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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

THE LOVE GOD? -- movie review by porfle

(This is part four 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?)

In THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN, THE RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT, and THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST, we got to see Don Knotts' nervous-guy character face his biggest fears and triumph over them in the end. But in THE LOVE GOD? (1969), he finally faces his biggest fear of all...S-E-X.

Don's previous films all skittered around the subject of sex, but in a non-overt, family-friendly way. THE LOVE GOD?, on the other hand, is obsessed with the subject. In fact, it almost plays like a psychic prediction of Larry Flynt's famous First Amendment difficulties, as Don plays the owner of a bankrupt birdwatching magazine who is duped by unscrupulous pornographer Osborn Tremaine (the great Edmond O'Brien) into serving as the figurehead for a dirty magazine because Tremaine has just been legally stripped of mailing privileges for his own porno mag. At first horrified by what he's gotten himself into, Don's character (Abner Audubon Peacock IV, of "The Peacock" magazine) soon find himself hailed by the public as a fearless crusader for the First Amendment and the sexual revolution.

Which, of course, doesn't sit well with the folks back home, including the congregation of the church where Abner's virtuoso birdcall performance is a highlight of the annual choir recital (Don's rendition of this is absolutely priceless), and the reverend's ever-faithful daughter Rose Ellen (Maggie Peterson) patiently waits for her beloved Abner to return and pop the question. Meanwhile, Abner keeps getting in deeper and deeper, as feared mob boss J. Charles Twilight (B.S. Pully) takes an active interest in "The Peacock" magazine, and aspiring journalist Lisa LaMonica (Anne Francis, FORBIDDEN PLANET, "Honey West"), who has been chosen to run the magazine and turn Abner into an international sex symbol, takes an increasingly active interest in him.

There's a lot of funny stuff in this movie, but is it a proper Don Knotts movie? Not according to what's gone before. His other offerings were innocuous, family-friendy fare that, while flirting with the subject of sex at times in a general way, were still wholesome and innocent enough to be enjoyed by the entire family. THE LOVE GOD?, on the other hand, plays like one long, smutty, third-grade joke, and the joke's on Don. We've always been happy to laugh with his characters, but here, we're urged to laugh at him--the prim, straight-laced, trembling virgin who is afraid of women and terrified of sex. While his previous three films remain unrated (but would probably each get a G), THE LOVE GOD? is rated PG-13--not quite what most of Don's fans would be expecting from one of his movies. So who's this movie made for? Don Knotts fans who have been patiently suffering through his previous films waiting for more T & A?

On the plus side, Don is in fine form here, making the most of what the script impels him to do. His first performance of the birdcall recital is sublime, but later in the film when he fears that mobster J. Charles Twilight has come to whack him, his frantic, screwed-up rendition of the same piece is hilarious. It's also fun to see him trying to function as a Hugh Hefner/Bob Guccione type, strutting around town in horrendous mod outfits with an entourage of beautiful women, in a series of delightfully retro 60s-camp situations. But when Anne Francis' Lisa LaMonica starts taking advantage of his sexual inexperience to manipulate him, the sweetly-innocent Don Knotts character finally begins to lapse into the pathetic.

Part of the reason for this is that Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum, the veteran "Andy Griffith Show" writers who handled the scripts for Don's previous three films, are missing here, and writer-director Nat Hiken just doesn't seem to fully understand what makes Knotts tick as a screen presence. Sure, he's a coward, and he sinks to the depths of despair before the film's final act (especially when Lisa LaMonica tricks him into thinking he's had sex with her, which spoils his chances to marry the pristine Rose Ellen), but there's no cathartic triumph over his fears that redeems his character in the end. What--is he supposed to triumph over his fear of sex? The only victory Abner Peacock has here is when he finally punches J. Charles Twilight in the nose. It's only through sheer happenstance that Abner ends up living happily-ever-after at the end of THE LOVE GOD?, and that's just not the way it should be.

Taken as a smutty sex comedy, though, THE LOVE GOD? does have its pleasures. As a fan of the voluptuous Maureen Arthur (HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, HOW TO COMMIT MARRIAGE), I find it delightful that her role as Osborn Tremaine's wife and chief model for his magazine affords her the opportunity to parade around in sexy outfits and pose for wonderfully lewd photographs. Holy mackerel, she was so incredibly sexy that I just get giddy watching her--and she was funny to boot. Abner's "Pussycats" are nice to look at, too, but they don't make that much of an impression, especially next to a wildly-mugging Don Knotts. Anne Francis, of course, is a certified babe from way back, but in this movie she just tries too doggone hard to be funny and sexy, and generally just comes off looking silly.

One of the funniest things about the movie, in fact, is seeing mobster J. Charles Twilight taking instruction from retired schoolteacher Miss Love (Jesslyn Fax, THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN), whom he has hired to teach him "class." From her, he learns the error of saying "Me and Nutsy Herman got the contract to go to upstate New York to knock off Big-Nose Schlossburg...", as he writes in his assigned theme, instead of the correct "Nutsy Herman and I." She also teaches him a new word every day, such as "fastidious" and "prerogative", which he awkwardly shoehorns into his speech at every opportunity.

With the marked absence of writers Fritzell and Greenbaum, there's not much of an "Andy Griffith Show" connection here, with the exception of the church choir singing a hysterical version of "Juanita"--Barney Fife's self-written ode to his girlfriend at the Bluebird Diner--and the casting of Maggie Peterson (who played man-hungry hillbilly Charlene Darling) as Rose Ellen. As usual, there's a fine assortment of familiar faces all over the place, such as James Gregory (who seems to relish his role as Abner's defense attorney and makes the most of it), Don Knotts stock players Jim Boles and Jim Begg, James Westerfield as Rose Ellen's father Reverend Wilkerson, Herbie Faye, and Bob Hastings. And once again, Vic Mizzy supplies a suitably lighthearted musical score.

But on the whole, THE LOVE GOD? suffers in comparison to Don Knotts' earlier films, because the people who made it just didn't seem to understand his film persona--or else they thought it would be funny to pervert it and turn the character into a pitiful, emasculated butt of cheap sex jokes. So while there's much to enjoy in this movie--no Don Knotts film could possibly be entirely without its pleasures--it certainly doesn't do justice to his established screen character. Imagine Thelma Lou making fun of Barney Fife for having a tiny "you-know-what." That's THE LOVE GOD? in a nutshell.

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