these bad guys can do something right tomorrow.