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The Shakiest Gun in the West

The Shakiest Gun in the West(1968)

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Home Video Reviews

It's inevitable that somebody will make snide comments that DVD has really hit the bottom with a set like the four-film Don Knotts: Reluctant Hero Pack (Universal). But just take a peek at the Knotts films and see whether the snideness holds up. Sure they're not classics and the Knotts persona sometimes discourages repeat viewings but these are actually fairly amusing, pleasant films of a kind you don't see much any more. It's easy to take a gamble since the low-priced set is part of The Franchise Collection that also showcased well-done collections of Abbott & Costello, Francis the Talking Mule and Ma & Pa Kettle.

Knotts was a World War II army veteran who made tentative moves into acting before finally hitting the big time as Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show, a role that earned him five Emmys. It didn't take too long before movie studios realized that the goofy, somewhat delusional Fife character could be easily shifted into a variety of inexpensive genre films. The first was The Incredible Mr. Limpet, a Warner Brothers film available elsewhere on DVD. However, Universal made Knotts such an offer that he gave up Fife and left TV for the movies.

The initial film under that contract was The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) which features Knotts as a small-town typesetter (there's a job that will increasingly need explanation) who really wants to move up to journalist. He's also smitten with the local hottie Alma (Joan Staley, Playboy's Miss November 1958) while being tormented by the hotshot reporter (Skip Homeier, a veteran of Boetticher and Fuller films). Knotts ends up spending a night in a supposedly haunted house while trying to maintain his dignity. Though there are a few predictable double-takes, the film is also genuinely funny at times. In particular, Knotts' clumsy public speech is nearly a minor masterpiece and other bits are brought off with speed and energy. Overall The Ghost and Mr. Chicken may be Knotts' best work.

The Reluctant Astronaut (1967), however, shows the limitations of the formula. Knotts plays a carnival employee who thinks he's chosen to be an astronaut but becomes instead--the mix-up never explained--a space center janitor. Though he tries to set the record straight, Knotts ends up pretending to be an astronaut to avoid disappointing his overbearing father and fawning small town neighbors. A few clever gags stick out (including a janitorial training session) but overall the film ends up intermittently amusing instead of humorous. Leslie Nielsen plays an upstanding but still warmly human astronaut and it's too bad he and Knotts didn't have more scenes exploiting their odd-couple contrast.

There's better to be found in The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968) where for once Knott's character isn't from a small town. Instead, he's a graduate of a Philadelphia dentist school who admittedly does head out West to bring proper oral hygiene to the denizens of, well, a small town. There he gets mixed up with a female bandit who's now secretly working for the government to track down gunrunners. Toss in saloons, a wagon train, Indians, gunfighters and you have a story just involved enough that it doesn't slip from attention but still gives scope to comic situations such as Knott's flustered dental exam and clumsy encounters with stock Western figures.

1969's The Love God? is a peculiar attempt to update Knotts to the anything-goes mood of the 60s. It's certainly the only film where a key plot point depends on whether his character is a virgin, which both sums up the modernization attempt and suggests that perhaps Knotts (or at least his typical film character) wasn't an entirely appropriate choice. He plays the editor of a bird-watching magazine who's used by a gangster as a front for a girlie magazine, only that gangster gets tangled with an even bigger Runyon-esque gangster who brings in a legitimate woman editor (Forbidden Planet's Anne Francis) for a bit of upscale, high falutin' class. Eventually Knotts ends up as a parodic Hugh Hefner figure, perhaps a few years too late and perhaps a bit redundantly given Hefner's own unwitting self-parody. With its topical satire and involved plot, The Love God? is in some ways the most substantial film of these four though it relies so much on the essential innocence of the Knotts character to make its point that it's hard not to feel the mix was a bit too spotty. (Just imagine what Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis could have done with it.) Perhaps either Knotts or Hollywood felt his character had run its course; it would be two years until his next film and since then he's mostly worked in TV and Disney supporting roles.

Knotts may be the selling point in Don Knotts: Reluctant Hero Pack but the set is also something of a tribute to composer Vic Mizzy, whose work graces all four films. Though perhaps best known for the music for Green Acres and The Addams Family, Mizzy brought to the Knotts films a jaunty good nature that captures the intended effect perfectly. The mix of horns, xylophone and electric guitar was clever and distinctive enough to be memorable without overwhelming the films. Mizzy's reputation is still fairly cultish but he can count one fan in Sam Raimi who recently chose Mizzy to contribute special music to the Spider-Man 2 DVD.

To order Don Knotts: Reluctant Hero Pack, go to TCM Shopping.

by Lang Thompson