Don Knotts came to fame with his trademark comedy style of portraying a meek, excessively nervous character. He was Woody Allen before Woody Allen was Woody Allen. Knotts honed his skills on Steve Allen's show in the 1950s, with his "man on the street" Nervous Nellie routine sending audiences into fits of laughter. He co-starred with fellow up-and-comer Andy Griffith in the hit Broadway production of "No Time for Sergeants" and the subsequent film version. When Griffith landed his own TV series in 1960 in which he played the sheriff of fictional small town Mayberry, Knotts imposed upon him to write a small, occasional part he could play as Barney Fife, Griffith's inept but loyal sheriff. Griffith complied and the role made Knotts an icon of American comedy, allowing him to win an astonishing five Emmys for playing the same character. Five years into the series, Knotts was offered a multi-feature deal by Lew Wasserman, the reigning mogul of Universal Pictures. Knotts took the bait and enjoyed creative control over the films to a certain degree. He could pretty much do what he wanted as long has he played the same nervous schlep audiences wanted to see. The films had to be low-budget, shot quickly and enjoy modest profits from rural audiences where Knotts' popularity skewed the highest. His first feature film was The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, released in 1966 and written by the same writing team from the "The Andy Griffith Show". (Griffith actually co-wrote the script but declined taking a writing credit.) The film astonished the industry, rolling up big grosses in small markets where it proved to have remarkable staying power. Similarly, his next film, The Reluctant Astronaut also proved to be a big hit, as was his 1969 western spoof The Shakiest Gun in the West. Within a few years, however, changing audience tastes had rendered Knotts' brand of innocent, gentle humor somewhat moot. By the late 1960s audiences were getting their laughs from the new film freedoms. It was hard to find the antics of a middle-aged virgin much fun when you could see Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice cavorting in the same bed. Still, Knotts soldiered on, providing fare for the drive-in markets that still wanted his films. In 1969 he made The Love God?, a very funny and underrated film that tried to be more contemporary by casting Knotts as an innocent ninny who is manipulated into fronting what he thinks is a magazine for bird watchers but, in reality, is a cover for a pornography empire. Knotts' traditional audience balked at the relatively tame sex jokes and for his final film for Universal, How to Frame a Figg, he reverted back to his old formula.
Released in 1971, Figg casts Don Knotts as the titular character, Hollis Figg, a nondescript wimp who toils as an overlooked accountant in a basement of city hall. The film is set in a Mayberry-like small town environment but any other similarity ends there. In Mayberry, only the visiting city slickers were ever corrupt. The citizenry may have been comprised of goofballs and eccentrics, but they were all scrupulously honest. In Figg's world, however, the top government officials are all con-men and crooks. They are ruled by the town's beloved paternal father figure, Old Charley Spaulding (Parker Fennelly), a decrepit character who hands out pennies to everyone he encounters, with the heart-warming greeting "A shiny penny for your future!" In fact, Old Charley has plenty of those pennies stashed away. He and his hand-picked fellow crooks, including the mayor and police chief, have been systemically ripping off the state by grossly inflating the costs of local building projects and secretly pocketing the overages. Concerned that the accountants might get wind of their activities, they summarily fire them all except for Figg, who is deemed to be too naive to ever catch on. They justify the firings by saying it's fiscally prudent and replace the accountants with a gigantic computer that is supposed to be even more efficient. Through a quirk of fate, Figg and his equally naive friend, Prentiss (Frank Welker), the janitor for city hall, discover exactly what is going on. Figg dutifully reports his findings to the mayor (Edward Andrews), who convinces him to keep it secret while he launches his own investigation. Old Charley, the mayor and their cohorts decide to make Figg the fall guy for the corrupt practices. They give him a big promotion, a new red convertible and even hire a private secretary for him. She's Glorianna (Yvonne Craig), a leggy femme fatale who wears mini skirts and oozes sex. When her attempts to seduce Figg leave him paralyzed with fear because of his allegiance to his new girlfriend, the equally virginal waitress Ema Letha (Elaine Joyce), Glorianna gets Figg drunk, takes some embarrassing photos of him and the proceeds to have him sign a stream of incriminating documents that he has not bothered to read. Before long, Figg is blamed for all the missing funds and faces a jail sentence- unless he and the dim-witted Prentiss can figure out how to use the computer to thwart the real crooks.
How to Frame a Figg is the weakest and least-remembered of Knotts' films for Universal but it still affords plenty of laughs. Knotts is essentially playing Barney Fife under a different name and even wears that character's trademark outdated "salt and pepper" suit. Knotts never broke any new ground but no one ever called for him to do so...his familiar persona was just what audiences wanted. Figg also provides a plethora of wonderful characters from the period including the great Joe Flynn and Edward Andrews, who excelled at playing smarmy men of authority. Also popping up are such familiar faces as Billy Sands and Bob Hastings, both of whom co-starred with Joe Flynn in "McHale's Navy". The appearance of cast members from that show isn't a coincidence because the film was produced by Edward J. Montagne, who also produced "McHale's Navy". Some of the humor is a bit forced, especially scenes concerning the character of Prentiss, with Frank Welker overplaying the lovable dumb klutz bit. However, Montagne and Knotts were a comfortable fit and he produced and/or directed all of Knotts' Universal feature films. Figg was directed by Alan Rafkin, who had helmed The Ghost and Mr. Chicken and The Shakiest Gun in the West. He understood the Knotts persona and capitalized on it with considerable skill. Another alumni of all those films, the inimitable composer Vic Mizzy, provides a typically jaunty score.
Following the boxoffice failure of How to Frame a Figg, Don Knotts successfully morphed into a featured player in many Disney movies, sometimes teaming with Tim Conway. The two of them would perform together on screen and on stage for decades until Knotts' death in 2006. In the 1970s, Knotts also broadened his fan base with his role on the popular sitcom "Three's Company". There seems to be a great deal of nostalgia for his feature films nowadays among baby boomers, with The Ghost and Mr. Chicken especially popular. How to Frame a Figg is not of that caliber but it holds up well as a very amusing family comedy.
The Universal DVD release includes the original trailer.