The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Due next: Rent

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Li'l Abner

December 11, 1959   Paramount  114 minutes

In his often marvelous series of books on the Bway musical, Ethan Mordden devotes an entire chapter to Li’l Abner--as a defining example of Golden Age musical comedy, the topical satire as integrated song, dance and story. Al Capp’s cartoon strip is now fading into the fog of history, but it was once a cultural institution. Born in the Depression as a sort of FDR-era Doonesbury of the Sticks, the series transcended the funny papers to broach Mark Twain territory. Inevitably it was catnip to Bway. Various hands were set to work on it: Alan Jay Lerner, on leave from Loewe, paired with Arthur Schwartz--then Burton Lane. Does any of this sound like a good match of talent to material? In any case, Lerner went off to finish My Fair Lady, and Gene de Paul who had impressed Hlwd with his score for the rural, robust, 7 Brides for 7 Brothers, got the job. It didn’t hurt that his lyricist for both was Johnny Mercer—whose ease around Southern colloquialisms, and sly wit were good credentials for the adapter of Al Capp’s hillbilly argot. But the show’s true auteur was Michael Kidd, joining the ranks of DeMille & Robbins as Bway’s preeminent stagers, and in this case, producer as well—along with authors Norman Panama & Melvin Frank. The Hlwd writers, making their sole foray onto Bway, were studio hyphenates of longstanding (Knock on Wood, The Court Jester, That Certain Feeling), so it was a given they’d transfer their own hit to the screen. The result is one of the decade’s closer duplications of a musical as it was seen on Bway—in itself a joy—but at the cost of a cinematic identity. Pajama Game and Damn Yankees also adhered close to their origins, with most of their Bway casts intact, yet they still had (thanks to Stanley Donen) a fluid sense of movie-musical knowhow. Despite Panama & Frank’s pic experience, theirs is a very stagebound affair. Frank directed (presumably Kidd was busy staging Destry Rides Again; his Bway staging is duplicated by dance-captain, Dee Dee Wood.) But the direction is geared to an absent audience; the numbers all end in tableaux, holding for (non-existent) applause. Paramount was never a studio known for its musicals.

But then you don’t want the Minnelli touch or R&H location-realism on Li’l Abner. You want a cartoon setting—and the film delivers; the clapboard shanties, the camel-hump hills; the Kentucky pine forests in bright blue and copper red. Only the distracting cement floors in this Appalachian backwater seem poorly considered. But they provide an obvious stage for the dancers—a little too obvious; the show’s choreographic centerpiece, the Sadie Hawkins Ballet, suffers from too literal a stage transfer. It’s still fun tho; in the comic signature of Michael Kidd who really was the most cartoony of all dance directors. Here he keeps the company jerkin’ & jumpin’ in poses only seen in the funny papers. There’s one brilliant section that couldn’t have been done on stage: a silhouette of dancers against a flaming sunset chasing each other in one endless line across a distant hill. No less watchable is a hoe-down of a number called “(Don’t That Take the) Rag Offen the Bush,” whose orchestral track became a fixture in my youth. It seems I was destined to have the soundtrack, tho I had special-ordered the Original Cast album thru Wallach’s Music City (You had to, for back-catalog records in Canoga Park in the ‘60s.) The second time it shipped in error, I took the soundtrack in consolation, which as it turned out became one of my most played records. It has a sort of hit-parade feel in its song progression—like an Adler & Ross show. (Now don’t you think it might very well have been their next assignment if Ross hadn’t died?) But most of all I was entranced by an extended section of dance music (likely by Genevieve Pitot—conducted by the great Nelson Riddle) that follows “Rag Offen the Bush”—as jolly a number as any 12 year old could hope for to prance around his bedroom with shameless abandon. I also grew fond of “Otherwise,” a ballad dropped before Bway, but resurrected for the movie. I find it a far better song than the bland “Love in a Home.” In later years I came to have even higher regard for “Namely You,” a sadly neglected ballad (likely due to site specific lyrics) but such a seductive melody, with a release of breathtaking flight. I adore, adore, adore it, as Eloise might say. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t give it justice; the tempos are all wrong; it lands with no impact. You can’t really hear what a good tune it is. Nearly all the songs are abridged in the film. It’s a tab version of the musical—and with good reason. On Bway the show was a full evening with more satiric scenes, four additional numbers, and several reprises. But the low-brow nature of the material dictated a slimmer, faster, popcorn movie; certainly not a Roadshow event with intermission and glossy programs. No, this was more suitable for a cameo by Jerry Lewis—playing, well,  Jerry Lewis—which even in Dogpatch takes the prize for Village Idiot.

