15 November 2011

THE RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT/1967/DON KNOTTS

THE RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT

1967/Director: Edward Montagne/Writers: James Fritzell, Everett Greenbaum

Cast: Don Knotts, Leslie Nielsen, Arthur O'Connell, Joan Freeman, Jesse White, Jeanette Nolan, Frank McGrath, Bert Mustin

Don Knotts followed up The Ghost and Mr. Chicken with Universal's 1967 film The Reluctant Astronaut, produced and directed by Edward J. Montagne. Montagne was better known as a film and TV producer (he produced The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, the Shakiest Gun in the West and The Love God?) but sometimes dabbled in some directing though the bulk of that was for TV. Among the shows he produced was 55 episodes of the pretty funny McHale's Navy. Some familiar faces crop up from The Ghost and Mr. Chicken as well as the Andy Griffith show. The film is not as fantastic as The Ghost and Mr. Chicken but is still worth a watch if you're a fan of well made 60's style comedy movies.

Knotts plays, with his typical and unique style of jittery anxiety, Roy Fleming, a 36 year old amusement park ride operator who still lives at home with his worrisome mother and self-absorbed father (Arthur O'Connell). The ride he operates is the rocket ride and the irony is that he is so afraid of heights that he needs help getting down the step ladder from his super old assistant, played by character actor Bert Mustin whose roles sadly usually went uncredited both in the film credits and in Internet sites like IMDB and Wikipedia. He was also one of the old town's men on the Andy Griffith Show, usually sitting on the sidewalk making onrunning commentaries about the other town's folk. Roy as a tremendous crush on the hot dog stand girl Ellie Jackson (Joan Freeman). Unlike the character of Alma in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken this gal is a total ice queen who blows of poor Roy all the time without apology. She only begins to show some interest after he gains some celebrity status later in the film. Alma at least listened to Luther, but Ellie's character is simply unlikable as far I am concerned and presents an obstacle in the film's being as rewarding as Knotts' romantic paring in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.

Unfortunately as well for Roy his father Buck Fleming is a WWI vet who wants to relive his exaggerated glory days through Roy and sends off an application to be an astronaut to NASA for Roy. Much to everyone's surprise, and in particular to Roy's, he is accepted into training a WB-1074. Poor Roy is pressured by his dad and his war buddies into heading off to Houston to make everyone in the family and town proud and there he runs into supportive astronaut Frank Griffin (played straight by a young Leslie Nielsen). After a few bumblings he meets his supervisor Donelli (played by the Maytag Man himself Jessie White) who informs him that his job has nothing to do with orbiting in space but everything to do with waxing floors: a WB-1074 is an apprentice janitor.  Tough talking Donelli does not have much patience for Roy but luckily astronaut Griffin has taken a liking to him and in one instance has Roy pose, with his industrial mop, with other astronauts and crew members. The picture is published in his hometown paper and the mop is no deterrent to his father's unshakable belief his son is an astronaut. The mop is a government ruse to disguise his top secret status. Roy goes back home to set the record straight but soon loses nerve when he sees not only what a hero he has become but that icy Ellie has thawed out a little, though not much, regarding his presence around her.


Roy returns to NASA more perplexed than ever and one day is mortified to see over the security cameras that his dad and a couple of his WWI buddies have decided to pay Roy a visit at the training center. Roy dons an astronaut suit and tries his best to pretend to be a real astronaut but soon, after a series of mishaps, reveals he is anything but and in the process gets himself fired by Donelli. Later in a heart to heart talk Buck Fleming reveals to his son that he was not a decorated war hero but served his time as a pencil pusher. Roy is distraught and hits a local bar to drown his sorrow, only to be plucked out later by Griffin so that he can actually be an astronaut. Seems the Russians have designed a space ship so advanced that they are sending not a cosmonaut up in it but an ordinary dentist. Not to be outdone NASA decides to send Roy the janitor, with a fear of heights of course, up alone. Of course while in space Roy manages to flub up everything and nearly has himself killed until he remembers his previous astronaut "training" at the kiddie park and successfully fires his retro rockets and lands intact. He of course becomes now a national hero and Ellie simply loves him now and they get married.

At the end Roy is seen hiding in bushes, again, rather than flying on a plane to his own honeymoon. I feel the relationship between Roy and Ellie is the weak point of the film and writers Greenbaum and Fritzell did much better in this department in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. A small problem however in an otherwise funny and enjoyable film I highly recommend. The movie would start getting lots of play time a couple years later after the Apollo moon mission began. Another fine score by Vic Mizzy.




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