Li'l Abner in Hollywood

by Mark Evanier

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED in LI'L ABNER, Volume 25, Kitchen Sink Press

One night, well into the Broadway run of Li'l Abner, Peter Palmer and Stubby Kaye hurried off-stage after a particularly rousing rendition of "The Country's in the Very Best of Hands."  As they hit the wings, Kaye, who played Marryin' Sam, turned to Palmer, who had the title role.  "You notice who's sitting in the second row, center?" the stubby one asked.

"No," Palmer admitted.  But he knew it had to be someone important: Second row, center was the location of the producers' house seats, in which were seated, the important guests and visiting dignitaries.

"Take a look," Stubby smiled ominously.  Then he disappeared into his dressing room to fortify himself with candy bars for his next scene.

Minutes later, back on-stage, Palmer managed a discrete peek at the second row and was chilled to recognize a famous face taking in the show.  It was Rock Hudson.  Though Peter Palmer was a newcomer to the Broadway scene, he knew exactly what it probably meant: Rock Hudson was going to play Li'l Abner in the movie.

Then as now, the roster of Broadway hits was awash with actors who'd created great roles on stage, then been displaced by "movie stars" when the motion picture was made.  Stubby Kaye had witnessed the process first hand.  Although he had been summoned to Hollywood to recreate his Broadway role of Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Guys n' Dolls, the play's two original stars — Robert Alda and Sam Levene — had been replaced by Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra.

A movie version of Li'l Abner had been probable from the inception of the stage play.  Paramount Pictures had financed the production, knowing that if it flopped on Broadway, it might still make a successful movie.  A 1955 item in the New York Times said, "Li'l Abner…which has been earmarked for Broadway by a succession of producers over the past nine years, now seems destined not only for the stage but the screen as well."  The article went on to explain how the writer-producer-director team of Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, along with choreographer Michael Kidd, would be staging the production.  "When and if Paramount decides to film the musical, Panama and Frank will adapt, direct and produce."  (To be more specific, Panama produced, Frank directed and they collaborated on the screenplay.)

"We always knew they'd make it into a movie," Frank explained.  "We just didn't know when.  In doing the show though, we had to put the idea of a movie out of our minds."

Once Abner opened at the St. James Theater in New York and was established as a hit, Panama and Frank returned home to Hollywood, and to other projects for Paramount.  Every few months, one or both would fly east to check on the production.

As the show neared its first anniversary at the St. James Theater, Panama, Frank and Kidd had to attend to a couple of cast replacements.  Most of the players, signed initially to one-year contracts, wanted to stay.  But Edie Adams (Daisy Mae) had never been fully comfortable in her role, nor had Tina Louise (Appassionata Von Climax) nor Charlotte Rae (Mammy Yokum) in theirs.  New cast members had to be found.

Wynne Miller — niece of famed bandleader Glenn Miller — had a background in early television and had made her Broadway debut in 1956 in By Hex.  She auditioned for and won the role of Daisy Mae.  Dee Dee Wood, who was a dancer, understudy and assistant choreographer, assumed the role of Appassionata.  And the producers knew precisely whom they wanted to fill Mammy's striped stockings.

Panama, Frank and Kidd had first seen Billie Hayes while they were initially casting Li'l Abner. She had stopped the show in Leonard Sillman's off-Broadway revue, New Faces of 1956, receiving rave reviews and more than a few offers to move uptown.  The Abner producers had wanted her initially to portray the matriarch of the Yokum clan but Sillman (understandably) refused to release her from her contract.  Now, with Charlotte Rae's contract coming to an end, they were delighted to discover that Hayes was at liberty, and she was quickly signed.  It is rare for a replacement performer to distinguish themselves in a Broadway show but Billie Hayes managed this uncommon feat.  (Wynne Miller also drew acclaim, winning herself a Theatre World award.)

Abner closed on Broadway on July 12, 1958 after 693 performances.  Most of the closing cast appeared in a touring company that opened at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas on September 1, 1958, and closed at the Royal Alexandra in Toronto on January 3, 1959.  At about the same time, Paramount gave Panama and Frank the go-ahead to start on the movie.

"I'm sure we'd all put the movie out of our minds," Billie Hayes recalls.  "We were all on to other projects and if I thought about the movie at all, I figured they'd do it with all new actors.  Was I surprised when I got the call."

Panama and Frank had persuaded the Paramount execs to at least test the principals from the Broadway cast.  "Our position was that Abner was the star, not any actor they might cast in the role," Panama later recalled.

Edie Adams and Charlotte Rae were both ruled out from the start.  Not only had both been unenchanted with their roles on Broadway, but both were pregnant at the time casting commenced for the movie.  Tina Louise was also disinterested in continuing as Appassionata Von Climax.

