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Friday, December 11, 2009

THE RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT -- movie review by porfle

(This is part two of my look at the "Don Knotts Reluctant Hero Pack", a two-sided DVD containing four of Don's best-known movies: THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN, THE RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT, THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST, and THE LOVE GOD?)

Following on the heels of Don Knotts' previous comedy success, 1966's THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN, THE RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT (1967) continues the adventures of Don's patented nervous-guy character, who always seems to find himself in situations that stretch his jangled nerves to the limit and force him to act beyond his normal capabilities in order to succeed. And what better way to do that than to strap him into a rocket and shoot him into outer space?

This time Don plays Roy Fleming, a nervous type (naturally) who is so terrified of heights that he "can't even get up on a chair to get the marmalade." He runs a modest little outer-space ride in a local amusement park, pretending to be an astronaut and taking the kids on space adventures in a mock-up rocketship. But his father, Buck (Arthur O'Connell), a WWI hero with big dreams for his son, keeps sending in his astronaut application to NASA. And one day, the Flemings receive a shocking letter--Roy's been accepted!

The prospect of being dozens of miles off his beloved terra firma terrifies Roy, but it also helps him win over the girl he's got the hots for, Ellie Jackson (Joan Freeman), who runs a concession stand in the amusement park, and raises him to the upper reaches of his father's estimation at long last. But when Roy gets to NASA, he discovers that he hasn't been accepted as a prospective astronaut after all, but as a janitor. And not even that--he's an apprentice janitor.

At this point, it's too late to tell the truth to his proud parents and all his admiring friends back home, so he keeps up the charade for as long as he can--until one day when his father and a couple of his old pals show up for an unexpected visit. Abandoning his mop, Roy hastily dons a space suit, gives the guys a highly scientifically-inaccurate tour of the space facility, destroys a rocket sled, and gets fired in front of his father. But just as it appears that Roy must slink home in disgrace, an amazing development occurs--the Russians send a dentist into outer space in order to prove the infallibility of their automated rocket ship. So NASA decides to respond by putting the most inexperienced person they can think of into orbit. Which, of course, turns out to be Roy.

THE RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT repeats various elements set into motion way back on "The Andy Griffith Show" and continued in THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN. Don Knotts plays a cowardly failure who gets his big chance to succeed and rises to the occasion, winning the affections of the hottest babe in town along the way, and gets plenty of chances to play his nervous-guy character to the hilt. There's a drunk scene (this didn't happen in GHOST, but Barney Fife was always accidentally getting drunk, remember?), and it's always fun to watch Don get gassed. He has a big brother-type friend who, like Sheriff Andy Taylor, looks out for him and helps bolster his ego--this time it's Major Fred Gifford, a famous astronaut who befriends Roy and suggests him as the perfect candidate for the upcoming space shot.

There are running gags--people are always posing for Rush (Paul Hartman) to take their picture but his camera never works, Roy is always being urged to "do a countdown" ("Three, two, one...puh-KEWWW!") and, whenever his loved ones see him off at the airport, the acrophobic Roy sneaks away to catch a bus instead, etc. The script is written by "Andy Griffith Show" vets James Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum, who also wrote GHOST and knew how to bring out the best in Don Knotts. And Vic Mizzy contributes another of his pleasantly goofy comedy scores.

Once again, the capable supporting cast is dotted with great familiar faces. Arthur O'Connell and Jeanette Nolan play his parents, while Frank McGrath ("Wooster" the cook on TV's "Wagon Train") and Paul Hartman ("Emmitt the Fix-It Man" on the later Griffith show episodes) are funny and endearing as Buck Fleming's friends. Jesse White (the "Maytag repairman" for those old enough to remember) is Roy's unforgiving janitorial boss, and Burt Mustin, Guy Raymond, and Nydia Westman are on hand as well. Familiar child star Pamelyn Ferdin even makes a brief appearance as a little girl who has to go to the bathroom during Roy's space ride ("We have just touched down!" he abruptly announces). But the biggest surprise, for those familiar with Leslie Nielsen only as a comedian, will be seeing him playing straight man to Don's character. He's very likable here as the dashing Major Gifford, but nowadays he'd be the one getting the laughs.

THE RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT isn't quite the all-round success that THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN was a year earlier, but it's still very enjoyable in a low-key way, and family-friendly without being sappy or saccharine. There are even a couple of fairly emotional scenes between Don and Arthur O'Connell as father and son that are nicely handled. The best part, though, is when Roy Fleming makes it to outer space (complete with some endearingly hokey special effects) only to have everything go wrong. In a delightful turn of events, he is able to astound Major Gifford and the other guys at mission control by falling back on his old space-ride character in order to save the day--which is just the sort of thing that makes a Don Knotts movie so much fun to watch.

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