Das Limpett is, of course, Don Knotts, who befuddled the Germans as the nebbish-turned-fish in The Incredible Mr. Limpett, the first movie built around the painfully nervous persona he honed on The Andy Griffith Show.
Within the moral economy of Mayberry, Knotts' geekiness was comfortably comical, even lovable, and always fitting. Indeed, Barney Fife was fundamental. We tolerate Aunt Bee. We're amused by Goober and Floyd. We laugh with Andy. But Barney made the show, becoming in the process as basic and beloved a part of our culture as Bugs Bunny, Eddie Haskell or Curly.
Out of the protected context of Mayberry, though, Knotts is naked to our harshest scrutiny: a 125-pound weakling born July 21, 1924, in Morgantown, West Virginia, and the biggest nerd in Hollywood.
Naturally, nobody likes a nerd, particularly such a weak and whiny one. Once Knotts left Andy, he became a pathetic joke. Nobody even noticed him in the swinging '60s except a few kids and the parents they dragged to his movies. Crowning his humiliation were those awful movies he made with Tim Conway before replacing Norman Fell in 1979 on Three's Company.
Knotts' only non-Andy work likely to be remembered even a little fondly is Limpett, a silly, childish (though endearing) film that is just the vehicle most would expect for silly, childish Don Knotts. But Limpett is not a full-blown Don Knotts movie. For most of it, he simply does the voice work for an animated fish. Though Knotts may have been a speech major at West Virginia University, his comedy is physical above all, extending through his whole body. Thus his whine from Andy Griffith, is widely remembered, but always in association with that pathetic twist of his face. This pulsing bundle of self-consciousness expresses an infinite fury of emotion in a single turn of the shoulders, such is his intensity of comedic characterization. (That intensity helps make Knotts something like all the Three Stooges wrapped into one unstable body: a panicked, pompous nitwit who displays the dweebishness of Larry, the bullying of Moe and the physicality of Curly.)
But Knotts, like so many other comedians, could never find an appropriate movie vehicle for his work after his big initial success in another medium (in this case, television). Even in those six classics of the late sixties, and despite the consistently strong supporting casts and music, Knotts was still working within the limiting conventions of the family-film genre.
His fate is similar to what befell the Marx Brothers, who honed their comedy in vaudeville and theater but in their movies were undercut by the stultifying plot devices of musical comedy. (And who would remember the Marx Brothers fondly if they were known only for Room Service and The Big Store rather than for Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera as well?) Even in their worst films, though, when the brothers were allowed to be funny, the audience laughed.
In the handful of movies he made between 1964 and 1971, Knotts similarly was chained to cinematic conventions geared to the needs of kids. Still, in these films he is Don Knotts qua Don Knotts; something is going on other than the obvious goal of keeping the young ones giggling. Just below the surface, adult themes bubble in a stew of sexuality, egotism, heroism, greed, corruption and the pitfalls of modernity (seasoned with plenty of Knotts-induced laughter, of course.)
Going on also is a meditation on martyrdom that is at the heart of Knotts' best work. Everyone is a tormentor. Friends, strangers, co-workers, his true love: They tease him. They laugh at him. They pity him. They use him. They snub him. They ignore him. They patronize him. They spill food on him. Some even love him, even though it may be the last thing he wants, as in The Love God?
Case in point: How to Frame a Figg. Knotts is angry at Bob Hastings (McHale's Navy's Elroy), who is flirting with his girl at the bowling alley. An agitated Knotts reaches a little too hard for a ball and his eyes pop halfway to the camera as it fails to fly off his hand and down the alley. Teammates try to pull the ball from his fingers as Knotts quivers, squirms, contorts, grimaces and pops his eyes even farther. He is carried to the men's room where the crowd gives his hand a swirly in an effort to flush the ball off. Meanwhile, his dopey pal puts a paper toilet ring around his neck, crowning the humiliation and sparking another spasm of wretchedness.
To all these things, Knotts' characters are atrociously vulnerable. Physically and emotionally, they are subject to every bump and eddy of the human intercourse around them, until they worry so much about it all that they become oblivious to anything outside the overstimulation of their imaginations. The twists, turns and gyrations bring Hollis Figg to this tearful, and classically Knotts, cry: "You work and you plan and you figure things out, then life up and hits right in the gut and you're three feet short of your goal. What's it all about! Life's just a crock."
But even the solace of despair is denied this sap, for he has a mission to fulfill. On Andy, Barney's agonies were regularly reduced to the ridiculous, usually with Sheriff Taylor's help. On the big screen, his torment makes Knotts holy, and as a holy fool he brings down the high and the mighty. His persecutors are humbled, exposed and mortified as his bumbling, accidental interference puts their schemes awry and he trips his way to the doll of his dreams and the respect of his neighbors.
