Friday, November 1, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #61: "Li'l Abner" (1940)

Movies based on comics are nothing new, as proven by this 1940 adaptation of Al Capp's Li'l Abner.

The flick: Li'l Abner (RKO release of a Vogue Productions film, 1940; re-released by Astor Pictures, 1947) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.0

Director: Albert S. Rogell (The Admiral Was a Lady)

Actors of note:
  • Jeff York (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Old Yeller, The Asphalt Jungle, much more)
  • Martha O'Driscoll (The Lady Eve, House of Dracula; married a wealthy heir to an industrial empire and retired young)
  • Mona Ray (not much, honestly, but did appear in 1927 version of Uncle Tom's Cabin)
  • Johnnie Morris (Barbary Coast, Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day)
  • Mickey Daniels (It Happened One Night; The Great Ziegfeld)
  • Billie Seward (Jane Eyre)
  • Kay Sutton (Sargeant York, The Bank Dick)
  • Charles A. Post (silent comedy actor of the 1910s-1920s and production manager for a string of mostly-forgotten "B"-westerns from the 1930s)

Jeff York as hillbilly extraordinaire Li'l Abner Yokum.
The gist of it: The most eligible bachelor in the impoverished hillbilly community of Dogpatch is strong, handsome, and extremely dim-witted farmboy Li'l Abner (York), the only son of the tough-as-nails Mammy Yokum (Ray) and the overly-sensitive, henpecked Pappy Yokum (Morris). Chief among Abner's romantic pursuers is pretty blonde Daisy Mae Scraggs (O'Driscoll), who has been trying to rope our hero into marriage for years without success. Abner thinks getting married is the first step towards getting old and dying, so he wants to avoid it.

Daisy's Cousin Delightful (Seward) visits Dogpatch and says she'll teach Daisy some of her romantic "techniques," but ends up trying to seduce Abner herself. Luckily, Abner's utter stupidity drives her away. Abner then gets a case of indigestion from eating a truly disgusting sandwich and goes in search of a medical professional named Dr. Barber. What he finds, though, is an actual hair-cutting barber (Catlett) who jokingly diagnoses him with "scrombosis" and tells him he has only 24 hours to live.

Abner takes this very literally. He agrees to marry Daisy Mae at noon the next day, knowing he'll be dead before the ceremony. Thinking of his family's future, Abner also goes to the rival community of Skunk Holler to capture an ornery outlaw called Earthquake McGoon (Post) and collect the $25 reward. But the folks of Skunk Holler almost lynch him in the process, and he needs the help of a sexy brunette named Wendy Wilecat (Sutton) to escape. He agrees to marry Wendy the next day, too, still figuring he's got mere hours to live. Abner wakes up the next day and realizes that he isn't dead and is still engaged to two women! Wendy and Daisy both claim the young bachelor, so the town's mayor (Conklin) declares that the dispute will be settled on Sadie Hawkins Day, an annual event in Dogpatch during which the women of the town can marry any bachelors they can catch. It all culminates in a chaotic cross-town race that plays out a lot like the running of the bulls in Pamplona.

Daisy Mae, the Shmoo, and Abner
do their bit for Uncle Sam
My take: Al Capp's satirical, rural-based comic strip Li'l Abner is, quite simply, one of the major pop cultural touchstones of the 20th century. For decades, its influence was felt across the board, with imitators in all forms of entertainment, including film, television, and live theater. Capp introduced words like "druthers" and "irregardless" to the English language, and high schools across the country still have Sadie Hawkins dances, even though the teenagers attending such events no longer know who Sadie Hawkins is. Even their parents may have forgotten by now. Debuting in 1934, Li'l Abner won the country's heart with its wild tales of Dogpatch, Lower Slobbovia, Fearless Fosdick, Lena the Hyena, the Shmoo, and more.

Sadly, apart from occasional revivals of the 1956 Li'l Abner stage musical, the landmark comic strip is mostly forgotten today, perhaps because of the way it ended. Capp's politics grew increasingly conservative over the decades, and Li'l Abner became a vehicle for his controversial, divisive viewpoints during the turbulent years of the 1960s and '70s. The cartoonist became a hero to those on the right and a scourge to those on the left. Meanwhile, his strip faded in popularity, became irrelevant and outdated, and finally sputtered out in 1977 after an astonishing 43-year run. Capp himself died two years later.

The first time I ever heard the man's name was on Albert Brooks' stand-up album, Comedy Minus One (1973). In a routine called "Memoirs of an Opening Act," Brooks tells some harrowing anecdotes about his life as a touring comedian. He knew he was in serious trouble at one college gig in the South, because the institution had recently played host to Al Capp. At the time, Capp was about as far away ideologically from Albert Brooks as one could get.

