Getting the Sunday funnies in the newspaper was one of the highlights of the week when I was a kid. I don’t know that I even really read the comic strips that much, I was just fascinated by the drawings. I wasn’t the only one fascinated by them, many classic comic characters became American icons over the years. Many consider one of the greatest strips of all time to be Al Capp’s Li’l Abner. It ran in papers from 1934 to 1977 and was filled with biting satire and amazing artistry. If you ever had a Sadie Hawkins dance at your middle school or high school, well that’s because of Li’l Abner (Sadie Hawkins Day originated in the strip). The strip inspired a Broadway musical, toys, an amusement park, and, of course, movies…the first of which, simply called Li’l Abner, was released in 1940.
Our story takes place in Dogpatch, where the towering Li’l Abner Yokum (Granville Owen…later known as Jeff York) lives a simple life with his Mammy (Mona Ray) and Pappy (Johnnie Morris). Life would be perfect, in fact, if he didn’t have to always fend off the lovely Daisy Mae (Martha O’Driscoll), who has been trying to get Abner to marry her for years. Little does Abner realize the trouble he’s in for when he eats a sandwich that doesn’t agree with him and ends up with a huge stomach ache. Having heard that a Dr. Barbour is arriving at the train station, he seeks him out for a diagnosis. At the station, he ends up meeting a barber (like the hair cutting kind) instead who teases Abner by giving him only a day to live. Abner, not knowing any better, takes it seriously.
Abner now decides to agree to marry Daisy Mae, figuring that it’ll make her happy and he won’t live to see the wedding anyway. He also decides that Mammy and Pappy will need some money so they are provided for in his absence. So, he decides to go after a wanted criminal named Earthquake McGoon. After all, the reward is $25 which will more than provide for Mammy and Pappy for the rest of their lives.
Abner ends up nabbing McGoon easily, but has trouble trying to escape from the nasty townsfolk of Skunk Holler. He ends up getting help from Wendy Wilecat (Kay Sutton), who is supposed to marry McGoon. She agrees to help Abner if he’ll marry her instead. Figuring he’s gonna be dead tomorrow, he agrees. Of course, Abner wakes up alive and well the next day and now has two women laying claim to him. The only way to work this out is for Daisy Mae and Wendy to each try to chase down Abner during the annual Sadie Hawkins Day race where single ladies try to catch a husband.
I was pleasantly surprised by Li’l Abner. It’s not a big production by any stretch of the imagination, but it manages to keep much of the spirit and humor of Capp’s still young comic strip intact. The script has some genuinely funny situations that caused me to laugh out loud several times. Mona Ray and Johnnie Morris as Mammy and Pappy prove to be especially skilled comedically. The scene where Mammy gives the whining Pappy his spring bath is one of the best moments. Those with a keen eye will spot a number of other classic comics in small roles, including Doodles Weaver of Spike Jones’ City Slickers, former Our Gang kid Mickey Daniels, and the great stone face himself Buster Keaton in the slightly un-PC role of the indian Lonesome Polecat.
Unfortunately, leading man Jeff York, though he certainly looks the part, is a bit off as Abner. He seems to struggle a little bit with the exaggerated southern drawl that was a trademark of Capp’s characters. Martha O’Driscoll, on the other hand, makes a wonderful Daisy Mae.
I was quite impressed with the way the filmmakers took care to try and recreate the look of some of Capp’s drawings. This is particularly apparent in the characters of Mammy and Pappy. Both Mona Ray and Johnnie Morris were somewhat diminutive in size, as were the characters they play in Capp’s comic. Add to it that both performers wear prosthetic chins and noses to give them the unique facial structure of Capp’s drawings. These are relatively simple makeup appliances, but they are quite effective and seem a cut above what I would expect from a B film of this era.
Li’l Abner is a film that can be found all over the internet, having resided in the public domain for some time now. Another film inspired by the citizens of Dogpatch, this time based on the stage musical, was released in 1959. Personally, I would love to see Li’l Abner brought back to the screen in some way. A few years ago, I had thought that John C. Reilly could’ve made a great Abner with Heather Graham as his Daisy Mae. I think both may be a bit too old for the parts now. Regardless, Al Capp’s classic characters are worthy of rediscovery. There may not be anything spectacular about this first Li’l Abner film, but it manages to be clever, funny and more than a little entertaining.