“The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands”

The 1959 film version of Li’l Abner was one of the closest screen recreations of a Broadway musical I’ve ever seen. Using much of the Broadway cast, the film starred Peter Palmer and Leslie Parrish as Abner Yokum and Daisy Mae, based on the popular Al Capp comic strip. Many characters and elements of the comic strip made it into the musical – Daisy Mae always chasing after Abner, characters with names like Appassionata von Climax and Moonbeam McSwine. The strip/show/film is set in the backwoods town of Dogpatch, USA with its dimwitted but endearing citizens. It’s deemed the ‘most unnecessary town’ in America and the federal government decides to turn it into a nuclear testing site – until it’s discovered that Mammy Yokum’s potion that she gives to Abner turns all men tall, strong and handsome. The original production opened in 1956 with Palmer and Edie Adams (who won a Tony and couldn’t do the film because she was pregnant) and ran 693 performances at the St. James, winning a second Tony for Michael Kidd‘s choreography which included the Sadie Hawkins’ Ballet that closed the first act.

Paramount went as so far as to give the film a stage look with flats in lieu of realistic images. Shot entirely in the studio, it looks very much like a stage show. It’s dated and was last seen as an Encores entry in 1998 (with Julie Newmar recreating her Theatre World Award winning performance as bombshell Stupefyin’ Jones), but the score is remarkably pleasant with many winners. I was amazed how prescient the song “Oh Happy Day” was when I heard Tyne Daly sing it at Feinstein’s last February. But even more interesting to me is the timelessness of the satiric “The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands” in which Abner and Marryin’ Sam (Stubby Kaye recreating his stage role) talk about their impression of the nation’s leaders in Washington D.C. The lyrics are as timely as ever, for better or for worse, with a still-incisive satiric edge. The number been slightly abridged for the film, but it still packs some punch.