When it comes to family friendly classic TV shows, they don’t come much more squeaky clean than The Andy Griffith Show. For me, the man who the series was named for was never the standout player on the show. That honor belonged to Don Knotts as Barney Fife. When Knotts achieved greater stardom thanks to the show, he began appearing in a number of comedy feature films, most of which were also on the family friendly side. However, the film we’re looking at today sees Knotts crossing into territory that wouldn’t play terribly well in Mayberry. Here he is in 1969’s The Love God?
The film begins with the trial of a man named Oswald Tremain (Edmond O’Brien), who is in trouble for violating laws regarding the sending of obscene materials through the mail. He publishes a magazine featuring pictures of nude women, including his wife Eleanor (Maureen Arthur) who often appears on the cover. Though Oswald beats the charges, he ends up with his 4th class mailing permit revoked. Later that day, Oswald happens upon a man named Abner Peacock (Knotts) who publishes a magazine, known as The Peacock, for bird watchers. Abner’s magazine is about $40,000 in debt, which is the perfect opportunity for Oswald to step in and transform the bird watching magazine into a skin magazine. After all, Abner still has a 4th class mailing permit. The changing of the magazine all happens without Abner’s knowledge while he’s off on an expedition to take pictures of exotic birds.
When Abner returns, he is put on trial on obscenity charges. Thanks to some high-priced lawyers, provided by Oswald, Abner beats the rap. So now, his magazine is in high-demand. This leads to Oswald borrowing money from a gangster (B.S. Pully) who wants to get into legit publishing, and hiring an innovative editor, Lisa LaMonica (Anne Francis). Now, Miss LaMonica’s big idea to make the magazine thrive is to turn timid Abner Peacock (now a celebrity due to the trial) into the face of the magazine. Basically, he becomes the magazine’s Hugh Hefner, with a bevy of beautiful women surrounding him night and day. Even Miss LaMonica pretends to be attracted to Abner to boost his ego. That is, until she really starts to fall for him, though Abner still loves his hometown sweetheart, Rose Ellen (Maggie Mancuso).
I’ve seen a number of other of Don Knotts’ comedies from the 60’s in recent years. Though they generally aren’t anything amazing, they are consistently charming and funny. I think The Love God? may be the best Knotts film I’ve seen thus far. It’s outlandish premise, Don Knotts as Hugh Hefner, is just plain irresistible. He begins the film as his usual timid, bow tie wearing nerdy coward, but as things progress he’s wearing some wonderfully psychedelic 60’s fashions and always has four lovely fembots in tow. Of course, Knotts starts to believe his own hype as the film progresses, but he still bumbles his way through things in true Don Knotts fashion. As usual, Knotts’ comedic sensibilities are spot on, not to mention taken to a different level with several moments that are far more risque than what we usually see from the bug-eyed comic.
The supporting cast is a real treat, as well. B.S. Pully is especially funny as gangster J. Charles Twilight. He’s a mob boss who isn’t trying to go legit, but is trying to make himself look more like a respectable businessman. He has regular visits by an old woman who gives him lessons in vocabulary and then goes out of his way to insert those words into conversations. Pully’s gruff voice sounds a bit like my garbage disposal does when a fork gets stuck in it. Hearing that voice trying to enunciate spelling bee-style words like a 4th grader is nothing short of hilarious. Anne Francis is also very good as a no-nonsense career woman, who is also quite devious. In one sequence she drugs poor Abner and then cons him into thinking that she and he had a wild night in his heart-shaped bed (complete with a scoresheet on the headboard). It was also great to see James Gregory in a small role as Abner’s defense attorney, Darrell Evans Hughes. He’s pretty amazing when it comes to pontificating in front of a jury.
The Love God? certainly hits on some issues that were getting a lot of attention in 1969. After all, this is released at the heart of the sexual revolution. It deals with concepts of what is considered obscene, and what does the first amendment have to say about that. At the same time, family values certainly play a role in this film. Even when Abner thinks he’s taken Miss LaMonica’s virginity, his first response is to book a wedding chapel. It’s an odd and intriguing mix that does encourage the audience to think, and still manages to stay consistently funny throughout.
Sadly, audiences weren’t quite ready for Don Knotts in this sort of role. The Love God? was one of his least successful films. It has remained an obscure, rarely-seen curiosity ever since. It’s a shame, since this is arguably one of the smartest and funniest films Knotts ever made.