Don Knotts left his iconic role of Barney Fife on “The Andy Griffith Show” in 1965 after his movie “The Incredible Mr. Limpit” (1964) was a big hit. The idea was that Don could have a career starring in feature length comedies. It was a good idea at first. “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken” (1966) remains a minor classic, and “The Reluctant Astronaut” (1967) was also popular. However, after the release of “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate” in 1967, cinema changed. By the time Knotts did “The Shakiest Gun in the West” (1968), his kind of comedy seemed old fashioned. An attempt to update his style with more mature themes in “The Love God?” (Don runs a girlie magazine) did not result in much success.
In 1971, Knotts co-wrote and starred in “How To Frame a Figg,” an old fashioned comedy with the decidedly grownup theme of Don being railroaded by crooked businessmen in order to shield their own corruption. Knotts still plays well in frustrating and embarrassing situations, and the film is helped by its wonderful cast including Elaine Joyce, Frank Welker, Yvonne Craig, Edward Andrews, Joe Flynn, Parker Fennelly, Bruce Kirby, Benny Rubin, Eddie Quillan, and Billy Sands. However, it was not a success at the time of its initial release, and Knotts’ film career seemed to be over. A few years later he bounced back with the Disney comedies “The Apple Dumpling Gang” (1975) and “No Deposit No Return” (1976) as well as a couple of comedies opposite Tim Conway (who’d also been with him in “The Apple Dumpling Gang”).
However, away from its era and when approached as nostalgia, “How To Frame a Figg” comes off as pleasant and disarming. Knotts effectively runs the gamut of comic emotions he’d honed on the Griffith program and, even further back, his appearances on “The Steve Allen Show.” The classic plotline of a little guy fighting back against wealthy corruption seems perfect for Don’s established screen persona.
The team dynamic Knotts uses in some scenes with Frank Welker is sort of a portent to the comedies Knotts would make with Tim Conway years later. Welker is billed as “introducing” even though he’d already appeared with Elvis Presley in “The Trouble With Girls” (1969). He plays the bumbling sidekick, allowing Knotts to play a sort of straight man character. Perhaps it is the familiarity with his immortal Barney Fife character that makes his reaction to the gag situations in this movie so amusing. His bulging-eyed expression as a garbage truck dumps its entire collection of debris on him, or as he attempts to extricate his hand when his fingers get stuck in a bowling ball during a big game, net some good laughs.
Sometimes older movies offer a sense of comfortable nostalgia that makes them appear better than they truly are. “How to Frame a Figg” is an average movie, not a bad one, and certainly not great cinema. But as a film of its kind, it’s delightful.
“How To Frame a Figg” is available on DVD here.