The Love God?

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“This is a dirty case and a dirty little man.”

The Love God? (1969) is easily the best of Don Knotts’ comedies. Unlike The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964), The Ghost And Mr. Chicken (1966) and the later The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975), The Love God? is an adult oriented farce. Of course The Love God? maintains the conservative morality of Knotts’ other pictures, but it never gets in the way of lampooning Hugh Hefner, Playboy magazine, and the sexual revolution.

Nat Hiken, a veteran screenwriter of sitcoms, penned and directed The Love God? as a satire of Hugh Hefner’s First Amendment trial and how capitalists were able to exploit the political left to safeguard the pornography business. The plot and structure of The Love God? barrows heavily from Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957). Knotts’ Abner Peacock is the publisher of a birding magazine that’s about to go under when in swoops Osborn Tremain (Edmond O’Brien) to “save the day” and entangle the naive Peacock in a court case for obscenity, a nudie magazine, a business relationship with the mob, and a Hefner-esque lifestyle totally at odds with Peacock’s Sunday school values.

Hiken’s script is truly savvy to the machinations and rationalizations of big corporations and the publishing world. A majority of the gags work, combining biting political satire with Knotts’ brand of goofball hijinks. The Love God? is so succinct in how it charts big business’ control over the American sexual revolution of the late sixties that The Love God? actually had to be re-rated PG-13 for sexual content (an outlandish notion if one is familiar at all with Knotts’ other films).

However the best gags in The Love God? come not from the history of Playboy magazine, but rather in the form of bird calls. Knotts’ character is introduced in a musical number at his church performing bird calls in a call and response song with the choir. Knotts’ distinct features contort comically as strange sounds emit in rapid succession from his mouth. Chirps, coos, quacks, crows, and any number of bird sounds are heard, climaxing with the shrill cry of the Bald Eagle as Don Knotts flaps his arms. After this bizarre spectacle Edmond O’Brien delivers the line “On your coo, my wife cried”.

The issues with The Love God? (besides its dated gender politics) are its budget and Hiken’s direction. Universal Pictures was never going to allot the budget necessary to make The Love God? as stylized as Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?. The Love God? doesn’t feel as low budget as The Reluctant Astronaut (1967) but it still feels confined and artificial. Hiken’s inexperience as a filmmaker doesn’t seemed to have helped either as his compositions feel more like television of that period rather than cinema. Even though The Love God? is Don Knotts’ best picture, it still isn’t a truly great movie.