Li’l Abner Lost in Hollywood, by Michael H. Price
Sustained flashback to 1940, and to an early stage of confidence and high promise for Al Capp’s long-running comic strip, Li’l Abner. Conventional wisdom, bolstered by accounts from Capp his ownself, holds that the name Yokum is a combination of “yokel” and “hokum.” That would be Yokum, as in Abner Yokum and his rural Southern lineage.
Such an explanation also might seem to demean the resourceful gumption that Li’l Abner Yokum and his family represent. Capp established a deeper meaning for the name during a series of visits around 1965-1970 with comics historian George E. Turner and Yrs. Trly.
“There are many real-life Yokums around the South,” explained Capp. “Some spell the name like Abner’s, with variations including Yoakam and Yokom, and so forth. It’s phonetic Hebrew – that’s what it is, all right – and that’s what I was getting at with the name Yokum, more so than any attempt to sound hickish. That was a fortunate coincidence, of course, that the name should pack a backwoods connotation.
“But it’s a godly conceit, really, playing off a godly name – Joachim means “God’s determination,” something like that – that also happens to have a rustic ring to it,” Capp added. “When I came up with that ‘yokel-plus-hokum’ bit in some early interviews, I was steering clear of any such damned-fool intellectualism. It helps to keep things looking simple for the massed readership, when you’re trying to be subversive with a cartoon.” (One such “yokel/hokum” reference appears in an article on Capp’s success with Li’l Abner in the November 1942 issue of Coronet magazine.)
A.D. 1940 is a significant point, here, in that the year marked Abner’s first leap from the funnypapers onto the moving-picture screen.
Capp’s strip was beginning to hit its stride as a consistently inventive fusion of suspense and biting wit. Capp could not have arrived at this convergence of artistry and confidence in expectations of being insulted. He had known enough of that as a workhorse in the Associated Press’ cartoon stable, and as an assistant on Ham Fisher’s Joe Palooka. But in seeking prospects for Abner beyond a patch of daily-newspaper real estate, Capp neglected to reckon with the power of popular cinema to corrupt and trivialize a literary source.
As readership mounted for Capp’s imaginative twist on Voltaire – Abner Yokum conveys the determined innocence of Candide, ranging at large amidst intrigues and treachery – the feature inevitably attracted the attention of the motion-picture industry.
Hollywood had long since found the newspaper comic strips (Joe Palooka among them) to yield properties worth adapting. The movie that resulted from Capp’s inspiration, Albert S. Rogell’s Li’l Abner (1940), suggests that Capp and United Features Syndicate connected with the wrong company of screen artists. Prints that have survived from distribution by RKO-Radio, to more extensive circulation by tiny Astor Pictures, offer a revealing look – more confoozin’ than amoozin’, and often quite stupefying – at how Capp’s graceful command of one narrative form was knocked askew by those responsible for adapting it to another. The principal debit is an overall sacrifice of tension and a satiric edge to knockabout comedy.
“I liked the idea of a Li’l Abner movie,” Capp told Turner and me. “But that first attempt missed the point – all hokum, and no grasp of my attempts to commit satire.”
Capp’s misconnection with the movie business established a precedent that was echoed only four years later, when Columbia Pictures issued five unimaginatively literal cartoon shorts based upon the strip. A dozen years then passed before a dramatization more sharply attuned to Capp took shape: The bombastic Broadway production of Gene DePaul and Johnny Mercer’s duly satirical musical Li’l Abner opened in 1956 and found its way to the screen in 1959.
Al Rogell’s 1940 version, little known today though a mainstay of one-lung cable-teevee stations and off-brand video labels, is nonetheless of interest in view of its gathering of Old Hollywood character players and lapsed pioneers of picture-show comedy – to the exclusion of star-caliber players.
The absence of big-name leads is not so much a crippling factor (although that element must have worked against the film’s marquee prospects) as it is a giveaway that the production company, Vogue Pictures, approached the project with modest resources and an incomplete grasp of Capp’s rambunctious intellect. Capp’s participation in the marketing campaign nonetheless bespeaks keen expectations on his part; the publicity materials include drawings that Capp had keyed specifically to the film.
