It may surprise some younger viewers that Andy Griffith even made any movies before going into television, especially as they were made in black and white, which with the younger generation is the equivalent of the Stone Age. Actually, Griffith first made his name on radio and on records as a comedy monologist. His routine, What It Was, Was Football, a description of a bemused backwoodsman trying to figure out the game of football, became a hit record in 1954.
He then starred in Ira Levin’s one-hour teleplay version of No Time for Sergeants on the United States Steel Hour, a television anthology series of the type popular in the ‘50s. Again Griffith was a bemused country boy, albeit one that was drafted into the Air Force, and the play dealt with his adjustment to the ways of military life. He expanded the role in Levin’s full-length Broadway play of the same name in 1955 and earned a Tony nomination for “Distinguished Supporting or Featured Dramatic Actor” at the 1956 Tony Awards. He won the 1956 Theatre World Award, a prize given for debut roles on Broadway. He appeared on Broadway for the last time in 1957, starring in the musical version of Destry Rides Again. It ran for 472 performances, over a year, and earned Griffith his second Tony nomination in 1960 for “Distinguished Musical Actor.” Again he lost, this time to Jackie Gleason for the musical Take Me Along.
But it is Griffith’s film career we are concerned with in this column. His first film was the starring role in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, a movie that tanked at the box office. His second was the film adaptation of No Time For Sergeants, which was a hit. Next, however, came the ill-advised Onionhead, a movie that performed so poorly that Griffith later credited it in interviews with convincing him to go into television.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Andy Griffith Show was a smash hit, and was still on top of the ratings heap when Griffith walked away, figuring that going out on top was better than waiting for the ax to fall. He did a succession of made-for-television movies until he was offered the lead in Matlock, a sort of country version of Perry Mason with Matlock as an expensive Atlanta lawyer who manages to exonerate his clients after some sharp detective work by his staff.
The films below are worth your time and trouble in our opinion and will provide an insight into Griffith as an actor.
A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957): Griffith’s first film and critically his best. Although it was a box-office dud when released, it managed to pick up notice and critical steam in the 90s thanks in large part to its repeated showings on TCM and the renewed interest in Elia Kazan. I remember watching it as a 10-year old with my mother. (August 3, 1963 to be precise. Hey, I looked it up.) It was shown on The Schaefer Award Theater, a fancy name for CBS’s The Late Show on one Saturday a month where “prestige” films were shown. I was completely dumbfounded by the film. This wasn’t the Sheriff Taylor I knew. This guy – this “Lonesome Rhodes” – was an out-and-out rat. But at the same time I was mesmerized by the movie and always remembered it. I didn’t see it again until it was shown on Channel 9 in New York in 1980. I told my wife (she had never seen it), and we pulled up to the television with the proverbial popcorn and watched. She, too, was blown away; she couldn’t wrap her head around the fact that this was kindly, lovable Sheriff Taylor she was seeing, but on the other hand she said Griffith was never sexier than when playing a heel. Something about raw magnetic power, she said.
Although the film was made in 1957, it has never lost any of its timeliness and is still powerful and relevant today. Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) is a producer for a local radio station in rural Picket, Arkansas. Host of a morning show, she is interviewing convicts in the local jail. One of those is Andy Griffith. While at first he refuses, he quickly warms up when he gets a look at Neal and puts on a performance with his guitar that she deems so good that she offers him the role of the host on the morning show. She also dubs him “Lonesome” Rhodes when he refuses to give his name. The show quickly takes off, due to Rhodes’s homespun humor. It’s enough to land him a television show in Memphis, where he acquires a writer (Walter Matthau) for whom he has little, if any, use, but who supplies him with the material that gets him over with his audience.
When one of the sponsors withdraws after being kidded on the air (even though Rhodes’s kidding has sent sales through the roof), it looks like Rhodes is through in Memphis. However, office-boy-turned-agent Joey DePalma (Anthony Franciosa) has gotten him an audition in New York. Given a one-hour variety show, Rhodes proceeds to turn it into a huge hit. He becomes not only closely identified with the show’s sponsor, Vitajex, a worthless “energy” pill composed of caffeine, aspirin and dextrose, but he also becomes the personal protégé of the company’s owner, Gen. Haynesworth, a right-wing corporate owner who sees the potential in Rhodes as “a mover of people,” and begins a media blitz to build Rhodes into a superstar.
However, the assumption of more and more power and fame feeds Rhodes’s rapidly growing megalomania. His rotten side is now coming to the front more and more, with the only check being applied by Jeffries, who is in love with Lonesome and who Rhodes treats in a most despicable way until he needs her support. The final straw is when Rhodes promises to marry her but runs off to Mexico after judging a baton-twirling contest to marry the winner (Lee Remick). That and the growing danger in Rhodes’s affiliation with right-wing Sen. Worthington Fuller (Marshal Neilan) convinces Jeffries that she must destroy this Frankenstein monster she created, and she does so in a most unique manner when he’s least expecting it. Kazan uses a brilliant display of intercutting to show the decline and fall of Lonesome Rhodes after his gaffe. But as Matthau tells him after the fall, he’ll be back, perhaps in a slightly different package and nowhere near as big, but the public hasn’t yet seen the last of Lonesome Rhodes.
NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS (1958): Now this is the Andy Griffith we all know and love, playing a naïve, optimistic backwoods boy drafted into the Air Force. The movie derives its comedy from the premise that no one takes young Will Stockdale at his word. They rather insist on reading their own prejudices into him, which leads ultimately to their downfalls, as it were. All Stockdale wants to do is get along and enjoy himself serving his country, but others see him as a dangerous threat, starting with the overzealous draft officer (Dub Taylor) who comes to get him and places cuffs on him. (Taylor ignores the pleas from Will’s father, who says he never gave Will the draft notices because he didn’t want to lose him.) At the bus station, recruit Irvin S. Blanchard is put in charge because he had R.O.T.C. in college. Of course, the position goes right to Irvin’s head and he begins ordering Will around like a convict.
For his part Will believes that R.O.T.C. is a disease and he should humor Irvin. Once at the base, Will runs afoul of his sergeant, Orville C. King (Myron McCormick). An altercation between Will and some of the other recruits that are bothering him and his friend Ben Whitledge (Nick Adams), leads King to make “Stockdale Permanent Latrine Orderly – P.L.O.” and is put in charge of cleaning the bathroom. Will thinks this is a special honor and soon has the plumbing clean and shining.
It comes to the attention of Gen. Smith that Will has not been classified, so King must take him through the ordeal of classification. This scene is neatly stolen by Don Knotts, playing a nervous corporal in charge of administering a manual dexterity test. With the results of the test, Ben, Will and the now demoted Sgt. King are sent to gunnery school, where King rises to the top of the class and gets his stripes back. Flying a B-25 bomber to Denver, the pilots place the plane on autopilot and fall asleep causing it to drift over an A-Bomb test area. Although Ben and Will bail out, they are presumed killed and a service is held for the “fallen heroes,” who unexpectedly show up in the middle. To hush the incident over both are transferred to the infantry, where Ben has always wanted to serve, along with Sgt. King, who accompanies them at Will’s request, because he’s “the best dang sergeant in the whole dang air force.”
It wasn’t much of a stretch for Griffith, who was reprising his Broadway role, but the film was a smash hit and was largely responsible for launching the career of Knotts.
HEARTS OF THE WEST (1975): This film, which has gained a cult following, is a wonderful, gentle comedy about the world of B-Westerns in the 1930s. Most films made about studios are indictments of an ego-driven and immoral system, but Hearts of the West plays almost like a valentine written by a man about the lovely films of his childhood. Of course, rotten things take place all during the film, but these acts are done by such likeable characters that we smile instead of clenching our fists.
Jeff Bridges is Lewis Tater, a naïve young man who wants to write Western novels like Zane Grey. He travels to Nevada to a correspondence school that turns out to be a con run by two grifters out of post office boxes. When they try to rob him in his hotel room, he takes off in their car, which contains the proceeds of what they ripped off other customers.
Wandering in the desert, he meets Howard Pike (Andy Griffith), an actor in low-budget Westerns who takes Lewis on horseback to the movie set, where he meets Bert Kessler (Alan Arkin), the director, and Miss Trout (Blythe Danner) the script supervisor who takes a shine to the guileless young man.
He accompanies the company back to Los Angeles, where he gets a job as a stuntman with the company. He also develops a romance with Miss Trout, a friendship with Howard, and manages to write his first novel, a melodrama titled Hearts of the West, all while rising to become a cowboy star himself and foiling the con men that chase him throughout the latter part of the picture.
ONIONHEAD (1958): Andy Griffith is Alvin Woods, an irresponsible college students who breaks up with his girlfriend Jo (Erin O'Brien) and enlists in the Coast Guard as a way to duck combat duty in World War 2. After boot camp, he is sent to Boston and assigned to the U.S.S. Periwinkle as a cook. At a bar in Boston, he meets flirty Stella (Felicia Farr) and strikes up a relationship of sorts. Back at the ship, he runs into head cook "Red" Wildoe (Walter Matthau), who resents Al's fast advancement to cook and refuses to bunk with him.
After a series of mishaps, Al finds out that not only is Stella dating Red, but also that Red intends to marry her. Al tries to warn Red that Stella is a party girl, and should they be shipped out, Al may be distracted wondering where his wife is. But Al marries Stella anyway, Al is promoted to head cook and Red is transferred to the Algonquin. While Red’s at sea, Al keeps an eye on the flirtatious Stella and manages to keep her out of trouble. With the coming of war, the Algonquin is menaced by a German U-boat and sunk. The Periwinkle rides to her rescue and Al ends up helping to capture the submarine. Back at base, Al takes the fall for an officer’s misdoing and is stripped of his rank. But he does reunite with Jo and marries her before being shipped off to Greenland.
The problem with the film is that it tries too hard to be a comedy, drama and romance at once, a sort of merging of No Time For Sergeants and Mister Roberts, but the script is simply not there. Onionhead is directed by Norman Taurog, a director best known for some of Elvis’s atrocities in the ‘60s. Critics say that Walter Matthau steals the film, but if he were arrested for this “crime,” he would be charged at most with petty theft.