Tuesday, July 03, 2012

In Memoriam: Andy Griffith, 1926-2012



It's supposed to be an insult, describing a performer as a "professional [ethnicity]"--someone who, with little else to recommend him, makes a living pandering to stereotypes. Andy Griffith, born in 1926 in Mount Airy, N.C., was a lifelong professional Southerner, but he turned that into an honorable calling. As much as anything--his huge range, his astonishing career longevity--it makes him unique.

The work cycles through all the images of Southernness, good, bad, and ambiguous. He first popped onto the radar doing a hillbilly-preacher routine, "What It Was, Was Football," that remains hilarious, in large part because it's so obviously a put-on. Never trust a Southerner who's playing dumb. At most, they're probably just feeling cornered. (The Siren knew a man who, like Griffith, was from North Carolina. The guy was getting a Ph.D. from Princeton, but threatened with ejection from a nude beach for refusing to shuck his swimming trunks, he took the Mayberry accent to Defcon 1 with "Hey, c'mon y'all. I'm Baptist." He stayed, and so did his swimsuit.) The joke in "What It Was, Was Football" is also on the audience that's willing to go along with the fantasy of a redneck who doesn't understand football, even in 1953.

Later, on TV in 1955, on stage and in the 1958 movie of No Time for Sergeants, Griffith took the same basic character and again played around with whether or not you believed he's actually this clueless. A psychiatrist (James MIlhollan), assigned to analyze Griffith's Private Will Stockdale, needles him with "I think that I would rather live in the rottenest pigsty in Tennessee or Alabama than the fanciest mansion in all of Georgia. How about that?" And Griffith responds with the air of a man employing infinite tact:  "Well, sir... I think where you wanna live is your business."

In between, in 1957, Griffith had his finest 125 minutes in Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd, a portrait of venality so potent that people still argue over which pimple on our nation's body politic is the best latter-day analogue for Lonesome Rhodes. The Siren isn't going to have that argument (this is a tribute, not a brawl). But Rhodes is another example of a man using down-home wiles, only this time to mask megalomania. Rhodes is an empty vessel, braying about whatever's expedient; who knows what he believes, other than that life owes him, big time.

It's about what Rhodes brings out in his fans--what fellow Southerner James Agee described, in reviewing another movie, as American "nasty-nationalistic self-pitying self-congratulation." Again, that's a common Southern stereotype, but the character didn't have to be Southern. We don't produce more demagogues than other parts of the country; it just seems that way, maybe because the accent gives ours that certain je ne sais quoi. Whatever it is, wow, did Griffith have it. Griffith's so committed to the part that even his sweat looks poisonous. It's such a physical performance, pure animal cunning and predatory movement, coiled to spring one moment, stalking his territory from boundary to boundary the next. That laugh, Jesus--is there a more repulsive laugh in American cinema? Griffith's mouth swings open as though he's going to eat his enablers in one gulp.

From Griffith's final years, the Siren chiefly knows Matlock. And the Siren likes Matlock, if not as much as she loves Murder, She Wrote. For the Lansbury the Siren has impeccable company, for Matlock who knows, but the Siren got real tired, real fast of people mocking her about both shows. Listen, if you hate the basic formula and find the production values lacking or the scripts rote, fair enough. But if your disdain is based on the fact that Griffith was old and the guest stars were old and the audience was old--what's up with that? We're all gonna be old, insh'allah, as they always used to say back home in Birmingham. Many of the old people the Siren has known were and are awesomer than she will ever become. Matlock's the oldest and the smartest guy in the room. How is this not way cool? And like every TV crime fighter the Siren has ever loved, from Columbo on, Matlock banks on people underestimating him, lulled by his folksy Southern ability to seem much, much less threatening than he actually is.