Failings aside, this Abner serves any number of intriguing functions – as a footnote to quite a few careers, as an outcropping of a craze for “hillbilly” photoplays, and as a commentary on how far Capp had come in ability to define a vivid milieu. The denizens of Dogpatch, U.S.A., and their surroundings seem faithful to Capp’s visual sense, but screenwriters Charles Kerr and Tyler Johnson scarcely bother to contrast the hill-folk caricatures with representatives of urban civilization – a crucial part of the strip’s makeup since its beginning in 1934.
The movie draws a helpful intensity from Abner’s (Granville Owen) conflicting fears of marriage and death. A redeeming element of menace is supplied by a rampaging Earthquake McGoon, as played by Charles A. Post, an exhibition wrestler who billed himself as Man Mountain Dean. (Post’s role amounts to gimmick-casting: Capp had based McGoon’s looks on Man Mountain Dean.)
Clashing romantic interests surface among leading lady Daisy Mae Scragg (Martha O’Driscoll), her manipulative Cousin Delightful (Billie Seward), and an aggressive nature-gal type named Wendy Wilecat (played with undue sophisticated refinement by Kay Sutton).
O’Driscoll, a former juvenile player en route to modest stardom, makes an appealingly vulnerable and determined Daisy Mae – practically a ringer for Capp’s drawings before the character developed a buxom aspect. Granville Owen, who in the same year impersonated Pat Ryan in a Columbia Pictures serial based upon Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates, looks the part of Abner and conveys the right mixture of genial vigor, indignation and (gulp!) apprehensive disorientation.
Some clever banter figures in a sequence where Abner praises Daisy Mae’s charms while pretending to insult her, and in a subsequent confrontation with a chronic annoyance named Abijah Gooch (Frank L. Wilder) – an embellishment upon a memorable set-piece from the strip’s earliest days. The dialect, however, is taken with overliteral directness from Capp’s “yo’”-means-“you” modifications of the language. This usage quickly becomes a tiresome distraction.
Few superficial liberties are taken with Capp; his proclamation-happy Mayor of Dogpatch, Prometheus McGurgle, is rechristened Mayor Gurgle for Chester Conklin’s enactment. But the pageant-like exposition and the costume-party looks of the performers signal an annoying departure from Capp’s greater substance.
Gone is the immersion in storytelling that the reader can take for granted in the published yarns. Only seldom does Rogell, a prolific low-budget director of Westerns and whodunnits, capture the urgency with which Capp kept his daily-paper readers wondering what would happen tomorrow. Rogell achieves a pleasing tension with a creepy sequence involving Abner’s lone-commando raid on hostile Skunk Hollow, or Holler. Likewise for Rogell’s pacing of a husband-capturing tournament, in which Abner’s plight is kept sharply in suspense via frequent cutting to other participants in the midst of a posse’s pursuit of badman Earthquake McGoon. Such moments of assured handling are obscured by an overabundance of inconsistently amusing slapstick.
One catalytic element for all that silliness is the approach of Sadie Hawkins Day, when Abner is at risk of being roped into marriage. This sequence borrows heavily from the 1939 comics-page version of the Sadie Hawkins Day race. Other plot propellants include a posted reward for McGoon, “daid or alive – better daid,” and the announced arrival of a doctor named Barbour.
When Abner develops a bellyache after devouring a “Yokum starvation preventer” – a sandwich that might give Dagwood Bumstead pause – he and Hannibal Hoops (Winstead “Doodles” Weaver, later to become a mainstay of Spike Jones’ Musical Depreciation Revue and, still later, an uncle of Sigourney Weaver) set out to consult the visiting Dr. Barbour. In an ineptly developed bit of confusion, Abner instead meets a barber (grouchy Walter Catlett), who takes advantage of the mountain boy’s confusion to make a mocking diagnosis.
“You’ve got Scrombosis,” declares the barber as he boards an outbound train.
“Will ah die?” Abner shouts.
“You’re dead now, from the neck up!” returns the barber.
“How soon will the rest of me be daid?” asks Abner.
“In 24 hours!”
Abner accepts this pronouncement of doom with relief: He can make known his affectionate feelings for Daisy Mae without risking marriage; he can capture the fugitive McGoon and leave Mammy and Pappy Yokum (Mona Ray and Johnnie Morris) secure with an “ee-normous” $25 reward; and he can repay a kindness done him by McGoon’s intended, Wendy Wilecat, by promising to marry her. The conflict between Daisy Mae and Wendy becomes patent just as Abner comprehends that he is not about to die. Mayor Gurgle declares Abner off-limits to all Sadie Hawkins Day contenders but Daisy Mae and Wendy.
