Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Some Andy Griffith Films

Andy Griffith was best known as the star of the TV shows The Andy Griffith Show and Matlock. And there can be no doubt that much of his success in his career was due to television. That having been said, he was a film star before The Andy Griffith Show ever debuted. Even after The Andy Griffith Show had ended its run, he would continue to appear in motion pictures from time to time. In fact, his greatest performances are often to be found on the big screen rather than the small one.

Andy Griffith's film roles ranged from dramas to comedies, from villains to buffoons. Here, then, are some of the films in which he appeared.

A Face in the Crowd (1957):  By 1957 Andy Griffith's star was on the rise. He was already a popular monologist, his comedy record "What It Was, Was Football" having sold almost 800,000 copies in 1954. He had already conquered both television and Broadway, having starred in the U. S. Steel Hour's adaptation of the novel No Time For Sergeants by Mac Hyman and the 1955 Broadway adaptation thereof. In 1957 he would make what might well be one of the most impressive film debuts of all time, in A Face in the Crowd.  The character of Lonesome Rhodes played by Mr. Griffith was not only starkly different from the hillbilly Will Stockdale in No Time For Sergeants, but also of Sheriff Andy Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show. In fact, he was different from nearly any character Andy Griffith would ever play, even the villainous roles he would perform from time to time.

Lonesome Rhodes was a thoroughly unsavoury drifter with a gift for folksy humour, singing, and playing the guitar who is discovered by Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) of KGRK. Given his own radio show, Rhodes eventually gets his own nationally broadcast television. Unfortunately, as Rhodes' popularity grows in leaps and bounds, so too does his ego and his lust for power. Andy Griffith gives a bravura performance as Lonesome Rhodes, perhaps the best of his career. Mr. Griffith was all too convincing as Rhodes not only grows more egomaniacal  and more power hungry, but a bit paranoid as well. In fact, Andy Griffith's performance is the best in the film, which is really saying something given Patricia Neal's impressive turn as Marcia Jeffries and Walter Matthau's strong performance as Mel Miller. Not only should Mr Griffith have been nominated for an Oscar for his role as Lonesome Rhodes, but he should have won it as well.

No Time for Sergeants (1958):  No Time For Sergeants was the motion picture based on the teleplay and Broadway hit that turned Andy Griffith into a star. Having played Will Stockdale several times on stage, it should come as no surprise that Mr. Griffith gave one of his most impressive performances in the film. In No Time For Sergeants, country bumpkin Will Stockdale is drafted into the United States Air Force. To complicate matters, Will is not particularly bright, something which creates many of the situations in the plot. Indeed, Will can be considered the prototype for both Jethro Bodine on The Beverly Hillbillies (although not as educated--I doubt Will could recite his multiplication tables) and Gomer Pyle on The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. (although not as bright).

While I would not say that Andy Griffith's performance as Will Stockdale is as impressive as his performance as Lonesome Rhodes, it is a great performance nonetheless. While Mr. Griffith often played characters from the country, these characters were usually endowed with both intelligence and a kind of folksy wisdom. Will possesses neither of these traits, yet Andy Griffith fully realises him the same way he fully realised the much more intelligent Andy Taylor and Ben Matlock. Here I must point out that Andy Griffith wasn't the only one to give an impressive performance in the film. Nick Adams also gives a solid performance as near sighted Ben Whitledge, who wanted to be in the infantry like his many ancestors and who more often that not winds up paying for Will's lack of intelligence. Nick Adams was convincing as Ben, so much so that one has to wonder how different Mr. Adams' career would have been had he not insisted on handsome, leading man type roles and not led a somewhat tumultuous private life.

Onionhead (1958): Onionhead is a largely forgotten film today. In order to capitalise on the success of No Time for Sergeants, Onionhead was marketed as a straight comedy. In truth, it is a comedy-drama that has more in common with Mr. Roberts than No Time for Sergeants. It is perhaps for that reason that it did very poorly at the box office. In some respects Onionhead is a disappointment having followed A Face in the Crowd and No Time for Serageants. In fact, in some respects the film is uneven. That having been said, Andy Griffith does give a good performance in a role that is a much more normal one than that of either Lonesome Rhodes or Will Stockdale.

In Onionhead Andy Griffith plays Al Woods, an Oklahoma college student who joins the Coast Guard after a fight with his girlfriend. Andy Griffith's performance as Al Woods does not stand out in the way that his performances as Lonesome Rhodes or Will Stockdale, but that is only because it is a much more subtle performance in many respects. Al is a reasonably intelligent individual, although one who is headstrong and has a bit of a temper. Andy Griffith is quite convincing in the role, one that is different from his better known ones. The movie also features a strong performance from Walter Matthau, Red Widoe, the galley chief.

