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Al Capp's long-running hillbilly comic strip (1934-1977) is given the dee-luxe treatment in Paramount's musical comedy Li'l Abner (1959), produced by Norman Panama and directed by Melvin Frank.
This cornpone tale of simple mountain folk stars Peter Palmer as the muscular and handsome (but not exceptionally motivated) Abner Yokum, who resists the flirtations of the "sweet and well-proportioned" Daisy Mae (Leslie Parrish), while living under the care of his small yet feisty Mammy (Billie Hayes). Abner's leisurely life, free of responsibility and commitment, is threatened when the brawny Earthquake McGoon (Bern Hoffman) hatches a plan to steal Daisy Mae away from him. The plot, which involves the government's search for a new site to conduct nuclear bomb tests, becomes more complicated with every reel, until it resembles a Rube Goldberg contraption, bringing into the fray a host of other cartoonish characters, including ruthless capitalist General Bullmoose (Howard St. John); his seductive secretary Appassionata Von Climax (Stella Stevens); Stupefyin' Jones, a woman so beautiful she paralyzes any man who looks at her (Julie Newmar); and zoot-suited hypnotist Evil Eye Fleagle (Al Nesor). The conspiracies and counter-conspiracies culminate in the annual Sadie Hawkins Day race, when Dogpatch's unmarried maidens are allowed to chase and "nuptialize" their commitment-fearing beaus.
Prior to being made as a film, Li'l Abner earned its chops as a splashy Broadway musical. Directed by Michael Kidd, the stage version opened on November 15, 1956 at New York's St. James Theatre, and closed on July 12, 1958, after a whopping 693 performances. While most movies based on stage productions attempt to downplay their theatrical origins, the producers of Li'l Abner relished it. Rather than shoot the film on location or expand it with spectacular visual elements and camerawork, Panama and Frank preserved the artificial settings and maintained the sense of a proscenium dividing audience and performer.
At times resembling a vaudeville show, characters make self-conscious entrances, play to the camera (often looking into the lens), then exit toward the wings after performing their bits. Visually, the sets are designed to resemble a stage, with buildings comprised of two-dimensional flats, trees and cornstalks dyed in vivid hues, all arranged against obviously painted backdrops (the film was shot entirely indoors). Li'l Abner's visual eclecticism is further enhanced by Paramount's VistaVision widescreen process which, though not as panoramic as Fox's CinemaScope, endowed the film with greater sharpness and clarity by devoting more emulsion to each frame.
"Indoors, we could control the entire art direction, right down to how trees and sky looked," Frank explained, "The stylization was important to putting Al Capp's world up there on the screen." (quoted in "Li'l Abner in Hollywood," by Mark Evanier).
The blatant theatricality of Li'l Abner might at first seem like directorial laziness, but this hyper-artificiality and theatricality were calculated components of the film from the very beginning -- even before the Broadway musical was ever performed. In fact, Paramount purchased the rights to Capp's comic (in August, 1955, for more than $300,000) with the understanding that it would first be adapted to the stage, with Panama, Frank, and Michael Kidd producing. This unusual gambit was remarkably successful. A profitable two-year Broadway run allowed the performers and producers the luxury of refining the book and choreography over time, while generating greater audience interest in the 1959 film release.
During preparation of the play, the producers weren't even sure the project would ever reach the screen. Evanier quotes Frank as saying, "We always knew they'd make it into a movie. We just didn't know when. In doing the show though, we had to put the idea of a movie out of our minds."
Clearly inspired by the success of Stanley Donen's MGM musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Frank and Panama hired its songwriting team of Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul to compose the songs for the stage and screen versions. Co-producer Kidd also came from Seven Brides, having also choreographed such Broadway classics as Guys and Dolls (1950-53) and Can-Can (1953-55). Technically, he did not work on the film version of Li'l Abner due to a contractual dispute, but his dance numbers were faithfully recreated for the film, with the help of his assistant, Dee Dee Wood.
Abner was Peter Palmer's first screen role, and easily his most significant. Raised mostly in St. Louis, Missouri, Palmer studied chorus in high school. He later recalled, "with my six-foot-three, 250-pound frame, I became a hot football recruit for many of the major universities." He accepted an athletic scholarship at the University of Illinois, sometimes performing the National Anthem in full uniform prior to the game. After being drafted into the army, Palmer was one of the winners of the "All Army Entertainment Contest." It was while appearing with the winners on TV's The Ed Sullivan Show that Palmer was discovered.
"The producers/writers Mel Frank and Norm Panama...had been looking for an Abner for a few years, but no one satisfied what they thought were their needs," Palmer told the website BroadwayWorld.com, "They were about to settle on comedian Dick Shawn and had actually told Dick that he was about to be hired for the part...I was on The Ed Sullivan Show that weekend and the producers of Li'l Abner were watching another network promoting a movie that they had made with Bob Hope [That Certain Feeling, 1956] and during a commercial flipped over to Sullivan and there I was singing 'Granada'... A week later I auditioned, and four months later I was in rehearsal."
Most all the actors who appeared in the Broadway version of Li'l Abner reprised their roles in the film, with a few notable exceptions. As the film moved into production, Edie Adams (who won a Tony in 1957 for her performance as Daisy Mae) had become pregnant (with husband Ernie Kovacs) and could not very well be stitched into Daisy Mae's skin-tight costume.
She was replaced by Leslie Parrish. Palmer recalled, "One day they called me in to rehearse with a girl that they thought would work. It was, I believe her big break, her first film. She was so nervous and they asked me to take her into a room and see if I could calm her down. Whatever I said to her, what ever we worked out between us worked on the test and later in the film."
