The Love God?, 1969 (Don Knotts) Universal Pictures
“The public wants sex, sex and more sex!”
Don Knotts movies were a special treat when I was a kid. Sometimes they would show up in Saturday afternoon movie packages. The Incredible Mr. Limpet was a favorite, as was The Reluctant Astronaut, and The Shakiest Gun in the West. When you’re a kid, it’s a rainy day, and you have only five channels on television, this was like a slice of cinematic manna from heaven.
Even when you change the scenery, the story remains marginally the same: timid bookworm-type takes on a great task, and is then used or exploited for a time by shifty antagonists until he learns a lesson and falls ass-backwards into the success. This is nearly every Don Knotts movie ever made, and The Love God? is no exception. The Love God? marks the end of one era (the golden age of Hollywood) and the beginning of another (the “adult” sex comedy).
Sex comedies had been around for years. Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine appeared in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and Irma La Douce. Marilyn Monroe’s skirt went up over her knees in Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch. Rock Hudson and Doris Day had their little Pillow Talk. By the end of the ’60s, the formula was getting stale; what with all the teasing and chasing, so producers were constantly searching for material that would push the envelope.
Enter Don Knotts. Even in the opening titles, his voice accompanies the title card. “The Love God?,” he asks in his trademark whimper. Yes, it is hard to believe, but Don Knotts appeared in a sex comedy. It wasn’t racy enough to earn an “R” or “X” rating, though the movie was suggested for “mature” audiences and given the “M” rating. There is no nudity or profanity, other than the infrequent use of the word, “virgin,” which violated the Motion Picture Production Code at the time, though the word could be used in several different contexts without being construed as lurid.
What shocks me is how politically subversive the story is, and we’re talking about a Don Knotts movie; something that should only exist to provide a few harmless guffaws and leave the audience satisfied. Instead, The Love God? raises questions. Timid bird-lover (and expert bird-caller) Abner Audobon Peacock IV bemoans the financial failure of his bird-watching (that’s a lot of birds for one sentence) magazine, Peacock.
When the publication is about to fold, “smut” publisher Osborn Tremaine swoops in to save the day, buying Peacock with the promise of wider circulation on the condition that Abner take a sight-seeing trip to a faraway continent while he transforms Peacock into a “gentlemen’s magazine” a la Playboy (the closest analogy). This all happens without Abner’s knowledge.
Turnaround being fairly quick, the cops raid Peacock’s publication offices but Tremaine passes the buck to Abner, who is arrested when he returns from his trip. This is when The Love God? ventures into interesting territory. Three different groups all converge on Abner: civil liberties attorneys, free speech advocates, and the late ’60s equivalent of religious fundamentalists.
This is the kicker: each group hates Abner, but for their own reasons. They all agree he’s a smut peddler (even though all you have to do is talk to him), and some groups want to protect his right to publish while others want to kill him. His own attorney, Darrell Evans Hughes (James Gregory) refers to him as a “dirty little man” and a “filthy degenerate.” How could you hate Don Knotts?
If he were a disgusting degenerate, the movie wouldn’t be a comedy. It would be fairly disturbing. It would be The People vs. Larry Flynt. Tremaine gets a fresh infusion of financial backing for Peacock from mobster, J. Charles Twilight (B.S. Pully in a standout performance), also known as “Icepick Charlie.” Tremaine hires magazine editor, Lisa LaMonica (Anne Francis), to turn Peacock into a prestigious publication with fine art nudes from upscale photographers.
With Charlie and Lisa’s help, Peacock becomes a success. They then set their sights on Abner’s public image. They dress him like a pimp and surround him with beautiful women. Sort of like a goofy-looking Hugh Hefner with big teeth and Steve Buscemi eyes. Meanwhile back home, his “best girl,” Rose Ellen (Maggie Peterson) patiently waits his return so that he will eventually ask her to marry him.
Being that she’s the daughter of a minister, the nuptials hinge on the both of them being virgins. When Lisa discovers Abner is a virgin, she gets him drunk on champagne so that he’ll pass out and she can deflower him. To her credit, she decides not to go through with it because she finally figures out Abner is decent person. I can’t believe it took her this long. Abner, thinking he slept with Lisa, proposes marriage to make her an honest woman, which then leads to a wacky misunderstanding at the altar!
According to the press materials, Don Knotts met with writer Nat Hiken and discussed a story that would transform him into an “international sex symbol,” or so he thought. Hiken wrote the script and directed the movie; the fourth of a five-picture deal with Universal Pictures. The Love God? flopped miserably at the box office as audiences had no interest in this type of vehicle for Knotts. He would return to familiar territory with How to Frame a Figg in 1971 before moving on to Walt Disney Productions and the box office success of The Apple Dumpling Gang with Tim Conway.