Angel in My Pocket (1969):  Like Onionhead, Angel in My Pocket is a largely forgotten film. After eight years on The Andy Griffith Show, Mr. Griffith decided to return to motion pictures. He signed a three film deal with Universal. Unfortunately, Angel in My Pocket would be the only film made. In the film Andy Griffith played Samuel D. Whitehead, a newly ordained pastor assigned to his first church in a small town. In some respect, then, Angel in My Pocket might seem like it was designed to capitalise on the success of The Andy Griffith Show. Like Mayberry, Wood Falls, Kansas is filled with eccentric townsfolk. And like Mayberry, the citizens of Wood Falls have their fair share of feuds, gossip, and family secrets. Angel in My Pocket  is filled with the sort of folksy humour found in The Andy Griffith Show. It is there that the similarities between Angel in My Pocket and The Andy Griffith Show end.

The simple fact is that while The Reverend Samuel D. Whitehead is similar in some respects to Sheriff Andy Taylor, he is in many ways very different. Having been the sheriff of Mayberry County for many years, Andy Taylor was more or less in control of Mayberry and the surrounding county. Those many times when things did get out of control, one was guaranteed that Andy would have the situation in hand very shortly. In contrast, Reverend Whitehead is a man totally out of his depth. While Andy can usually corral the sometimes rambunctious residents of Mayberry, Sam increasingly finds his efforts to help his congregation and the townspeople put him at odds with them.

While Angel in My Pocket is not a great film, it is a pleasant and somewhat funny one. Sadly, for whatever reason the film bombed at the box office. In fact, it did so poorly that Andy Griffith decided not to do another two films for Universal and returned to working in television. As to Angel in My Pocket, since its initial release it has popped up on television from time to time. It has never even been released on video.

Hearts of the West (1975): To a large degree Hearts of the West is also a forgotten film. This is a shame as it is a very funny movie that anyone who loves Hollywood of the Thirties will enjoy. Hearts of the West centres on Lewis Tater, a writer who moves to Hollywood only to become a B Western star under the screen name Neddy Wales. The film does a fairly good job of capturing the look and feel of 1930's Hollywood, as well as the low budget Westerns they made then. In the film Andy Griffith plays Howard Pike, an old cowboy star using the screen name Billy Pueblo. Mr. Griffith's Pike/Pueblo is crusty and full of grit, none the worse for wear after years in Hollywood. Much like Hearts of the West itself, Andy Griffith's performance in the film is underrated. Although it might not be of the same quality as his performance as Lonesome Rhodes in A Face In the Crowd, Mr.Griffith's turn as Howard Pike/Billy Pueblo is one of his best.

Rustler's Rhapsody (1985): Rustler's Rhapsody is not a great film. I very seriously doubt it will ever be counted as a classic. That having been said, it is an amusing film (particularly for aficionados of the singing cowboys of the Thirties and Forties) and one that is fairly original. The central conceit of Rustler's Rhapsody is a portrayal of singing cowboy movies if they were made today. To this end Tom Berenger plays Rex O'Herlihan, a true blue, singing cowboy who never shoots to kill. Unfortunately, this puts him at a bit of disadvantage against the more modern bad guys, who have no qualms against killing.

The head of those bad guys is played by none other than Andy Griffith. Colonel Ticonderoga is a ruthless cattle baron who controls the town and is intent on driving the local shepherds out of the area. Andy Griffith's portrayal of Colonel Ticonderoga is nearly perfect, capturing the spirit of the many villains of the old Gene Autry and Roy Rogers films, right down to a bit of overacting. Having played villains in various television movies in the Seventies, Andy Griffith puts that experience to good use in playing a bad guy who is truly over the top.

Waitress (2007): I must confess that I have never seen Waitress. That having been said, I have read more than once from people I trust (including former VH1 host and fellow film buff Bobby Rivers) that Mr. Griffith gave an Oscar worthy performance in the film. In the movie Andy Griffith played Old Joe, owner of Joe's Pie Diner. I have always meant to see this film and comments form my fellow film buffs in the wake of Andy Griffith's death have reminded me that I must do so soon.


Hal said...

A FACE IN THE CROWD: Agree entirely. One of the greatest films of the 50's and every bit as prescient as NETWORK.

I'd add Andy's other wonderful late-career performance in PLAY THE GAME (2009) in which he plays a widower grandfather trying to get back in the dating game and getting advice from his would-be player grandson. Worth watching for Andy alone but also stars Doris Roberts.

Terence Towles Canote said...

Thanks, Hal! I had forgotten about Play the Game, but Andy Griffith did do a very good job in that film. If I recall, it was his final movie!