Caitlin Manning explores her cartoonist grandfather's experiences in 'The Life and Times of Al Capp and Li’l Abner' (working title).

Manning’s ‘Al Capp’ Sketches Grandpa

Michael Fox November 10, 2010

Making a documentary about a relative is a delicate proposition, to say the least. From the perspective of preserving family harmony, if that were a priority, it probably helps if the subject is dead. Fine, let’s say they’re dead—and famous. Now you’re fighting over their legacy and privacy and maybe, just maybe, the money that a film might generate. Caitlin Manning, deep in the throes of The Life and Times of Al Capp and Li’l Abner (working title), a documentary about her cartoonist grandfather, is fortunate enough not to have that headache. Her only concerns are story structure and a surfeit of material. Only, indeed.

“The story is very complicated, and my producer and I feel we need to refocus the story,” Manning explained. “We have the strip itself, which is 40 years of a major American popular culture phenomenon. Then there’s the story of Al Capp, my grandfather, a person who began in the 1930s with progressive leanings and then became a right-winger in the '60s. For me, being a radical person, how did this happen? What’s that about? He became pro-Nixon and anti-student. That’s my personal framework for this piece.”

“Li’l Abner,” for the young ‘uns in the crowd, was a syndicated, satiric comic strip that ran in hundreds of newspapers from 1934 to 1977. Capp deployed the title character, a naïve, unskilled but virtuous resident of backwoods Dogpatch, to expose and mock the foibles of America’s citizens and politicians alike. The strip was so popular that in 1952, when Li’l Abner married his long-time pursuer, Daisy Mae, it was front-page news. Meanwhile, the innovative Capp integrated actual current events into the strip, decades before “Doonesbury.”

Manning explained that while the strip provides a terrifically rich visual resource, presenting Capp’s lengthy and complex storylines is a challenge she hasn’t quite cracked. (Consider the speed and ease with which a filmmaker can coherently show a lot of work by a single-panel cartoonist, and you see Manning’s problem.]

“We’ve been working with different forms of animation,” she related. “It’s expensive, and it doesn’t capture the quality of the comic strip. The animations make it cheesy. ‘Li’l Abner’ was so brilliant and so popular because in the background these dark, cynical stories come out. It’s been hard to re-mediate the strip into something visual.”

“Li’l Abner” spanned the Depression, World War II, the Blacklist, the Cold War, and Vietnam, and a film could be made that weaves the threads of the strip with the currents of history. But there’s also the biography of Alfred G. Caplin, who was born into a poor family of Jewish immigrants in 1909 and lost a leg in a trolley accident when he was nine. It’s clear where Capp’s cynicism and sensitivity to injustice originated.

“He was one of the first cartoonists who fought the syndicate for the copyright [to his work],” Manning said. “He was savvy enough and powerful enough to get the copyright. The family [now] owns the rights, so we can reproduce all this stuff without having to spend a bunch of money asking permission for it.”

Capp sounds like a tough cookie who thought--and fought--for himself, and that kind of unpatriotic American tended to attract the attention of J. Edgar Hoover.
“Last week I went through the FBI files and found he was investigated for a couple of strips, which I had always suspected but had never had confirmation of,” Manning confided. “Because of things he had said, I felt there was pressure. When I got the FBI file, it was all there.”

But there’s also that weird, unexplained adoption of conservative positions during the Nixon era. “The last decade of his life he became a caricature, a Glenn Beck type of person,” Manning said. “So people don’t claim him” as a model and an influence.

There are exceptions, and Manning has taped interviews with Maus man Art Spiegelman, Seinfeld writer Larry Charles and famed physician and author Oliver Sacks.

At the moment, Manning and her producer are kneading and massaging their rough cut of The Life and Times of Al Capp and Li’l Abner, and rewriting the voice-over. They’ve been in talks with PBS’s American Masters series, which has expressed tentative interest with a possible airdate in the spring of 2011.

“I’m not going to do a hagiography,” declared Manning, who is also Associate Professor of Cinema at California State University, Monterey Bay. “I’m not going to ignore all his darkness. I’m not going to ignore that he was a bastard.” She laughed, then got serious again. ”In some ways, my sense of being critical and wanting to be different, I partly learned that from him. But he became against rebels like me.”

Notes from the Underground
Francis Ford Coppola is currently shooting the ghostly thriller Twixt Now and Sunrise in Napa with Val Kilmer, Bruce Dern and Elle Fanning. … Sally Rubin and Jen Gilomen’s Deep Down, fresh from this month’s Cinema By the Bay fest, premieres November 23 on PBS’ Independent Lens. … Serge Bakalian is posting his half-hour documentary, Default, about the exploitation of student borrowers, on Vimeo for free on Nov 26 and 27 only.

  • Nov 3, 2011

    Essential SF: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

    With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.

  • Nov 2, 2011

    Essential SF: Susan Gerhard

    Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.

  • Nov 1, 2011

    Essential SF: Joshua Grannell

    Since its first event in 1998, Midnight Mass has become an SF institution, and Peaches Christ, well, she's its peerless warden and cult leader.

  • Oct 31, 2011

    Essential SF: Karen Larsen

    Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

  • Oct 28, 2011

    Joshua Moore, on Location

    Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’

  • Oct 26, 2011

    Essential SF: Canyon Cinema

    For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.

  • Oct 24, 2011

    Signs of the Times

    Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.

  • Oct 21, 2011

    In Orbit with ‘An Injury to One’

    Accompanied by a program of solar system shorts, Travis Wilkerson’s 2003 look at ruthless union-busting and the rise and fall of Butte, Montana, offers eerie resonance.