While the situations and their pacing are hardly compelling, the film exercises a perverse fascination in several ways. Musical scoring is wildly inconsistent, ranging from clichéd (even back then) cues that might fare better in an animated cartoon, to instrumental “stings” applied in the manner of sound effects, to honestly effective mood-building passages. A peppy main-title song (credited in part to Milton Berle) is recapped in a minor mode at one foreboding moment and is retooled elsewhere as a string-band piece and as a bravura underpinning for chase footage. The juxtaposition of unremarkable stock music with Lud Gluskin’s original orchestrations is consistent with Rogell’s inconsistent direction.
Of more troubling unevenness is the failure to deploy eccentric makeups across the board – or to do away with them entirely. Mona Ray, a child player of the silent-screen era, was no stranger to an altered appearance, having portrayed a convincing Topsy in blackface for a 1927 filming of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Ray’s Mammy Yokum is sufficiently tough in attitude to render her makeup – an exaggerated nose and chin – beside the point. And yet Mammy’s counterpart, Daisy Mae’s Granny Scragg, appears without comparable physical exaggeration. Maude Eburne, a stocky matron-type best remembered for her fussbudget comic relief in 1933’s The Vampire Bat, supplies a satisfactory impersonation without looking anything like Capp’s drawings of Granny.
This visual non sequitur continues in the pairing of Hairless Joe (Bud Jamison) and his Indian cohort Lonesome Polecat (Buster Keaton, still game despite a pronounced lapse as a major-league comedy artist). Joe’s bushy countenance and bulbous schnozzola are pure Capp – except for the drawings’ suggestion of expressive facial mobility beneath all that hair. Polecat looks like Buster Keaton with long hair and a suntan.
Keaton’s role is hardly crucial, but the brilliant comic makes much of his few scenes, especially at points where Lonesome Polecat makes a raucous display of attempting to build a fire by primitive means, and where he and Hairless Joe are the only men trying to get nabbed in the Sadie Hawkins race. Keaton’s career had declined a decade earlier in a tangle of ill-suited movie assignments, marital woes, alcoholism, and deteriorating health. The Abner performance, seven years before Keaton’s rediscovery began in earnest, finds him capable of enlivening unchallenging material and foreshadows his contributions to a similarly slight cycle of “beach party” movies of the early 1960s.
There are other memorable faces. As Mayor Gurgle, Keystone Kops alumnus Chester Conklin is as blustery as when he had played second banana to Charles Chaplin. Edgar Kennedy, master of the slow-burn comic-reaction device and star of a run of domestic-farce short subjects, shares a funny interlude with Granville Owen in which Abner imagines himself “daid” and in heaven. Johnny Arthur, former silent-screen lead and whiny father-figure of the latter 1930s’ Our Gang shorts, plays a victim of Earthquake McGoon. Al “Fuzzy” St. John, another Keystone veteran who had retrenched as a grizzled sidekick in low-budget Westerns, takes a small turn. Lucien Littlefield, a familiar face behind a generally unfamiliar name, handles two distinct characterizations. And Mickey Daniels, another Our Gang alumnus, airs his trademark braying laughter in an incidental scene.
Given its ties with a hugely popular comic strip, the failure of Li’l Abner to register much of an impression in its year of release resists explanation. It is substantially more likable than the best-remembered picture of its countrified ilk from 1940, Harold Young’s schmaltzy and schizoid Dreaming Out Loud, a screen debut for the Lum & Abner (no kin to Yokum) radio act of Chester Lauck and Norris Goff. And this Li’l Abner lacks the tone of condescension that is held in common by many other backwoods gag-movies of 1940.
These films – the likes of Barnyard Follies, Comin’ ’Round the Mountain, Grand Ole Opry, Scatterbrain and Friendly Neighbors – may be forgiven their ham-handedness if only because they have no distinguished source-works against which they must be compared. The first filming of Li’l Abner, for all its good nature and many points of interest, fails Capp entirely.
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price’s Forgotten Horrors movie-lore books are available from Midnight Marquee Press at www.midmar.com. Price’s new-movie commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com.