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. The residents are asked to find a new home, but the community comes together to fight the eviction. While all this is happening, a dimwitted young woman, Daisy Mae (Leslie Parrish, Sex and the Single Girl), tries to come up with a plan to marry her longtime sweetheart, the superbulky but lazy hillbilly, Li’l Abner (Peter Palmer, Edward Scissorhands), who has no intentions of tying the knot.

Reaction & Thoughts:

Zippy, bubbly adaptation of the 1956 Broadway hit, which was in turn based on the popular comic strip by Al Capp. Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, the team responsible for comedian Danny Kaye’s hits The Court Jester and Knock on Wood, created the musical and were given carte blanche to adapt their stage show for the silver screen. Although Li’l Abner looks like one broad silly joke, the movie touches upon many serious issues — Panama and Frank hilariously satirize everything from gender roles and D.C. politics to American nativism.

Li’l Abner is literally a cartoon coming to life, a sort of cross between Dr. Seuss and Pee-wee’s Playhouse. It’s over the top, absurd to the nth degree. It’s ridiculously stagebound too — the entire film was shoot inside soundstages using stylized costumes & sets. 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 musical, the songs (music by Gene De Paul, lyrics by Johnny Mercer) and the choreography (Michael Kidd) 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 are pretty good too. “Don’t That Take the Rag Off of the Bush” reminded me of the barn sequence in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), which was also choreographed by Kidd.

Contrary to Hollywood tradition, 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) plays gold digger Appassionata Von Climax and Julie Newmar (Catwoman in TV’s Batman) plays bombshell Stupefyin’ Jones. A very, very famous comedian makes a funny cameo appearance (I’m not naming the person because 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 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 (e.g. The King and I, Oklahoma!, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees!). I thought it was smart, enjoyable and very entertaining. I recommend it to fans of Hollywood musicals. BTW, Al Capp’s comic strip had been adapted earlier as a low-budget comedy in 1940. Color, 114 minutes, Not Rated.

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6 responses to “Li’l Abner (1959)

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