Li’l Abner (1959)

Synopsis:

The Federal Government of the United States determines that a small rural town, Dogpatch, is the most useless territory of the country. Because of its worthlessness, the town is selected for an atomic bomb test. After Dogpatch residents are asked to find a new home, the tight-knit community comes together to fight the eviction.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Welcome to Dogpatch. I’d say “what’s your pleasure?”, but I see you done brought it with you.”

Zippy, bubbly adaptation of the 1956 Broadway hit, which was in turn based on the popular comic strip by Al Capp. Although deliberately broad and silly, Li’l Abner touches upon many serious social problems — the movie hilariously satirizes everything from gender roles and D.C. politics to American nativism.

Over the top and absurd to the nth degree, Li’l Abner is literally a cartoon coming to life: a sort of cross between Dr. Seuss and Pee-wee’s Playhouse. It’s ridiculously stagebound, too — the entire film was shot inside soundstages using stylized costumes and sets. The actors’ work is deliberately exaggerated. There is no attempt to make it realistic. On the contrary, the film embraces its artificiality and makes no apologies for it.

In any kind of musical, the songs and the choreography are of paramount importance and in those areas the film delivers the goods. Showstoppers “Jubilation T Cornpone” and “The Country’s In the Very Best of Hands” are great fun. I loved the lovely tune “I’m Past My Prime.” My personal favorite was “Put ‘Em Back,” which is filled with naughty sexual innuendos — I’m surprised that the censors didn’t object to the lyrics.

The dance sequences, choregraphed by Michael Kidd, are pretty good too. I was partial to “Don’t That Take the Rag Off of the Bush,” a rousing dance number similar to the famous barn sequence in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s classic Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), which was — no surprise here — also choregraphed by Kidd.

Li’l Abner has no movie stars. Most of actors from the stage production were invited to reprise their roles in the movie version. It does have two actors that would later become famous: Stella Stevens (The Nutty Professor), who plays Appassionata Von Climax, and Julie Newmar (TV’s Batman), who plays Stupefyin’ Jones. A famous comedian makes a funny cameo appearance (I don’t want to spoil the surprise). Valerie Harper (TV’s Rhoda) is supposed to be one of the dancers. 

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Li’l Abner is definitely an acquired taste. I wonder what today’s jaded movie buffs, who are obsessed with realism, would think of this surreal exercise in absurdity. I’m always game for a film that operates in an alternative reality, so the movie was tailor-made for my sensibilities. For whatever reason, this musical is not as well-known as other movies based on Broadway shows. Li’l Abner is smart, enjoyable and very entertaining. I recommend it to fans of quirky musicals. Color, 114 minutes, Not Rated.

6 responses to “Li’l Abner (1959)

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