Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Reluctant Astronaut (Universal, 1967)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the disastrous Sergeant Dead Head I wondered whether the proprietor of the Vintage Sci-Fi screenings, http://sdvsf.org/, had shown his two movies last night, that one and the 1967 Don Knotts vehicle The Reluctant Astronaut, in that order to make The Reluctant Astronaut seem even better than it is. (He said no: the order was just chronological.) The Reluctant Astronaut is a better movie than Sergeant Dead Head, though that’s really damning it with faint praise. I must say that even when Don Knotts was making these rather ramshackle rural comedies with himself as the milquetoast lead, I really didn’t like them much: I had enjoyed Knotts’ lovable incompetence as Andy Griffith’s sidekick on The Andy Griffith Show but didn’t — and still don’t — think he was a strong enough personality to carry a film. The Reluctant Astronaut opens with Roy Fleming (Don Knotts) in the interior of a spacecraft, receiving instructions from Mission Control on how to launch himself into space … and then the camera pulls back (stop me if you’ve heard this before) and we find that his “spacecraft” is a mockup that’s part of a ride in an amusement park called “Kiddieland” that looks like they took it over from the “Kiddyland” in Abbott and Costello’s last film, Dance with Me, Henry (though not only was the spelling different but Dance with Me, Henry wasn’t a Universal film). The ride is staffed by Fleming outside and a bored old carnie inside who has to be cued when to throw the rocks onto the exterior of the prop spacecraft when Fleming’s narration tells them they’re supposed to be experiencing a “meteorite shower.” (My understanding is the term “meteor” is the correct one for a rock hurtling through space and “meteorite” is specifically the word for a fragment of one that actually lands on Earth.) There’s a somewhat tasteless but still funny gag when Fleming goes into his spiel to end the ride, saying the ship will touch down on earth in 20 minutes. One of the girls inside the ride protests, “I have to go to the bathroom!,” whereupon Fleming says, “We have just touched down!” It turns out that Fleming still lives with his parents, his dad Buck Fleming (Arthur O’Connell) and his mom (Jeanette Nolan, who played Lady Macbeth in Orson Welles’ film of Macbeth — so Sergeant Dead Head isn’t the only one of these two films featuring someone who once played in the cinematic majors, as frightening as it is to think that Don Knotts’ mother was Lady Macbeth!), and his dad is still obsessed with his experience as a combat soldier in World War I 50 years earlier. Indeed, he’s so obsessed with it that when his son, who’s supposed to be 35 years old, is at home Buck literally barks military commands with him, sort of like Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music

Buck Fleming has also secretly sent a job application for his son to join the Houston Space Center (which supposedly plays itself in some scenes) which he thinks will make him an astronaut, though Roy is so scared of heights he keeps sneaking out of the line to get on the plane to fly him there and taking the bus instead. (Apparently this plot gimmick came from a brainstorming session between the film’s writers, Jim Frizell and Everett Greenbaum, who were trying to figure out what the unlikeliest job would be for a man who was afraid of heights: they concluded it would be an astronaut.) When Roy arrives at Houston he finds that he’s been hired solely as an apprentice janitor, and his big concern is to make sure his parents don’t find out he’s a lowly menial at the space station instead of a trainee astronaut. About the only friend he makes in Houston is real astronaut Major Fred Gifford (Leslie Nielsen in a totally serious role — a lot of people who only know him from the Police Squad and Airplane! movies don’t realize he was a straight dramatic actor before he got sidetracked into those loony comedies, and when he says he’s been in space before, we science-fiction connoisseurs are likely to think, “Yes, we know — we’ve seen Forbidden Planet”), who at one point gets him into a photo with the astronaut crew, which gets printed in the home-town paper in Springfield, Missouri and leaves Roy’s parents even more convinced that he’s an astronaut. Roy’s parents and their friends decide to pay a surprise visit to their son in Houston — and in order to impress them Roy mounts a rocket sled and runs it down its track, then presses the eject button and flies through space before his drogue parachute opens and he comes back to earth. Alas, this gets him fired from the Space Center and leads to a tearful mutual confession scene in which he admits he was only a janitor there — and his dad admits that in World War I he served only as a librarian at Fort Dix and never fought in combat or even left the U.S. It’s the one piece of pathos in an otherwise amusing but curiously unmoving film. 