The Siren, along with most cinephiles, reveres A Face in the Crowd, but for the larger public the apotheosis is The Andy Griffith Show. Reruns were the Siren's after-school routine. Cookies, milk, Andy, Barney, Opie and Aunt Bea. She didn't identify with the milieu all that much; she had relatives in small-town Alabama, but to say that Mayberry is idealized is like saying not all town drunks are as lovable as Otis. But she thought it was glorious then, and still does. She has a few favorites--like the one where Opie kills a mother bird and Andy makes him nurse the fledglings, which stays with you for the same reason The Yearling stays, because it shatters your heart to powder. The Siren can also crack up those in the know by drawling, "Not that one, Pa, that one always makes me cry."

But here the Siren is going to describe the episode she loves best, without relying on anything more than her memory. Aunt Bea's birthday is coming up, and she yearns for a lace-trimmed bed-jacket she saw in a store window. Andy, however, has decided that what Aunt Bea really needs is a big set of preserve jars. He has them gift-wrapped and presents them to Aunt Bea, who's convinced she's getting the bed-jacket. She rips off the paper, already exclaiming in anticipation, "Oh it's beautiful, it's the most..." And she sees the jars, and stammers, "beautiful preserve jars I've ever..." She dissolves into tears, and hastens from the room.

Here's what the Siren remembers most: Not Frances Bavier's face, but Griffith's, watching her, dumbfounded. He loves this old woman so dearly, and he can't believe how badly he's hurt her. But then, in the Siren's memory, she sees his expression start to alter, as he already ponders how to set it right. Andy Griffith could make you believe that Southerners were bumpkins, that they were corrupt, that they were deadly and wily and brilliant, and he could make you believe that the primary quality of being Southern was loving kindness.

(Above photo from the indispensable If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger.)

48 comments:

Dave said...

Fun fact: Andy Griffith and Marilyn Monroe were born on the same day: June 1, 1926.

Caftan Woman said...

That Griffith fellow - he knew what he was doing. There is something special watching someone so accomplished and, apparently, so at ease with their abilities.

May I say I adored your rant on "Murder, She Wrote"/"Matlock" detractors? Also, may I quote you?

The Siren said...

Dave - she would have been 86!! Wow.

Caftan Woman, thank you, and quote away!

Trish said...

Shows like "Murder She Wrote" and "Matlock" gave employment to many aging and forgotten actors. It was nice to see them again, and I'm sure many of them appreciated the work.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Lovely. As witty, and perceptive, and sweet a valentine as I have ever read.

I also like "Murder, She Wrote", dadgummit.

Chris Walters said...

Lonesome Rhodes or at least his shadow reappears, considerably mellowed though still venal, in the wonderful Hearts Of The West.

Robert said...

Here's hoping the Academy doesn't pull another Harry Morgan.

Yojimboen said...

"If you live in France, for instance, and you have written one good book, or painted one good picture, or directed one outstanding film fifty years ago and nothing else since, you are still recognized and honored accordingly. People take their hats off to you and call you 'maître.' (I forget where I read that.)

Let’s add “…one good performance…” to that list; though in this case it would be “…one seminal, life-changing, genuinely jaw-dropping performance…”

RIP Maître Lonesome.

Dan Leo said...

Excellent tribute, dear Siren.

The Siren said...

Thanks so much, guys.

Yojimboen, lovely. Sometimes I think about changing that epigraph, just because. And then I think, no, dagnabbit, THAT IS THIS BLOG. That's it, right there, Herr von Stroheim. One is all it takes here. How many people even have that many?

Robby Cress said...

Nice tribute to someone who seems like a nice man and who was a fine actor. I always liked Andy Griffith when i was a kid from his early TV show. When I finally saw him in the films A Face In The Crowd and No Time For Seargents my admiration for him grew tremendously. He was so dramatically intense in the first and absolutely hilarious in the second. Those two films really show what acting range Griffith had in him. R.I.P. Mr. Griffith.

preston said...

A beautiful appreciation, Siren. Unequivocally, he made us artistically-minded North Carolinians very proud, and without compromise of behavior. Your remembrance of the Andy Griffith Show episode in another time and place could have been out of an Ozu film.
Thanks again.