Al Capp
Al Capp's ultimate legacy is the considerable influence he had over a generation of writers and artists who were weaned on Li'l Abner. During the strip's heyday, the famed cartoonist managed to squeeze every last penny out of his creation, both through merchandise (oh, how many products there were featuring the Shmoo!) and adaptations to other media. The first of several attempts to transfer the Li'l Abner comic strip to the big screen was this rather cheap-looking and clumsy film from 1940.

If you have seen or heard of a movie called Li'l Abner, it is probably the well-regarded 1959 Technicolor musical, which still pops up from time to time on cable. The public domain film I'm reviewing today is not a musical, although it does have a newly-composed (and insidiously catchy) theme song. Unfortunately, the 1940 film is a bit of a misfire. If you are looking for an entrance point to the world of Li'l Abner, please look elsewhere. There are some excellent reprint volumes of the comic strips, several of which are probably available at your local library right now. Try there instead.

If you squint—hard—you can sort of see what the makers of this movie were attempting to do. Laden with goofy wigs, ugly facial prostheses, and weirdly-proportioned costumes, the actors in the Li'l Abner movie are trying to look and act as much like their ink-and-paper counterparts as possible. The script, too, tries to replicate Capp's exaggerated, faux-hillbilly dialogue, and the plot is choppy and episodic, with the jerky, start-and-stop rhythm of a daily newspaper comic. Even the opening credit sequence features literal comic panels to remind viewers of the source material. (Shades of Ang Lee's ill-fated Hulk, which attempted something similar.) Director Albert S. Rogell wants this movie to be like the funny pages brought to life on the big screen.

Unfortunately, the effect of all this is that the characters look grotesque and sound unnatural. Honestly, I didn't want to spend an entire movie in Dogpatch with these misshapen yokels spouting inane pseudo-rural gibberish.

The movie isn't bad from a technical standpoint, and the actors are giving it all they've got. At first, Jeff York seems a little too bland and understated as Abner, but eventually he gets into the swing of things. He's never terribly charismatic or engrossing, but he's acceptable. The real problem is that virtually all the humor in the movie falls flat, and none of the movie's several potential storylines go anywhere of great interest. Li'l Abner's depiction of rural life now comes off as patronizing rather than playful and condescending rather than cute. In all, this film serves as a grim reminder that what works in the comics does not necessarily work on the movie screen.

Mammy and Pappy Yokum brought hideously to life.
Is it funny: Unfortunately, no. Most of the cornpone comedy of Li'l Abner is painful to endure. It's like some cruel bastard has taken a particularly weak episode of Hee Haw and padded it to feature length by having the performers cycle through the same tired routines several times, and there are no musical numbers to relieve the tedium or even provide variety.

Abner's stubborn stupidity quickly becomes tiresome, and he's such a jerk that it's difficult to believe the women of Dogpatch are throwing themselves at his feet (sometimes literally). Mona Ray and Johnnie Morris come as close to looking and acting like Mammy and Pappy Yokum as two human beings could, but their antics (including a very lengthy scene in which Mammy bathes Pappy in the front yard) did not raise so much as a chuckle out of me. Even reliable performers like Buster Keaton and Doodles Weaver are utterly stranded here.

If there is one sequence that sort of works, it occurs between Jeff York as Abner and the invaluable Edgar Kennedy as a local yokel named Cornelius Cornpone. (All the characters in the movie have names like that, imported directly from the comic strip.) Waking from a nap in the forest, Abner mistakenly believes that he has died of "scrombosis" and gone to his reward. Surveying the landscape, he is amazed that Heaven looks so much his hometown of Dogpatch. He then encounters Cornelius, who has been hunting and has a dead bird slung over his shoulder, and mistakes the man for a winged angel. Cornelius is utterly bewildered by all of this and thinks Abner has gone crazy. The highlight of this scene (and the movie's single best gag) arrives when Abner tries to test out his own flying powers by jumping off a cliff. Jeff York really commits to this bit, and the look of idiotic bliss on Abner's face is something to see. This scene hints at the sharper, funnier movie Li'l Abner could have been.

My grade: C-

Buster Keaton (right) as Lonesome Polecat.
P.S. - As you've probably guessed, the movie is chockablock with unflattering hillbilly stereotypes (the men of Dogpatch detest bathing, for instance), and the script has a rather nasty misogynist streak, too, with women depicted as scheming, evil creatures who want to enslave men. But the character who will make you cringe more than any other is an Indian named Lonesome Polecat, played by a humiliated Buster Keaton in what I hope was a career low. Yes, Buster did an Indian-themed short film (1922's The Paleface), but that script was affectionate and sympathetic towards its Native American characters.... for the most part, anyway. Lonesome Polecat, though, is just a lazy, cowardly, incompetent buffoon who speaks in that phony "me like-um heap firewater" dialect, as did so many Hollywood "Injuns" of yesteryear. In this movie, Polecat is depicted as being such a loser that he can't even get the desperate women of Dogpatch to marry him. Ouch.