Cutting the songs, “Necessary Town,” “Oh Happy Day” “Love in a Home” and “Progress is the Root of All Evil,” was letting loose the chaff. But sometimes the trimming goes a bit too deep. Take, “If I Had My Druthers,” a soothing front-porch reverie for male voices, a very Hoagy Carmichael sort of tune. It gets one quick verse and it's over before we even register it. Even the delightful opening number—which skillfully introduces the characters and their ids—dispenses with lesser townsfolk in the movie. It starts off literally with a bang: gunshots, squealing geese, and a codger expelled from a quivering cabin, kicked to the street in his drawers. “It’s a Typical Day. . . in Dogpatch USA,” he sings and we’re off thru the credits before completing the song with our meet & greet of the major players, ending with Abner rising up above his miniature parents like a shining tower of manliness. Did Peter Palmer have the worst agent in town? How else to explain his subsequent career to nowhere? The man can sing, he plays comedy or sincerity equally well, and his chiseled looks should have landed him Superman in at least one configuration. But aside from Abner, he wasn’t back on Bway for 15 years, and then in support of a post-Dolly Carol Channing resurrecting Lorelei Lee in 1973. Both in face and physique Palmer was the ideal embodiment of Capp’s hero—a dark beauty with almost lurid features (in the way of Jane Russell or Linda Darnell). But you sure can’t accuse the filmmakers of exploiting the sex so obviously dripping in the subtext. Palmer doesn’t even take his shirt off in the whole movie. The boys-only swimming hole where Abner voices his “…Druthers” should have the boys stripped down to their skivvies at very least if not bare assed. The women here are sexualized in the manner of the times: all tits and lips. But the costumes are more harmless than prurient. Let’s put it this way: Frank & Panama sure don’t have Josh Logan’s eye. Still here’s one show that hires a six-pack of bodybuilders just to stand around flexing in panties—their character’s names sewn on their buttocks. On Bway Edie Adams played Daisy Mae, but she was now Mrs. Ernie Kovacs and Hlwd subbed her with starlet Leslie Parrish (whose career would peak as Laurence Harvey’s virginal girlfriend in Manchurian Candidate.) One suspects, or hopes, that Edie brought a bit more humor or Star presence to the role on Bway—she did, after all, chose it over Cunegonde in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide--and won a Tony for it, too. Also MIA from the Bway cast are Charlotte Rae and Tina Louise, both of whom would find their greatest fame on TV sitcoms; The Facts of Life and Gilligan’s Island. Louise’s Appassionatta Von Climax—a part so untaxing, it could be played by any producer’s mistress of minimal talent—was given to another Hlwd starlet, Stella Stevens—who lives up to the role. Mammy Yokum is played by Rae’s Bway replacement, Billie Worth—perhaps the film’s most exaggerated character, especially when dancing in her knee-length girdle-skirt and red-striped stockings (hard  to imagine Charlotte Rae making quite these moves.) Pappy is Bway veteran, Joe E. Marks, who it seems had but two roles in his career, this and as Smee to Cyril Ritchard’s Capt. Hook in Jerome Robbins’ Peter Pan. As Marryin’ Sam, Stubby Kaye recreates his second iconic Bway role on the screen. He ably leads the cast in the big production number “Jubilation T. Cornpone,” but I enjoy him most in the swinging duet with Daisy Mae: “I’m Past My Prime” (another song in the Frank Loesser style—his influence much greater than I’d realized), with some merry Mercer lyrics:
               I ask you, who’s elated
               When you’s Methuselated
               Like a mummy underground?
               When you is antiquated,
               Boys ain’t enchantiquated
               They prefers you in the round.

I’m a sucker for tall, bodacious dancers of the female persuasion—especially raven-haired beauties that step with supreme confidence. Such a gal is Carmen Alvarez, seen here as Moonbeam McSwine in what is alas, her sole recorded performance. A real Bway baby, Carmen came to Li’l Abner fresh from the chorus of Pajama Game. She would move on to shadowing Chita Rivera in both West Side Story and Bye Bye Birdie.; graduating to playing Anita on Bway. She understudied, then replaced, the incomparable Barbara Harris in The Apple Tree (which speaks a good deal of how her talent matured.) Later she originated the role of the Widow in Kander & Ebb’s Zorba;, played a nun in Jule Styne’s flop tuner of Lilies of the Field ; then supported Debbie Reynolds in Irene—her final stint on Bway. She also recorded numerous vocal tracks for Ben Bagley’s Revisited series, which altogether makes her that rara avis: the cult chorus cutie. O Sister Where Art Thou?
The Abner ensemble had a few more budding vines; such as Donna Douglas, who would build a career playing hillbilly sexpots (see Beverly Hillbillies); Beth Howald, who much later originated Amy in Sondheim’s Company. And there’s Valerie Harper, too—but not, alas, as Tobacco Rhoda (one of many Capp characters left out of the show). Also on hand, and from the original company is Hope Holiday—a uniquely voiced kewpie doll who Billy Wilder soon picked to play the pickup, Margie MacDougall in The Apartment. The above quartet are among the featured wives of scrawny Dogpatchers sent to Washington to be tested on Mammy Yokum’s steroidal tonic, Yokumberry, which turns them all into muscle men—but kills their libidos.  Even here the sex is all shine, no sizzle. The wives’ lament: “Put ‘em Back (the way they were)” should be an 11 o’clock rouser, and it has much energy but it’s really an outrageously pedestrian tune—and should have been replaced out of town. In the male corps the standout is Tony Mordente (fresh from Bway’s West Side Story—where he met and married Chita Rivera—and later appeared in the film, unlike his wife.) Here he’s a comely backwoods Italian featured in all the dance numbers. 