Karen said...

That final paragraph made me cry, Siren. Lovely. I remember that episode well.

I didn't see the show in reruns; I was curled up next to my father on the couch when I was immersed in Mayberry. It was an idyllic place: sweet but mot saccharine, funny but not farcical, sentimental but not self-indulgent.

Thanks for this fitting tribute. I hope Opie's doing all right tonight.

Dave Enkosky said...

Oh my God, this is such a bummer. His work was such a huge part of my childhood. Thanks for the beautifully written tribute.

MikeT said...

A great actor, with your remembrance of "A Face in the Crowd" especially acute. I'm not sure if Griffith made any movies after that, but if not, his supporting role in "Waitress" would have made a lovely swan song.

rcocean said...

While Andy has some great moments in "Face in the Crowd" Kazan forces him to be way over-the-top in too many scenes. I thought he was a better villain in "Savages" and "Pray for the Wildcats". A good dramatic actor and great comic one, he had the good sense to see that Sheriff Andy should be the straight man not the funny hick.

Rachel said...

It's a testament to the power of A Face in the Crowd that people still get so riled up and defensive about it. But watching it, I'm never doubting Lonesome Rhodes' existence. Or his power. It's such a big performance, in every sense of the word.

Here's a lovely interview with the late Patricia Neal discussing the film. Matthau, Remick, Neal, and now, Griffith.

Thanks for this wonderful tribute, Siren.

hamletta said...

Glad MikeT brought up "Waitress" so I just have to chime in. He's wonderful in that movie, which I love in a way that is rather unseemly.

And what everybody said about "A Face In the Crowd." It's so disturbingly prescient, and Griffith's performance is magnificent.

X. Trapnel said...

Have we all forgotten Onionhead? The only service comedy about the Coast Guard I'm aware of (for all I know there may be one about the Merchant Marine).

In greatness and prophecy I would link Griffths' LR with Tony Curtis's Sidney Falco as truthful performances that link up with preexistent/future American types and magnify them way beyond what was considered daring and truthful during the period. How tame Burt Lancaster's Elmer Gantry seems beside Lonesome Rhodes.

Vanwall said...

I'll admit, as a boy, I wasn't taken with the "Shows With Trees In 'Em", as someone once called them after they were all axed in a night of long knives once. I dutifully watched many, tho, and out of them all, and all the actors, I kept wishing for more Andy Griffith and less everyone else. Then one day, I caught "A Face in the Crowd" and images from that day were burned into my brain - especially by Patricia Neal, and Griffith's Lonseome. His Mayberry receded into the background, immediately, for me. I, too liked "Matlock", just because it was Andy, and his menacing roles on TV movies and such were great fun - he was a force onscreen, as shown by his sly scene stealing in "Waitress", where ha flashe a little of Lonesome out to just to show he could still do it, I think.
Lovely tribute, Siren, to one of our great actors.

gmoke said...

I second Chris Walters' recommendation of Andy Griffith in "Hearts of the West."

Lenny Bruce used to do a routine about how some people think a Southern accent makes you sound dumb. It's been going on for a long, long time and still continues. Griffith was a fine actor and made good choices in his material. He had integrity (and fun) in just about everything I saw him do.

"A Face in the Crowd" continues to cut too close to the bone about Amurrican politics.

Bill Coleman said...

Good to see this. As soon as I saw that Andy Griffith had passed on,I decided to watch "Face in the Crowd" again tonight, and it holds up as well as ever, it may be my favorite Kazan film. So when I checked out this site it was good to see this here. Andy Griffith was a beloved personality, but he was also a underrated actor.

rcocean said...

"It's a testament to the power of A Face in the Crowd that people still get so riled up and defensive about it."

Really? I don't know anyone who get angry or defensive. I know some who like it a lot, and more who think its rather silly and over-the-top. But then maybe you know people who get "riled up" about Arthur Godfrey.