According to The Hollywood Reporter, the producers also considered Andy Griffith for the lead. Griffith was popular for his folksy comedy records, and in 1955 was starring on Broadway in No Time for Sergeants.
A lot of performers who appeared in the stage and screen versions of Li'l Abner went on to have successful sitcom careers. On stage, Bullmoose's seductive red-headed secretary was played by Tina Louise, who spent more than three years on a particular uncharted desert isle as bombshell Ginger Grant. On stage, the role of Mammy was played by Charlotte Rae, later of NBC's Diff'rent Strokes (1978-79) and The Facts of Life (1979-1986). Rae was also ruled out of the film because of pregnancy. For the film, Rae was replaced by Billie Hayes, who later became known as Witchiepoo in Sid & Marty Kroft's H.R. Pufnstuf (1969-70). Uncredited bit parts were played in the film by Valerie Harper (Rhoda, 1974-78) and Donna Douglas (Ellie Mae Clampett in The Beverly Hillbillies, 1962-71).
The influence of Li'l Abner on down-home comedy was profound. The Beverly Hillbillies is most obviously indebted to the film, with the characters of Jethro, Ellie Mae and Granny being carbon copies of Abner, Daisy Mae and Mammy. Granny's potent "rheumatiz Medicine" is a slightly reformulated version of Mammy's Yokumberry tonic. And the cardboard, color sets and musical variety format of Li'l Abner were recycled for more than two decades on Hee Haw (1969-93), as was the stereotype of the sexual yet naive mountain women, with ever-exposed cleavage.
One could surmise that Capp's comic was inspired by the popular radio comedians, Lum and Abner (1932-1954), whom many say were inspired by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll's blackface personas: Amos 'n' Andy (which began its nightly broadcasts in 1928). The influence of minstrelsy on Li'l Abner and all forms of country comedy are undeniable, if seldom discussed. The comical massacre of the English language, the stilted set-ups and punchlines, the periodic breaks for song-and-dance owe their origin to blackface minstrelsy. But by the 1930s, the musical comedy subgenre had become so distasteful to modern audiences that most of the performers wiped the burnt cork from their faces. Thereafter, the conventions of the entertainment form not only endured but flourished, with audiences quickly forgetting where all that hokum had come from.
Li'l Abner opened to a rave review from The New York Times. Bosley Crowther effused, "Michael Kidd's acrobatic dances, calculated to be done to the new-fashioned hillbilly music of Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul, explode with an energy that is stunning and splatter and splay all over the place with an evidence of joy and jubilation that even gets into the static viewer's bones. Indeed, there's one massive hoedown, done to 'Don't That Take the Rag Offen the Bush,' that had this congenital non-hoedowner twitching for several minutes after it was done."
Crowther also pointed out that alert eyes can spot Jerry Lewis on the screen, in an uncredited cameo as Itchy McRabbit.
The Hollywood Reporter wrote, "At its worst, it is full of the obvious funnypaper antics that the spectator who lacks much sense of humor knows he is supposed to laugh at. At its best, it is filled with soaringly witty political satire...probably the best intellectual musical comedy fun since Of Thee I Sing."
Time Magazine was not so generous, coldly dismissing the film as, "Rabelais for the retarded."
When Li'l Abner opened on December 11, 1959, at New York's Roxy Theatre, the exhibitor emphasized the film's vaudevillian flavor by preceding the screening with performances by a juggler (Francis Brunn), a dog act (Baudy's Greyhounds), and a team of tumblers (the Four Goetschis).
During awards season, Li'l Abner was a bridesmaid, never a bride. It received an Academy Award nomination for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture; a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture - Musical; and a Grammy nomination for Best Soundtrack Album.
The American Film Institute's Catalog of Feature Films reports that, "Although Panama and Frank had intended to mount other Broadway productions that would lead to films, according to contemporary news items, Li'l Abner was their only Broadway collaboration."
After Abner, Palmer found it difficult to shake the typecast of the muscle-bound bumpkin. "I could not get arrested on stage for films or TV." When asked by an MGM executive whether or not he could act and sing, Palmer responded, "What did you think I was doing?... I am really confused. I am all that Abner isn't. I wear shoes, I have a degree in music, I have three children with one on the way so obviously I like women and all that entails, so isn't that what I was supposed to be doing, act and sing as Li'l Abner?"
Palmer went on to make occasional TV and stage appearances, but was never given another opportunity of the scope and scale of Li'l Abner.
The idea of Sadie Hawkins Day, which continues to thrive as an American dating tradition, originated in Capp's comic strip. It began on November 13, 1937, when the comic introduced the idea of the annual race-for-a-husband. The tradition has morphed into an annual dance in which girls are encouraged to ask the boys for dates, and is commonly observed on the Saturday that follows November 9.
Director: Melvin Frank
Producer: Norman Panama
Screenplay: Melvin Frank and Norman PanamaBased on the comic strip by Al Capp
Cinematography: Daniel L. Fapp
Production design: J. McMillan Johnson and Hal Pereira
Music: Joseph J. Lilley and Nelson RiddleSongs by Gene de Paul (music) and Johnny Mercer (lyrics)
Cast: Peter Palmer (Li'l Abner Yokum), Leslie Parrish (Daisy Mae), Billie Hayes ("Mammy" Yokum), Stella Stevens (Appassionata Von Climax), Stubby Kaye (Marryin' Sam), Howard St. John (Gen. Bullmoose), Julie Newmar (Stupefyin' Jones), Bern Hoffman (Earthquake McGoon), Al Nesor (Evil Eye Fleagle), Joe E. Marks ("Pappy" Yokum).
by Bret Wood