Arrangements were made for Peter Palmer, Wynne Miller, Bern Hoffman (who played Earthquake McGoon) and Billie Hayes to be flown to Hollywood for screen tests.  At the same time, Stubby Kaye, Howard St. John and Julie Newmar were pencilled in to recreate their roles of Marryin' Sam, General Bullmoose and Stupefyin' Jones.  All had appeared before in movies so no tests were deemed necessary.

"They put us up at the old Hollywood Knickerbocker," Hayes recalls.  "We did the tests right there on the Paramount lot."  Most of the first day was spent with the Academy Award winning make-up artist Wally Westmore devising a suitable face for Mammy Yokum.  "My stage make-up was much broader," Hayes explains.  "Most of the art direction was toned down for the movie."

After a full day in the make-up chair, Billie joined Palmer and Hoffman that evening at a local nightclub.  "We were there about an hour when I suddenly started feeling warm — too warm.  I said, 'I'm burning up' and I ran out of the club.  Peter and Bern followed me out and said, 'Billie, your face is all red and swollen.'  It turned out I was allergic to the spirit gum they'd been applying to my face all day."  The condition was quickly treated and the make-up department thereafter used other adhesives to apply Mammy Yokum's bulbous nose and chin.

Tests were shot and the actors returned to New York to await the verdict.  Shortly after, agents called to say that Palmer, Hayes and Hoffman had made the cut.  Later, other veterans of the stage production were summoned: Joe E. Marks, Bern Hoffman, Al Nesor, William Lanteau, Ted Thurston, Carmen Alvarez, and Stanley Simmond.

But one important member of the Broadway company was most conspicuous in his absence.  Michael Kidd's direction and choreography had drawn raves (and a Tony award) but he absented himself from the film, refusing even to set foot on the set.  "It was a contractual dispute," Panama said, adding that his respect for Kidd and his work remained unblemished.

To maintain as much of Kidd's acclaimed dancework as possible, one of his assistants — Dee Dee Wood — was engaged to stage the musical numbers.  Many of the dancers from Broadway were also hired, including Bonnie Evans, Maureen Hopkins, Robert Karl and Hope Holiday.  (Observant viewers will also notice among the Dogpatch wives, two situation comedy stars of the future — Valerie Harper, best known from The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda, and Beth Howland, later of TV's Alice.)

Wood was dedicated to capturing Kidd's work on screen.  Much of the staging — especially in the Sadie Hawkins Day ballet — was opened up to make use of the larger playing area and changes of setting.  But as much as possible, she insisted on tailoring Kidd's steps, rather than substituting her own, prompting many (polite) arguments with Frank.  From all reports, she was wildly successful.  Dance is one of the most unpreservable of arts unless it is filmed, and Dee Dee Wood's excellent adaptation allows most of Kidd's fine work to be viewed by subsequent generations.

More roles had to be filled.  Cast as Daisy Mae was a model-turned-actress named Marjorie Hellen who, at the suggestion of Panama and Frank, changed her name to Leslie Parrish.  Ms. Hellen/Parrish had made her film debut in another film featuring Johnny Mercer's work, Daddy Long Legs, and had played small roles in several other films before a Paramount casting director recommended her to test for Li'l Abner — one of fifty actresses tested, if one believes the film's press kit.  A former Conover model, she had worked for RCA as "Miss Color Television" before being discovered for films.

Stella Stevens, a recent Playboy centerfold, was selected to play Appassionata Von Climax.  Stevens had made her film debut only months before in Frank Tashlin's Say One For Me and would go on to become a leading actress of the sixties.

Behind the motley beard of Romeo Scragg was one of Hollywood's most familiar character faces.  Robert Strauss usually played gangster types, although he had distinguished himself in the film version of Stalag 17, wherein he and Harvey Lembeck recreated their acclaimed Broadway performances.

Two other interesting casting notes: Accorded one line as a Dogpatch maiden was a young actress named Donna Douglas.  She would later gain fame as Elly Mae Clampett in the hit TV series, The Beverly Hillbillies, which Al Capp was known to claim as a bad Abner knock-off.

And according to the press kit, "The pig that plays Salomey was flown from New Jersey after Al Capp's insistence that he didn't want a Hollywood ham in the role."  (It is not known if they made the pig do a screen test…)

Paramount's front office was not pleased that the film featured no established movie stars.  As a slight concession, Frank prevailed on a friend — the studio's biggest comedy star — to perform a cameo role.  The role selected for Jerry Lewis was that of the guinea pig on whom is demonstrated, the uncanny "stupefyin'" powers of the comely Stupefyin' Jones.  The star was then busy shooting Don't Give Up the Ship on an adjoining stage but he said he would do the cameo if he could show up, perform and leave without his time being wasted.  He also insisted that his name not be used in advertising, to which Panama and Frank agreed, apparently hoping that Paramount brass could later persuade Lewis to waive the "no billing" condition.