The Siren said...

I am feeling very guilty about not having seen "Waitress," given that I am also a fan of the late, lovely & lamented Adrienne Shelly. Hope to remedy that, as well as "Hearts of the West."

XT, "Onionhead" -- yikes, that is not a euphonious title, is it? And the tag line is not much better: "The Ship's Cook Who Has the Coast Guard in a Stew!" Still, I'll bet it's fun.

Vanwall, I never got into any of the other rural shows that also lived on in after-school re-runs. The difference was the scripts, I think. There was a Lil' Abner quality to something like Green Acres or Petticoat Junction and god I cannot stand Lil' Abner, never could. The Andy Griffith Show is very gentle and wry. When it was broad, it was still never mean. I realized I didn't know a thing, I mean not one thing about Griffith personally until I was reading the obits, and it wasn't really surprising to hear that he was quite the perfectionist. But the show is easygoing, always.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Godfrey wasn't political in the way "Lonesome Rhodes" is, but he was right on the verge -- thus inspiring this movie.

As marvelous as Griffith is, the film belongs to Patricia Neal. First for the scene where he's taking her to bed with him, going on and on about his fame and his plans. You can see her disgust at not him, but herself. He has a sexual oldover her that she's finding it difficult to shake off. Then there's the climactic scene where she pulls all the levrs in the control room so the world can hear what he REALLY thinks. The look on her face is terrifying.

The Siren said...

David, Neal is cap-B Brilliant in AFITC but I don't know if I'd say it's her movie. Maybe not even Griffith's. Actors feed off what they get from one another and they're ALL so good here--Remick and Matthau and Franciosa, too. Obviously I disagree with Rcocean on the merits of Griffith's performance but it's an undeniably huge turn; the character has to be, you have to see what gets him from the drunk tank to the top of the American media. But none of the other actors let him push them around on screen, and I do agree that Neal is every bit as compelling as Griffith.

Kazan keeps the balance. I think we've all seen movies where one overwhelming performer pushes everybody else to the margins; I'm thinking about how Hitchcock let Laughton run roughshod over Jamaica Inn, and we know I worship Laughton. That doesn't happen in AFITC.

Vanwall said...

Siren, I agree about the comic-strip qualities of those connected shows to a degree, but I guess I was more bothered by what I later realized was the relationship they all had with the Lonesome Rhodes fake TV show - a kind of look-the-other-way over-done aspect, that was popular to a strange degree; whatever happened to STICKS NIX HICK PIX? I would've like to see more "Pogo" than "Lil' Abner", myself.

A lot of TV Westerns had that rose-colored aspect, too, but I guess they couldn't've made series out of "The Culpepper Cattle Company", or "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly" in those times. I used to wonder where all the Hispanics were in those westerns, except maybe "High Chaparral".

Back to Griffith, he had a knack for being very different and you could believe what each character was supposed to be, even though they all looked alike - no need to disguise that face, it was the best part of the sell. And let's face it, nobody smiled like Andy Griffith, it was seductive, goofy, sinister, and serious all at once.

DavidEhrenstein said...

He's quite remarkable and becomingly modest in Waitress, written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelley and assembled by her friends after her murder.

pvitari said...

Re Onionhead: The Warner Archive Collection was asked about this title on their Facebook page. Their response: "We've had plans to remaster ONIONHEAD in 16x9 for quite a while now, and it was already in our (very extensive) remastering queue. Based on initial element evaluation, we don't anticipate this to be a troublesome project, and fans can look forward to our DVD release in the not too distant future."

hum'n'mum said...

Beautiful, Siren.

I suspect we all have our favorite epiodes. I always loved the way in which Griffith always made you aware of the limits of Andy Taylor's patience. But his exasperation only rarely got the upper hand. That reveal and pull-back was a testament to the actor, even as the character offered a moral lesson in tolerance and patience. How many times can one eat spaghetti sauce with "my secret ingredient- oregano!" in one night? As many times as necessary if you care about people's feelings, according to Sheriff Taylor.

