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Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Reluctant Astronaut

Universal produced several comedies starring Don Knotts, who wanted film work beyond his famous role as Barney Fife in The Andy Griffith Show.TV series. The Reluctant Astronaut (RA) isn't the stronger of Knott's films. Given the progress of NASA's Gemini program by the mid-60s, men traveling into space was no longer fiction. RA is only barely a science fiction story -- though often categorized as one. Leslie Nielson co-stars in an unusual straight role.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Roy Flemming is a 35 year old who still lives with his parents. He is the operator of a rocket-themed ride at a kiddie park. Ironically, his also very afraid of heights. Roy is keen on Ellie, who operates the hot dog stand. Ellie is not keen on Roy. Unbeknownst to Roy, his father sent in a job application for him to NASA. He was accepted as a WB-1074. Roy is terrified at the thought of being a real astronaut and wants to decline. His father (the proud WWI veteran) is full of pride and hears none of it. To not let his father down, Roy travels to Houston (by bus, not airplane). At Houston control, Roy finds out that a WB-1074 is a janitor. He is relieved and worried. The folks back home think he's an astronaut. Roy travels back to set the record straight, but he is met with much acclaim by the townsfolk. Even Ellie shows interest in him now. Roy modifies his confession into a desire to quit the space program. His father confesses that he's no war hero, but spent the war as a librarian at Fort Dix. Hence is eagerness for Roy to be a real hero. Roy agrees to go back, but is even more conflicted. When his father and his cronies arrive in Houston for a surprise visit, Roy dons a spacesuit and pretends to be an astronaut. He bungles one thing after another in his tour, culminating with launching himself in the rocket sled. This gets him fired as a janitor. Now his father and friends all know. Roy drowns his sorrow in a bar. Meanwhile, the NASA brass learn that the Russians will be launching their automated capsule in 48 hours, carrying a mere dentist to prove how automatic their system is. NASA has its automated Eclipse capsule ready but no one slated to ride in it. Bumbling Roy is even less-capable than a dentist, so they hire him back. He is suited up and sent up with several comic gags along the way. Up in space, there are yet more gags, including the requisite weightless gags. Roy accidentally ruins the onboard computer (tape reels!), so the capsule cannot land itself. He also accidentally damages the radio so he can't hear NASA instructions. Recalling his kiddie-ride spiel about retro rockets, he manages to push the right button and bring the capsule down for an ultra-soft landing on the aircraft carrier deck. He is a genuine hero. He marries Ellie back home. They board an airline flight for their honeymoon, but Roy hides in the bushes again. "I hope she has a good time." The End.

Why is this movie fun?
A Don Knotts comedy is automatically fun, even if it's not his best material. The view of NASA in the mid 60s -- with all its earnest enthusiasm -- is a side perk.

Cold War Angle
Being a comedy, RA isn't the venue for somber messages. Nonetheless, there is the oneups-manship of America and Russia, where their respective space programs became a surrogate for the usual darker Cold War competition.

Loose Knotts -- Don Knotts is best known for, and won Emmy Awards for his Barney Fife character in The Andy Griffith Show. The first run of the TV series (in black and white) ran from 1960 to 1965. Knotts wanted to do some other (bigger) projects, and did do a movie with Warner Brothers: The Incredible Mr. Limpet in '64. In 1965, there was a rumor that the show was going to cease after that season (which later turned out not to be true). Knotts, about to be cut loose from Barney Fife, figured it was a good time to pursue other interests, and agreed to a five-movie deal with Universal. The TV series was renewed, but Knotts stuck with his movie deal. In the spirit of no-hard-feelings, Knotts did a few cameo appearances on the second run of the series.

Nervous Franchise -- Don Knotts developed his nervous-man character, but the Mayberry character of Barney Fife had built-in limitations. In his movies, Knotts was able to portray zany nervous guys far beyond what would fit into Fife. The Roy Flemming role in RA was not his strongest. The Ghost and Mr. Chicken ('66) and Shakiest Gun in the West ('68) were better. Nonetheless, RA does have many of the usual gag scenes wedged in.

Apollo Cameo -- Note the actual footage of the rockets used in the films. Much of it is of the Apollo 1 mission (AS-201). This unmanned flight put a dummy command module atop the Saturn 1B. In RA, we get many stock footage shots of the AS-201 project, including its dramatic clear-blue-sky launch -- which took place on February 26, 1966. The goal of the mission was to test the new Saturn 1B mainstage, and to test the J2 engines of the third stage, to see if the J2s could be shut off and restarted in space. This cold restart was a critical step for a moon mission. The J2s did restart just fine. AS-201 was a success. Watch for mockups of the Apollo capsule too.

Unlovable Dame -- Unlike other comedies with love interests, the character of Eillie Jackson sours the fun. Her cold disregard for poor smitten Roy makes her hard for viewers to like. When she fawns over Roy once he's "somebody" she feels even less likable. When at the end, Roy marries Ellie, it feels more like a big mistake than a resolution. He might have been better off with the large-framed woman in the bar.

Other Roles --- Note Leslie Nielson as the dashing Major Gifford. Later audiences would have Nielson pigeonholed as a comedy actor, but in RA, he plays a straight (and somewhat flat) part. Forbidden Planet gave him more to work with. Also note Jesse White as chief janitor, Donelli. White would go on "fame" as the long-running but lonely Maytag Repairman ('68-'89).

Bottom line? Fans of "real" sci-fi (saucers, aliens, monsters, machines, etc.) won't find much thrill in RA. Given the realities of space travel in the mid 60s (Gemini program, etc.), it's not especially sci-fi. Yet, it is a mild and harmless diversion.

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