The Li’l Abner Day Thread (4/9)

For those unfamiliar, Li’l Abner was a comic strip back when comic strips were basically primetime TV. The strip made Al Capp a legitimate pop culture celebrity. In the past, I’ve compared it to the Simpsons of its day: wildly popular, full of subversive humor that lampoons everyone, and a hit with counterculture types.

This thread isn’t dedicated to the comic strip, though, as much as it is to the 1959 film adaptation of the hit stage musical (which for the most part uses the same performers). If you want to get a good idea of what made the comic strip tick, look no further than the movie. On it’s surface it’s lampooning primarily the poor-as-dirt citizens of Dogpatch —- like our heroes Daisy Mae and Li’l Abner —— those who have a worshipful reverence of a Confederate statue, have backward practices like a Sadie Hawkins race where if a woman catch a man they get to marry ‘em, and freely give things to the government because they inherently trust in the integrity of the US of A. (I assume he was following the lead of The Golden Arrow.)

But them poor fools are at least sympathetic. (And in a fun twist, that Confederate General Jubilation T. Cornpone turns out to be a hero to the Union because he was such a screw up that he won battles for the other side.) The song “The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands” is not to be taken at face value. The government they love, for example, plans to drop an atom bomb on the city (as part of a nuclear test) because according to all metrics it is the least “necessary” city in the country. Then there’s General Bullmoose, a man who equates capitalism to patriotism as a front for his real childhood dream of having all the money in the world. By the way, his attractive secretary is named Appassionata Von Climax. So….

The sets and costumes are bright and cartoony, incredibly fake but with a fun and campy sense of style that heightens the satire. They also have great names, like Earthquake McGoon, Marryin’ Sam, Evil Eye Fleagle, Senator Jack S. Phogbound (the phonetic pronunciation of the first name and middle initial is 100% intentional), and Stupefying Jones. The latter is a science experiment whose sole purpose is to stop men in their tracks. She is played by future Catwoman Julie Newmar.

Oh, and Jerry Lewis makes a cameo.

So yeah, this is a pretty sexy movie too, with the ladies of Dogpatch, save Abner’s Mammy, being super attractive and the men other than Abner being ugly and dumpy. And yet… this movie is somewhat equal opportunity as a late twist turns th men into bodybuilders wearing tiny briefs.

So if you thought perhaps cynicism directed toward the government started with the Cuban Missile Crisis and Dr. Strangelove, it’s interesting to see such criticism rearing it’s head in the 1950’s. Then again, Al Capp was often ahead of his time.