A bit off point, but SCTV's "Merv Griffith" parody, with Rick Moranis' sly and treacly composite take as Merv Griffin/Andy Griffith, is a truly hilarious spoof of the whole Mayberry gang. Like Andy Griffith, SCTV was always gentle in it's comedy- no matter how savagely accurate the parody. Oooooooooh.....!!!

WThompson said...

Thank you for your lovely remembrance. As always, you are gracious, witty and trenchant. As a southern boy, far from the mountains, a couple of years younger than Ron Howard, Andy has been a constant in my life, from listening to the 'What it was...' LP on a Grundig in Heidelberg to watching his show back in the States. The TV show is unfairly categorized as a rural, nostalgia piece. The writing gently deconstructed small town life through poking fun at universal human foibles. A personal favorite moment was Briscoe Darling asking Andy whether there was any witchcraft in his family. Andy responded, 'Just a little on my mama's side.' Folks used to proudly put their crazy aunt in a rocking chair on the front porch rather than in the attic. The attic would be too hot anyway. Griffith proved his talent at least holding his own with Patricia Neal at her best. One curiosity was Brooklynite Tony Franciosa being cast as a Southerner in AFITC and The Long Hot Summer- lucky boy, playing Lee Remick's paramour and husband.

Yojimboen said...

I think there’s a rule of somebody’s thumb that you have to love something to spoof it well, and these are pretty good.

(Though I never actually saw any of his TeeVee work, I’m hopin’ they’ll hit the spot.) SCTV and Mad TV.

I think Andy G would approve.

rcocean said...

Although its an Andy G. thread, I just wanted to join in the love for Patricia Neal. Another one of those actors who never gave a bad performance.

cgeye said...

As I recall, Godfrey was referred to more than once in the film, to perhaps indemnify the production through litigation -- 'cause AG, as seen through his La Rosa firing, could be as ruthless as anyone, and he had LR's reach on CBS Radio *and* TV. Like Mr. Ehrenstein said, AG wasn't LR, but he was hella close.

The first thing I hoped for once I heard the news was, "I know folks love and respect Mr. Griffith's TV work, but count it all -- the dog-bitin' roles on his movies of the week, AFITC, as well as his cast-iron solid series." I should known you had it covered, La S.

And, as for the sly Southerner stereotype, I still have negative connotations about that charm, as if with one turn of a smile the lynching ropes go up. (Yes, I know, unfair, but for my kin it's the not-so-distant past.)

It's also why I canna stand Mrs. Bacon in The Closer -- a Homeland Security-strength interrogator working in a majority-minority LA? Bad vibes, man --

-- but then, I'm a contrarian, and consider Colombo just as ethnically-exaggerated and unfair to criminals. You don't see Sherlock Holmes pulling that, "who? lil' ol' *me*" crap, do you? I like good guy and bad guy, equally smart and matched....

RosieP said...

I've always enjoyed shows like "Murder She Wrote" and "Matlock". In fact, one of the best "Matlock" episodes I have recently seen, featured Terry O'Quinn from "Lost". And I also just finished the NBC miniseries, "Centennial", which featured Griffith in the final episode.

I was shocked to hear about his death, despite him being over 80. My family and I had recently watched the 1958 movie "No Time for Sergeants" and it was as funny as ever. I'll miss you, Mr. Griffith.

silverscreenings said...

This is a wonderful tribute to A. Griffith. I agree wholeheartedly with your review of his performance in "A Face in the Crowd". ...And you're so right about being wary when a Southerner "plays dumb"!

Kirk said...

Fantastic tribute to a performer who, after a very strong start, became somewhat underrated as time went by. I never thought much about his southern accent before except to wonder if it maybe limited his choice of roles. But you're right. He played that thing like an instrument. A Jimi Hendrix of the southern drawl.