The day his scene came up, Lewis was summoned at the appropriate time.  "He came over, got into the costume, did the scene a couple of times, and was back on his own set in thirty minutes," Frank told a reporter.  That interview may have been a cagey way to alert the world that Jerry Lewis was in Li'l Abner, since Lewis never did agree to be billed, and his name appears nowhere in the official press materials for the film.  His photograph, however, appears more prominently than any other player but for Palmer and Parrish.

(Lewis later loitered on the Li'l Abner set long enough to become taken with Stella Stevens.  Four years later, he cast her as his leading lady in his classic film, The Nutty Professor.)

Li'l Abner was filmed in VistaVision, a wide-screen process that enjoyed limited success in the fifties, as movie studios attempted to compete with television by offering scope.  Depending on the aspect ratio of the screen, a VistaVision film might be shown at a ratio ranging from 2:1 to 1.66:1.  Since the Director of Photography had to compose for the latter ratio, the film does not suffer greatly when viewed on today's TV screens, which have a frame ration of 1.33:1.

Another key decision was to film the entirety of the movie inside a sound stage, even though most of the action, at least in and around Dogpatch, took place outdoors.  "Indoors, we could control the entire art direction, right down to how trees and sky looked," Frank commented at the time.  "The stylization was important to putting Al Capp's world up there on the screen."

Production had to commence quickly to meet a Christmas release date.  Fortunately, with so much adaptable from what had been done for the stage — including costume designs, some set designs and musical arrangements — Panama and Frank were able to speed through pre-production.

Johnny Mercer rewrote a number of lyrics for the movie.  For example, on Broadway, Marryin' Sam had introduced himself in the opening song thusly:

You're no friend to Marryin' Sam
If your name is Sir or Madame
But if you're a bachelor
Pick up your satchel or
I'll have you pushin' a pram

This was changed to:

I is known as Marryin' Sam
Which is fine, 'cause that's who I am
I figgers it's vital
To change a gal's title
To Mrs. or even Madame

Most of the changes in the film involve cutting within scenes and songs to bring the play down to a running time of 113 minutes.  About half of "If I Had My Druthers" was excised, including a reprise for Daisy Mae.  A song called "Unnecessary Town" was truncated from Broadway to screenplay, and finally eliminated altogether in the final edit.

Two scenes of the guinea pigs (including Abner) being tested in Washington were cut, involving the elimination of "Oh, Happy Day," a bitingly satiric song in which Dr. Finsdale and three colleagues sing of the glory of medical science becoming able to create perfect human beings.  (Another musical change came about in the scene where Daisy Mae visits Abner before the party celebrating his engagement to Appassionata.  In the play version, Abner sings, "Otherwise," to a photo of Daisy, just before she enters in person.  The movie switches the song to Daisy Mae, who sings it directly to Abner before saying good-bye to him before the party, and also cuts a reprise they sing to each other in the scientists' lab when Abner learns she is promised to Earthquake McGoon.)

Two other songs — "Love in a Home" and "Progress is the Root of All Evil" — were dropped and Stubby Kaye's closing "Matrimonial Stomp" lost several verses and its mid-section of recitative lyrics.  Throughout, numerous scenes were tightened, eliminating sections such as the following exchange that sounds not unlike Al Capp humor.  Dogpatch residents are attempting to find something to convince Dr. Rasmussen T. Finsdale that their scruffy town is necessary and Marryin' Sam rushes up with a homemade device right out of Rube Goldberg…


How about this genuine Dogpatch alarm clock?


How does it work?


You sets the clock.  When the alarm rings and you reaches a hand to shut it off, a gopher comes outta this little hole and bites yo' wrist.  As you reaches fo' a stick to whomp him, you rubs against this little button, this hand comes down and bashes you on the head, puttin' you back to sleep!


But if you go back to sleep, you're late for work; if you're late for work you lose your job; you lose your job you're unemployed; you're unemployed the government's got to support you.


You gets the idea.

Shortly after, Available Jones demonstrates the awesome stupefyin' powers of Julie Newmar.  On Broadway, when Dr. Finsdale asked of what use might her powers be, Available answered, "She'd be invaluable to college football.  She could stop Harvard on the one yard line."

To which Dr. Finsdale replied, "Who couldn't?"  (In the film, Available says she could make Elvis Presley stand still, and Dr. Finsdale replies, "But I like him the way he is.")