In the end, Knotts is the hero in all his films, but an ironic one. The same kind of happenstance that made him a pathetic nobody from birth is also the source of a heroism that arises only when it is absolutely essential--and accidental. This is both artistically fortunate and realistic. Heroism, after all, tends to come off as preposterous when it is not ironic, and it usually comes to people who have no intention of being heroes but are backed into a corner. If they thought through the consequences of their actions, their courage would evaporate, as Knotts' usually does before circumstances--and desperation--ultimately intervene to force him into acts of bravery.
Thus The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is about a coward who redeems himself when left with no other choice. Luther Heggs' nervousness is hair-trigger, and when panic overtakes him, it is all-consuming. A victim of his own excitability, he is a laughingstock in his hometown of Rachel, Kansas, ("home plate for wheat and democracy," a sign proclaims on the park gazebo.).
"Why don't you run up an alley and holler fish?" is Heggs' manly riposte to two town toughs giving him a hard time. But his own blustering, his ambition to trade his typesetter's job for a reporter's notebook, and his need to impress the love of his life, Alma, conspire to force him into a night in the Simmons mansion--the house from Psycho, in fact--where years before Old Man Simmons supposedly killed his wife and then himself, and where the murderer's ghost still returns to play the blood-stained organ. (They couldn't get the blood off the keys even when they used Bon-Ami.)
Luther comes face to face with the supernatural, becomes a town hero (atta boy, Luther) and manages to solve the crime with help from a pal, the paper's pressman. Luther may be pathetic, but he still bumbles his way into doing what he has to do.
Haphazard heroism is one kind of behavior that defines Knotts in these films (in a way it never could in Andy Griffith, where Barney's buffoonery led to nothing but being a buffoon). The other definitive behavior is sex.
Knotts is overwhelmed by anyone who is strongly expressive of anything: power, wealth, prowess. But above all, he is incapable of coping with sex.
In The Love God?, the most adult of his vehicles, Knotts is the innocent Abner Peacock. Editor of a bird watcher's journal and member of the church choir, he is taken up into the adult world of hypocrisy, careerism, dissipation and debauchery when he is off watching birds and sleazy publisher Edmond O'Brien takes over his magazine for a front, turning it into a smut rag.
From sap to martyr is, in Knotts' world, a short hop, and soon he is on trial for obscenity. Abner comes prepared with testimonial plaques and potholders from the folks back home who know him as a bird-watching nerd, but hears himself described by the prosecutor as a man of "unspeakable depravities." His eyes are those "of a man obsessed by sex, eyes of a man whose lust knows no bounds," the attorney says.
Then Abner goggles in disbelief at "his" defense. As bleeding hearts are wont to do with the suckers who come under their wings, Daryl Evans Hughes of the Council for Constitutional Liberties uses Abner to score his own political points. "This is a dirty case and a dirty man," the attorney says as Bob Hastings (a veritable Knotts stock company) looks on in awe. "It is with disgust to the point of nausea that I see myself sitting next to this filthy little degenerate. But when I see this filthy little degenerate's constitutional rights being threatened..." everyone's rights are threatened.
Knotts is acquitted, but his notoriety opens up a whole new career path: Mr. Sex, the sexual revolution's flagbearer.
Knotts' characters always suspect they are aristocrats misplaced into a patsy's body, and life. In this case, Abner is helpless in the face of the flattery and manipulation of those who stand to gain from his ill-repute. Unable to comprehend the modern world, he tries to be the answer to frustrated America's most wicked dreams, as he is called, even though he's about as sophisticated as a 10-year-old. He dresses in Nehru-style jackets, dances with go-go girls and in general acts the sap he is being played for. And he definitely doesn't get any.
In fact, Knotts is as uncomprehending of lust as he is of all passions. His own sexuality in all these films is unbearably polite--what his granny taught him, perhaps--leading him to read all sexual signals as sincere and literal. Indeed, he is panicked by any sexual threat, real or imagined. Incapable of separating put-ons from come-ons, in The Love God? he ultimately is hoodwinked into believing he has been laid, which leads him to assume the posture of the damned.
"Don't touch me Rose Ellen. Don't dirty yourself," he says to his small-town sweetie.
The home-town folks know he is too big a dweeb to have had sex with anyone, but he doesn't: "I am cursed with an abnormal sexual magnetism for women," he concludes.
However, incomprehension gives Knotts what virility provides others. It ultimately allows this painfully thin hayseed to stand up for himself in the face of odds that would send any sensible person scurrying. His weakness lets him triumph.
That makes Knotts one of the few leading men of his time who truly deserved to be called anti-hero. Nicholson, Hopper, Eastwood and the others may have abandoned the moral virtue once de rigueur in Hollywood protagonists, but they were cut from the same sexual cloth as Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, and the rest. Don Knotts, though, was everything these guys weren't. Terminally wimpy, ridiculously stupid and sexually repulsive, he was the true negation of the Hollywood he-man ethos.
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Copyright William Swislow 1990