For a few years in the 1950s, Andy Griffith was both a movie star AND a star on Broadway. It was only after ONIONHEAD flopped at the box office that he opted for the safety net of a sitcom. THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW was great, but you can't really know the extent of Griffith's talent from watching that show alone.

As far as A FACE IN THE CROWD is concerned, do you, Siren, or any one reading this, have any opinions of that movie compared to MEET JOHN DOE? Similar storylines, except in the former, the populist "hero" becomes even more corrupted than the corrupters around him.

Yojimboen said...

Re Meet John Doe and AFITC: a good question.
It’s probable the common source was Will Rogers – Budd Schulberg said often that Rogers was the inspiration for Lonesome Rhodes (and not Arthur Godfrey as is widely supposed). But I think maybe AFITC evolved simultaneously along a different path.

Schulberg’s great lost novel, “The Disenchanted” was in many ways a rehearsal for (his now and forever unfilmable) “What Makes Sammy Run”, which in turn was practice for AFITC.

Sammy Glick shares more than a little DNA with Lonesome Rhodes, just as Al Manheim (Sammy’s Greek chorus) is reincarnated as Marcia Jeffries and Mel Miller (Neal and Matthau).

Come to think of it, Johnny Friendly (Lee Cobb) in Waterfront also has Sammy and Lonesome’s cobra charm.
(Who says you have to be a director to be an Auteur)?

Sadly, they’re all gone now, so we’ll never know.

gmoke said...

John Doe in "Meet John Doe" is a patsy cast for the part. Lonesome Rhodes is no patsy but a conniver in his own advancement. John Doe tries to redeem himself and Lonesome sees no need for redemption at all.

X. Trapnel said...

Whatzat? Great lost(?) novel The Disenchanted (1950) a rehearsal for What Makes Sammy Run (1941)? I'm confused.

Some of the thematic differences between M.J. Doe and AFITC are traceable to the sociopolitical differences between the 30s and 50s, different brands of populism. The downfall of Lonesome Rhodes is temporary; there are no more John Does.

Yojimboen said...

Wondered how long it would take you to wake up and catch that and slap me down… (Hey, you live in your time warp, I'll live in mine!)

It’s been a bad month, X: Sarris, Griffith, Norah Ephron and now Ernie Borgnine; damn, some serious losses to the increasingly impoverished American scene.

Yojimboen said...

Msr X - I checked my first draft – it reads “echo of…” How that tuned into “rehearsal for…” I’ve no idea – maybe it’s because I read them in reverse order? (That or the drugs.) Anyway, of course The Disenchanted is “lost”, I haven’t seen my copy in years. I didn’t lend it to you, did I?

X. Trapnel said...

Bad month and how! Geo. H. Death has had his scythe well battered and ought to take a rest. Meanwhile, Im ducking back into my time warp.

I just picked up a nice, cheap used copy of The Disenchanted with dust jacket.

X. Trapnel said...

Well, I'll send you my old copy.

The other day while searching my two packed and groaning shelves of Fitzgerald (works and days, bios, criticism, Sheila Graham oeuvre) for some bit of Fitz-arcana I realized I had no copy of The Great Gatsby.

Yojimboen said...

I probably have a extra copy or two, but you may not want them, being as they're rather well-thumbed Penguins. (Now there's a phrase you don't hear often?)

X. Trapnel said...

I'm brooding over the Cambridge edition for some ungodly price.

Do you mean REAL Penguins? (British, white cover with orange sides, title, author, and pound price.) With such in my pocket I feel like a spy, an adulterer, ducking out of the rain and into a Lyons Corner House to gather my bitter thoughts.

Yojimboen said...

About the only two things I miss from o'er the water:

Penguins and Penguins.

Yojimboen said...

An intriguing banner shot, chère Sirène – new to me – Garbo and John Gilbert seem lost in distinctly separate reveries between takes (Love 1927 ?) – supposedly at the height of their passion.