Then a deus ex machina emerges in the form of a Russian spaceship that is about to be launched in four days, and is distinguished from other spacecraft in that it’s flown purely by automation — the guy inside literally has nothing to do — and therefore they don’t have to hire someone who’s trained as a pilot or who has any military experience at all. The U.S. has a similar spacecraft, Eclipse, and in order to fly it they pick, you guessed it, washout janitor Roy Fleming, for the same reason Lenore Aubert’s character in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein picked Lou Costello’s brain to transplant into the Monster because he’d be perfectly docile and easy to control. So Roy Fleming becomes the first person without any military experience to be shot in space (Charles liked that the film was not, as Sergeant Dead Head and most comedies about space flight were, about an innocent person being trapped in a spacecraft when it lifts off), only he screws things up when he gets ordered to make himself a snack of crackers and peanut butter in space. Alas, under zero gravity the crackers go flying all around the ship, the peanut butter emerges in a long black string that looked too much like shit to me to find the sequence amusing, and Fleming, bumping into things while weightless (actually Don Knotts was suspended on wires that are all too visible on screen), knocks himself into the big reel-to-reel tape deck that contains all the information the guidance computer needs to fly the ship and guide it safely through re-entry. He tries to piece the tape back together but does so with peanut butter and cracker crumbs, rendering it useless. Fortunately, in a nice bit of writing by Frizell and Greenbaum, Fleming remembers how to guide a spacecraft through re-entry from the script of his carnival ride simulating it back in Springfield, and he ends up touching down safely — there’s a nice gag when his capsule lands, not in the water next to the aircraft carrier that’s supposed to send out a helicopter to pick it up, but on the deck of the carrier itself — and he ends up an international hero in the arms of the girl he loves, fellow carnie Ellie Jackson (Joan Freeman) — only in the final scene, even though he’s been in space, he’s still so scared of flying in a terrestrial aircraft he and Ellie sneak out of the line and end up back on the buses.  

The Reluctant Astronaut is a decent movie that suffers, as does Sergeant Dead Head, from the fact that when it was made there simply weren’t that many people around who could do great physical comedy. The late 1950’s and early 1960’s were a golden age for stand-up comedians (or, as they had been called in vaudeville days, “monologuists”): Steve Allen, Shelley Berman, Mort Sahl, Don Adams, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, Godfrey Cambridge, Bill Cosby. But, as John McCabe complained in his biography of Laurel and Hardy in 1962, the demises of the British music halls and American vaudeville had cut off the training ground for physical comedy — though eventually slapstick would make a comeback as people who’d trained in improv, and therefore had had to learn to get laughs with their bodies as well as their mouths, started to emerge: Robin Williams, Jim Carrey and a lot of the people who graduated to films from Saturday Night Live. Alas, that sort of talent simply didn’t exist in the mid-1960’s (though it’s tempting to imagine how The Reluctant Astronaut might have played with the young Woody Allen in the lead, just as it’s interesting to imagine the basic plot of Sergeant Dead Head with the young Jerry Lewis, who for all his weaknesses would at least have brought some energy to it!), and Don Knotts did the best he could with the gags he got but The Reluctant Astronaut is pleasant and amusing without being as all-out funny. It was directed by Edward J. Montagne, who had actually begun as a film noir director and had received industry notice with a cheap independent production from 1950 called The Tattooed Stranger which RKO picked up for distribution, then landed a lot of directorial assignments on the noir TV series Man Against Crime before getting sidetracked into comedy, first as a producer on the McHale’s Navy TV show and then ending up working on a lot of Don Knotts vehicles: The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, this one and The Shakiest Gun in the West (Knotts’ remake of the Bob Hope-Jane Russell vehicle The Paleface). Montagne’s career represents one of the most frustrating transitions out of serious filmmaking, which he was surprisingly good at, into comedy, which he wasn’t — one has to go back to Frank R. Strayer, who abandoned a career as a potentially great thriller and horror director in 1938 to helm the Blondie series of “B” sitcoms at Columbia, to find a career change as artistically regrettable even though no doubt both Strayer and Montagne made reasonably comfortable livings making people chuckle instead of thrilling or scaring them.