“The Andy Griffith Show” is one of the all-time great television programs. Though, as loveable as Griffith’s Andy Taylor character was, it’s arguable that he was not the highlight of the program. Many fans would give that honor to Barney Fife himself, the one and only Don Knotts. He was a truly talented comedic performer who won five Emmy awards for his work in Mayberry. He’ll probably always be better known for his television work, but he did make a few excursions onto the big screen. Today’s film is one of several he made for Universal, 1971’s “How to Frame a Figg.”
Knotts plays Hollis Figg, one of several accountants who work for the city of Dalton…also known as the Universal Studios backlot. City hall is the famous “Back to the Future” clock tower. Hollis is a good man and he enjoys a pretty good life. He goes bowling with his buddy Prentiss (Frank Welker), the sanitation worker, and eats every meal he can at a local diner. Of course, that has nothing to do with the food and everything to do with his crush on waitress Ema Letha Kusic (Elaine Joyce).
Things are going great for Hollis. But, one day, a secret meeting goes on between several city officials, including the mayor (Edward Andrews), a local councilman (Joe Flynn), and the man who owns half of town, Charley Spalding (Parker Fennelly). It seems they have been skimming money from the city and need to cover their tracks. Their plan involves getting rid of all the accountants, except for the dumbest. That would be Hollis. The others are replaced with a computer called LEO. All Hollis needs to do is enter numbers and LEO does the rest.
The plan seems foolproof, until, and completely by accident, Hollis discovers discrepancies in the budget for a road project while going through the garbage with Prentiss. This leaves the mayor with no choice but to promote Hollis to a cushy 3rd floor office job where all he has to do is sign requisitions. They give him a new car and a curvy secretary, Glorianna (Yvonne Craig), who can get him to sign anything. Now, the plan has shifted to pinning the city officials’ crimes on poor Hollis.
Ema Letha immediately becomes jealous of Glorianna, which leads to an argument with Hollis. She even succeeds in getting Hollis drunk and snapping some pics of him with her in her apartment. Don’t get the wrong idea here, campers…this is 1971 and the flick is rated “G.” A short time later, the evil secretary falsely testifies against Figg in a meeting with the city council, making him a wanted man. Now, Hollis, Prentiss, and Ema Letha set out to prove his innocence. They begin to raid the garbage so they can gather enough evidence, and enter it into LEO to show who is really to blame.
“How to Frame a Figg” feels more like a television production than a feature film. It’s confined to backlot sets and uses several actors known for their TV work. That TV feel is understandable considering it was directed by Alan Rifkin who spent much of his career directing shows like “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Get Smart,” M*A*S*H,” and, of course, “The Andy Griffith Show.” It’s very clean-cut and family friendly, with only one or two mildly suggestive moments. The film isn’t what I’d call hilarious, but it is quite funny. It’s very much in the style of a 60’s Disney comedy.
The great comedic skills of Don Knotts is really what makes the film work. His facial expressions and mannerisms have a basis in the techniques of the classic silent film comedians. There’s also a lot of Barney Fife in Hollis Figg. Like Barney he’s self-important and over-confident, but you can’t help but love the guy. There’s nothing complex about the comedic situations the filmmakers put Knotts in….he gets his fingers stuck in a bowling ball, he wrestles with a computer spitting out punch cards…but Don Knotts has the skill to make them very funny.
Another welcome presence in the film is Batgirl herself, the lovely Yvonne Craig. Though her screen time is a bit limited, she does make a fun villainess. However, there’s not really enough of her in the film. She appears when the character is needed, does her part to frame Hollis, and then disappears. We’re never really shown her plotting with the city officials, and she’s not around when Hollis gets his revenge on them. She was too good of a character to just let her vanish from the story like that.
“How to Frame a Figg” isn’t a laugh riot, but it is good clean fun. A fine example of one of the greatest television performers of all time turning in a fun performance on the big screen.