Cuts and alterations such as these appear all throughout the film, and have also sometimes been incorporated into subsequent stage productions.  Basically though, the film stands as one of the most faithful transfers ever made from stage to screen, hearkening back to the earliest sound features.  Often, like the Marx Brothers' first two films, they were Broadway shows that were hauled before a camera, trimmed, and photographed.  It is a triumph of the material and the performances that the film does not suffer from claustrophobia; that the soundstage depiction of Dogpatch does not detract from the reality of the Yokums' world.

One curious remnant of the stage is the amazing on-again/off-again marriages of Moonbeam McSwine and the main female residents of Dogpatch.  In Scene 24, Moonbeam and several women volunteer their scrawny husbands to be taken to Washington for the research project.  Then, in Scene 33, the Sadie Hawkins Day Race, Moonbeam and the others — clearly identifiable in the same costumes — catch and marry new eligible bachelors.  Then, in Scene 61, they are in Washington, pleading for the scientists to put their once-scrawny husbands back the way they wuz.  It is not uncommon for actors in musicals to double and triple in different roles — and indeed, on Broadway — many cast members alternately played Dogpatch residents, scientists, Bullmoose staffers and high society patrons.  It was odd though to see the same performers used in this manner in a motion picture, which could easily have hired different dancers.

The Paramount promotion machine revved into high gear for the release of Li'l Abner at 400 theaters, just in time for Christmas of 1959.  Included in the campaign were the release of the film's soundtrack album and, from Ballantine Books, The World of Li'l Abner, a collection of Capp's strips.  Five thousand newspaper editors and journalists were entered, apparently against their will, in a national sweepstakes with a first (and only) prize of a roast suckling pig dinner for ten at New York's famed restaurant, "21."  McCall's patterns offered the "Dogpatch Look" in department and specialty stores across the country.

Not only were all the stars extensively interviewed in the press but Panama and Frank themselves took an active role in the merchandising: "We began with a premise that turned out to be a showman's dream — Al Capp's famous cartoon strip," Panama explained to Variety. "We wrote the book with a target of showmanly casting; we provided our promotion departments with material that could be incorporated into ads and national magazine layouts."

As with the Broadway show, the number one selling point in those magazine layouts was the shapely image of Julie Newmar.  Without uttering a word or singing a note in a musical comedy, she once again ran away with the proceedings, at least in the hearts of many red-blooded American males.  Following her role on stage in Abner, Ms. Newmar had won a Tony for her performance in The Marriage Go-Round, but it was her awesome presence as Stupefyin' Jones that pegged her for film and TV stardom, including the title role on My Living Doll and the unforgettable Catwoman on the Batman TV series.  (Billie Hayes was another cast member discovered for television as a result of her Abner exposure.  Producers Sid and Marty Krofft selected her to star in several of their hit TV shows, including H.R. Pufnstuf, for which she created the memorable role of Witchiepoo.)

Paramount's editing department worked around the clock to make the release schedule.  The end result lived up to the review that ran in the Hollywood Reporter: "They'll be comin' round the mountain in droves to see Panama and Frank's Li'l Abner. The film can mean just one thing for the exhibitor.  Namely, profit."  The review went on to say, "At its worst, it is full of the obvious funnypaper antics that the spectator who lacks much sense of humor knows he is supposed to laugh at.  At its best, it is filled with soaringly witty political satire…probably the best intellectual musical comedy fun since Of Thee I Sing."

Time Magazine had reservations but concurred with the financial prognosis: "Li'l Abner, the Hollywood version of the Broadway version of Al Capp's comic strip, is a great big overblown pink-walled synthetic reCapp.  Like all Capp, it is Rabelais for the retarded, but it will probably carry an impressive bundle to the bank."

Reviews for the cast were uniformly good.  Ruth Waterbury, writing for the Los Angeles Examiner, omitted all mention of the newspaper strip (carried in the rival L.A. Times) but said, "…if anybody wants to give me Peter Palmer for Christmas, I'll grab.  Big, broad, young Mr. Palmer…well, by gosh, the boy must be a natural actor, for he does the impossible; he plays a big dope in a manner that makes you adore him."

There is no record of Capp's reaction to it all, though he was known to have been pleased with the Broadway version, and to have profited heavily from both.  Said Palmer, "The movie captured most of the show pretty well.  Put it this way — if you loved the movie, you'd really have loved the show."

Billie Hayes is more effusive: "It was an honor to play the role on stage and an honor to play it on the screen."

Whereas the original Broadway production can never again be seen, the movie is available constantly on television, and has done brisk sales in home video.  It stands as a splendid example of the brilliant characters of Al Capp, brought to life lovingly and with most of their comic strip quirkiness rightfully intact.  Melvin Frank said, as they were embarking on the Broadway phase of it all, "Our main goal is to do something worthy of Capp's wonderful strip."  Many of us think they made it, just fine.