Universal has released the 1967 Don Knotts comedy "The Reluctant Astronaut" as a Blu-ray release. The film was Knotts's second feature film for the studio following the surprise success of "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken". This time Universal raised the production budget, thus allowing director Edward Montagne to shoot on location at both the Johnson and Kennedy Space Centers. Knotts again recreates what is essentially his Emmy-winning portrayal of Deputy Barney Fife from "The Andy Griffith Show", complete with that character's requisite "salt-and-pepper" suit. When we first see his character, Roy Fleming, he's a 35 year-old nervous type whose "career" is playing an astronaut on a rocket ship ride in a children's amusement park. He still lives at home with his doting mother (Jeanette Nolan) and his overbearing father, Buck (Arthur O'Connell), who keeps bragging about his heroics in WWI and instills military discipline in the household. ("Well, he was a corporal, and you know how bossy they could be!" explains Roy's mom.) Buck wants his son to live up to his own self-proclaimed achievements in the Great War and without Roy's knowledge, sends in an application to NASA under his son's name. The goal is to get Roy into the astronaut training program. When an acceptance letter to report to NASA arrives in the mail, Roy goes into panic mode at the prospect of being an astronaut. He's suffered from a fear of heights since childhood and he reminds his mother that he can't even bring himself to get on the step stool to reach the marmalade jar. Attempts to share his fears with his father fall on deaf ears as Buck is a big-mouthed blowhard who immediately starts bragging to the entire town about his son's achievement. Soon, Roy is the reluctant guest at a party in which he is already cited as a local hero. Not wanting to humiliate himself or his father- not to mention local girl Ellie (Joan Freeman), who is trying to impress- Roy leaves for the NASA training center. (An amusing, on-going gag finds Roy pretending to board planes but secretly slipping away so he can take a safer mode of transportation: a Greyhound bus.)
Once he reports to NASA, Roy is both relieved and bemused by the fact that he has not been accepted for astronaut training but, in fact, is a janitor-in-training. When his father and his friends make a surprise visit to the facility, Roy tries to cover up his shame by dressing as an astronaut and demonstrating a new rocket sled with predictably disastrous results. Upon being fired and unmasked as a fraud, he returns to his hometown in shame, leaving his father heartbroken. However, this familiar dilemma in all of Knotts's feature films is resolved in predictable fashion by fate allowing him a chance to redeem himself. NASA learns that the Soviets are about to demonstrate the effectiveness of their new automated space capsule by launching a dentist who has no experience with astronaut training. NASA is eager to beat them to the punch and decides to ask Roy to volunteer. The scenes of the panic-stricken nerd trying to cope with space travel are among the funniest bits in the film. Naturally, a disaster occurs and Roy saves the day by summoning hidden courage that even he didn't know he possessed.
"The Reluctant Astronaut" doesn't have the cult following that "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" has built but it's equally good and at times laugh-out-loud funny thanks to Knotts' comedic genius and an inspired supporting cast that includes Leslie Nielsen (still trapped in pre- "Airplane" mode when studios didn't realize his comic potential), Arthur O'Connell, Jesse White, Jeanette Nolan, Frank McGrath and Paul Hartman. There are other familiar elements of the Knotts feature films: a good script by Everett Greenbaum and Jim Fritzell (head writers of "The Andy Griffith Show") and fine direction by Knotts's frequent collaborator, Edward Montagne. Naturally, there's also a zippy and amusing score by Vic Mizzy.
Universal has once again provided a terrific Blu-ray transfer with eye-popping colors. Not to sound like an ingrate, but I feel compelled to repeat my only criticism of these Knotts releases, which is their complete lack of bonus materials, especially since the DVD editions contained the original trailers which are easily available for the Blu-ray releases. However, even if you have the DVD editions in your library, the quality of the Blu-rays releases merits upgrading if you're a true Knotts fan.
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