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In the opening credits, the phrase "Adapted from the Stage Production" precedes the credits of Lehman Engel, Philip J. Lang and Genevieve Pitot. "And Jubilation T. Cornpone" is listed at the end of the cast credits, although the "character" appears only as a statue prominently displayed in Dogpatch's central meeting area. As reported by contemporary news items, when producers Norman Panama and Melvin Frank purchased the rights to Al Capp's popular comic strip in August 1955, it was with the intention of turning the property into a Broadway musical first and then a film. [According to a modern source, Alan Jay Lerner and Richard Rodgers had earlier, separately, obtained the stage rights to the comic strip for brief periods of time.] As noted by a September 30, 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item, Paramount made a pre-production deal for the film rights to the proposed musical in a deal "said to involve over $300,000." Paramount then largely underwrote the production costs of the highly successful, long-running stage version.
According to a October 9, 1955 New York Times article, if the musical was eventually produced as a film, Panama and Frank, composers Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul and choreographer-director Michael Kidd would adapt it for the screen on "a profit participation basis with Al Capp sharing in the deal." Kidd dropped out of the planned film version, however, due to "other commitments," according to a May 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item. His assistant, Dee Dee Woods, choreographed the movie, based on Kidd's original staging.
According to an March 8, 1956 item in Hollywood Reporter's "Rambling Reporter" column, Panama and Frank and their partners originally wanted to cast Andy Griffith as "Li'l Abner" in both the stage and movie versions. As noted by contemporary news items and reviews of the film, Peter Palmer made first his Broadway debut and then his motion picture debut with Li'l Abner. According to a studio press release, Panama and Frank cast the young singer, a former football star who was then in the army, after seeing his appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Although he appeared frequently on television, Palmer did not appear in another feature film until the 1987 Trans World Entertainment production Deep Space. Valerie Harper, who appears in Li'l Abner as one of the hillbilly wives, also worked primarily on television, notably as the title character in the show Rhoda, and did not again appear in a feature film until the 1974 Warner Bros. picture Freebie and the Bean.
Along with Palmer, the majority of the cast from the Broadway show reprised their roles for Li'l Abner. The major exceptions were "Daisy Mae," which was played onstage by Edie Adams, who won a Tony Award for the part; "Appassionata Von Climax," played by Tina Louise; and "Mammy Yokum," played by Charlotte Rae, although Billie Hayes did appear as Mammy in the second year of the Broadway production, as well as with the touring company before appearing in the film.
As reported by Hollywood Reporter news items, Panama and Frank wanted Adams, the wife of television comedian Ernie Kovacs, to reprise her role for the film, but she could not due to pregnancy. Other actresses considered for the part were Shirley MacLaine, Wynne Miller, who played the role on Broadway after Adams left, and Jeanne Carmen. Leslie Parrish, who won the role of Daisy Mae, had previously appeared in numerous films under her real name, Marjorie Hellen. Li'l Abner was the first picture in which she appeared under the name of Parrish. Madlyn Rhue and Anita Ekberg were considered for "Appassionata Von Climax," for which Stella Stevens was borrowed from Twentieth Century-Fox.
The song "I Wish It Could Be Otherwise" was the only song that did not appear in the Broadway show; according to a Paramount press release, the song was written for the show but was dropped after the initial tryout in Washington, D.C. Although the picture is set mostly outdoors in rural areas, it was filmed on Paramount sound stages on highly stylized, cartoon-like sets.
According to a July 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item, the producers intended to insert a joke into the film version Li'l Abner about the scandal-plagued novel Lolita, which was then being planned as a motion picture. The intended dialogue was to be about a twelve-year-old character named "Lolita," whom "Marryin' Sam" was hoping to marry off after her divorce became final. According to information in the film's file in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the PCA strongly objected to the gag, and in the released film, although there is a young girl about whom Marryin' Sam speculates, her age is not specified and she is called "Louella." The PCA office also urged the producers to reconsider the name Appassionata Von Climax, saying that it was in "very bad taste." The film received a "B," or objectionable in part, rating from the National Catholic Legion of Decency, which Paramount protested but could not overturn.
According to a February 1960 entry in Hollywood Reporter's "Rambling Reporter" column, the filmmakers were preparing four different versions of the picture for "various markets," with adjustments in the humor for different areas. The item explained that English audiences had not understood the joke about the Sears, Roebuck catalog that was kept in the outhouse, and so it was to be eliminated and replaced with "something British." No other information about alternate versions has been found, however.
The film, which received mostly glowing reviews, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture; a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture-Musical; and a Grammy for Best Soundtrack Album. The soundtrack was a bestseller and was even released in an improvisational jazz version by noted jazz drummer Shelly Manne, composer-pianist Andr Previn and bassist Leroy Vinnegar. 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.
Capp's fanciful, often satiric comic strip was the genesis for "Sadie Hawkins Day." Concocted by "Hekzebiah Hawkins," a resident of the fictional town of Dogpatch, Sadie Hawkins Day was first "held" on November 15, 1937 as a way for his homely daughter to catch a husband. Due to his readers' enthusiasm for the event, Capp continued the tradition of the Sadie Hawkins Day race every year, although in 1952, Daisy Mae finally caught and married Li'l Abner. The holiday quickly became part of American culture and some colleges and high schools still hold Sadie Hawkins Dances, to which young women invite their male partners. Capp's comic was so popular that Li'l Abner's marriage to Daisy Mae was used as a cover story for Life magazine. The first film based on Capp's comic was released by RKO in 1940. Also entitled Li'l Abner, the non-musical picture was directed by Albert S. Rogell and starred Granville Owen as Li'l Abner and Martha O'Driscoll as Daisy Mae (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40). In 1971, NBC broadcast a one-hour television show based on the comic, directed by Gordon Wiles and starring Ray Young and Nancee Parkinson.