And then there’s Julie Newmar. The Swedish Amazon doesn’t utter a sound in the entire movie, but strikes a few poses and freezes men in their tracks. Tho she was actually a ballerina, fresh from the Bway ensemble of Silk Stockings, she built an image of Stupefyin’ Jones that carried over to represent her for a lifetime. She later toured in musicals, Damn Yankees, Irma La Douce and Stop the World-I Want to Get Off; appeared in dozens of TV shows, most famously as the first Catwoman on the Batman series; and became a cult icon long before the cult film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything-Julie Newmar (1995). Beautiful and exceptionally smart, she wanted most to be funny—and was at the time of the film’s release playing opposite Charles Boyer and Claudette Colbert on Bway in The Marriage-Go-Round—and winning a Tony Award for her performance. When Encores! revived Abner in the late ‘90s, the sixty-something Newmar was by sheer virtue of longevity even more Stupefyin’. In the early ‘80s I wrote a surefire Oscar winning part for her as a NY cabbie in an early screenplay attempt; a romantic comedy called American Express. She wasn’t the lead, but one of those dynamite Dianne Wiest sidebars that make careers. If not that, my goal in those years was “to be the toast of the town, and be seen out & about with Julie Newmar.” I’m just telling you.

Another of my earliest cinema memories, I saw this not in Hollywood, but at some local San Fernando Valley bijou. My parents were still young then and actually went out to an occasional movie, with me in tow. From the moment they knew they could hypnotize me by planting me in front a screen, they never shied away from taking me to adult films that caught their fancy: Never on Sunday, The Apartment, The Guns of Navarone, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Nun’s Story (the one that gave me nightmares). I can’t imagine what drew them to Li’l Abner—nor can I vouch for their experience of this hillbilly hootenanny, but I, of course got it completely. I was 7 years old, and learning the language of musical comedy.

Yet 1959 had fewer screen musicals released than any year since sound came in. Clive Hirschorn lists only 11 movies that could be stretched to that label, a sharp decline from the 36 released in 1953. Despite the success of Gigi the previous year, the Hlwd musical was  virtually extinct; all but conceded to product from Bway (or built around pop musical personalities such as Elvis, Frankie & Annette, The Rat Pack etc.) Still, ’59 had brought forth only Porgy & Bess until Abner opened on December 11th. Playing on Bway at the time were five musicals headed for Hlwd—two of them destined to win the Oscar for Best Picture—and a third nominated for same. Current sellouts were Gypsy, Take Me Along, Fiorello! and two by R&H: Flower Drum Song, and their latest “sentimental confection,” The Sound of Music.  Bway was alive with exciting, varied, musical plays written by artists at the height of their powers. In the ten years since Hlwd began filming the canon of Golden Age Bway musicals the evolution of respect for the original stage material is illustrated in Li’l Abner. Compare it to the “improvements” forced upon On the Town.
When it premiered at the Roxy, few knew that Li’l Abner would be the last musical to  ever open there. In another dozen weeks the famed theater—once New York’s grandest film palace—shuttered forever and was quickly demolished for the Americana—which when it opened in 1962 was the tallest hotel in the world. A photograph taken of Gloria Swanson standing in the great building’s rubble later served as thematic inspiration to Harold Prince for Sondheim’s Follies. New York and musical theater builds itself on archeological ruins. Abner was a happy, if not spectacular earner for Paramount; making $3,200,000 in rentals, coming in at 16th for the year 1960. But the stolid, stage-heavy style of the movie dated faster than Eisenhower in the sixties.

Next Up: Can Can 

Report Card:    Li’l Abner
Overall Film:    B--
Bway Fidelity:  B   mostly cutting, little added
Songs from Bway:   10 
Songs Cut from Bway:  4
New Songs:  1  cut from Bway
Standout Numbers:  “Rag Offen the Bush”
               “I’m Past My Prime”
               “It’s a Typical Day”
Casting:   Cartoony
Standout Cast:   Peter Palmer, Stubby Kaye
               Carmen Alvarez, Julie Newmar
Cast from Bway:  All but..
Cast from Hlwd: Leslie Parrish, Stella Stevens
Direction:  Stage copied, uncinematic
Choreography:  Kidd by blueprint
Ballet:   B+  Sadie Hawkins Ballet
               B+  Rag Offen the Bush
Scenic Design:  Dogpatch in Technicolor
Costumes:  Subtle if viewed from the balcony
Standout Set:  Outside the Yokum cabin
               Washington D.C. ballroom
Titles:  Placards in mid-song (“Typical Day”)
Oscar Noms:  1: scoring

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