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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
While I agree that "Onionhead" does not rise near the standards of the two films it most resembles, ("Mister Roberts" and Andy Griffith's earlier "No Time for Sergeants"), I do have some fond memories of this film. Andy Griffith makes one wish that he had done more dramatic roles like this and "A Face in the Crowd" and Walter Matthau proves again how valuable he was in lifting even mediocre material above its natural level. The cast is full of interesting actors and at least one sequence was memorable enough when seen on television many years ago to make the phrase, "cinnamon rolls" a sure laugh-getter for my two brothers and I. It's greatest flaw really is it's inability to decide whether it's a standard service comedy or a character drama. The two parts of it's personality jar against each other rather than seeming lifelike. It's true too, that the main character comes across as rather unlikable for a good stretch of the film.
This was one of the main reasons I joined the United States Coast Guard in 1976 and retired in 2006. I was 10 years old when I saw the movie and have been remembering it every day since. I would like to find out how to purchase this for my home collection. As I remember the story, it is close to Mister Rogers plot, except a Coast Guard version instead. Granted, there are a lot of flaws one could develop of the view of the Coast Guard, it is the unsung hero of the United States Armed Forces. Very few people realize the how small the Coast Guard is, when I retired, there were only 35,000. This does not come out in this movie, which I wished it would have. Nor does the movie depict the dangerous jobs the men and women of the Coast Guard do on a daily basis.
Early in his acting career, Andy Griffith had two breakout roles that brought him fame. One was starring in the very gritty "A Face in the Crowd", the other starring in the teleplay and movie version of "No Time For Sergeants". Now considering that "Onionhead" is a military film that came out right after "No Time For Sergents", I naturally assumed it was a similar film--a hilarious comedy featuring Griffith as a very likable idiot. Imagine my surprise, then, when despite the silly title and proximity to "No Time For Sergeants", it had almost nothing in common with this film and really wasn't even a comedy. Sure, "Onionhead" had some comedic parts but only scattered about--otherwise, it was a pretty serious film. In addition, Griffith's character was incredibly different this time. Al Woods was certainly no innocent, but instead was headstrong, occasionally unlikable but ultimately decent guy. Just when you think you don't like him, he shows some character--just like a real life person. And, this real life aspect of the film is probably what will disappoint many viewers who are expecting a rollicking military comedy. However, despite failing to meet these expectations and having an uneven script and an occasionally tough to like leading man, it IS worth seeing. Griffith gives a nice performance and the more you watch the film the more you connect with it. So, if you do give it a try, don't assume it's a comedy or the same-old-same-old...and be patient. It's actually pretty good.
Apparently a lot of people who are used to Andy Griffith from No Time
For Sergeants or from the Andy Griffith Show were expecting something
quite different from Onionhead. This is an armed service film set in
the Coast Guard during World War II. It's got it's funny moments, but
if you're expecting No Time For Sergeants at sea you won't get it. At
least Griffith isn't redoing Lonesome Rhodes here.
Andy leaves the plains of Oklahoma behind and becomes a cook after a fashion on a Coast Guard vessel, earning the enmity which gradually warms to respect from chief cook Walter Matthau. He's got less success with Ray Danton the Executive Officer on his ship who is an American version of Captain Bligh in more ways than one. Fans of Mutiny On The Bounty will remember Clark Gable's lecture to Charles Laughton on all the ways that captains make extra money before and during their voyages. Danton has something of that racket going here.
But being headstrong and obstreperous Griffith does not observe the chain of command and causes more problems than what he's trying to solve. He's also got some romantic issues as well with girl he left behind Erin O'Brien-Moore and Felicia Farr the nymphomaniac wife of Walter Matthau.
Best scenes are in the galley with Matthau, Griffith separately and apart. Now their bits are standard for every Hollywood service comedy.
Such colorful cast members as James Gregory, Joey Bishop, Joe Mantell, Tige Andrews, and Claude Akins round out the cast. Many of them clean some Navy clocks when at a bar they're referred to as shallow water sailors. Onionhead is definitely a classic films though it's not quite a comedy.
Follow-up to Andy Griffith's big hit in "No Time for Sergeants" moves the action to the Coast Guard and WW II. Though more of a serious role this movie is usually advertised as a comedy when it crops up on TV even though there is none of the broad farce from the earlier film. The title concerns Griffith's character's hair falling out and having an onion mixture applied to it to promote hair growth. All around unmemorable.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I'd heard of this movie but had never seen it before yesterday. Given
it was the movie that Andy Griffith made right after his hilarious "No
Time for Sergeants" I expected it to be a comedy but after watching it
I'm not sure if it was a comedy, a drama or what.
Griffith plays Al Woods, a lower-class guy from Oklahoma who is working his way through college as a waiter at a high-toned sorority at the college---and getting hot and heavy with one of the sorority girls. She ends up rejecting him because of his low-born status. Infuriated, he quits school and since this is early 1941, he decides to join the service and get as far away as he can. A literal coin flip has him ending up in the Coast Guard.
Though he had entered the Coast Guard to forget women, Woods is still a rake and the first chance he has to hook up with a girl he does, going for the luscious Stella played by Felicia Farr. Assigned to a buoy tender as a cook, even though he doesn't know the first thing about being a cook, you think the movie is going to be a comedy like "No Time for Sergeants" but it never gets there. Woods, despite his lack of cooking skills, becomes a pretty good cook in short order and wins over the respect of the top cook played by Walter Matthau. As it turns out, he and Matthau are vying for the same woman. Matthau marries her but when he ships out for sea, Woods learns that Stella is very much on the make.
The movie is uneven. It never makes up its mind about being a comedy, a drama or something else. The "onionhead" reference isn't explained until well into the movie when Woods is convinced by another Coastie to shave his head. The test of wills between Woods and the supercilious executive officer comes and goes. Woods isn't really all that likable a character but Griffith does a pretty good job with the role. Matthau does his usual fine performance. Felicia Farr went on to be married to Jack Lemmon for awhile. The rest of the cast includes Joey Bishop, Tige Andrews and James Gregory. You can probably count all the movies about the Coast Guard on two fingers---"Onionhead" and the very good Kevin Costner movie, "The Guardian".
Unfortunately for the movie, I read the book first and so was vastly disappointed as so often happens when producers, directors and big time actors get involved. . The book had an influence on me joining in the USCG in 1959 on that exact type of 180' bouy tenders mostly, one home-ported in Charleston SC and another based in Honolulu, Hawaii, that spent most of its time cruising the Western and Southern Pacific. The movie hams up the story and must have had a committee of screen writers trying to put in slapstick humor. Years later I reread the book at least twice and it never failed to entertain. By then I could really appreciate the authenticity of the book's details that coincided with my personal adventures and were lost in the movie. I rented the 1958 movie once to see if my opinion had changed but it is no wonder it was a box office bomb.
It's springtime in 1941, at an Oklahoma college. Older-looking and
ardently amorous student Andy Griffith (as Alvin "Al" Woods) fails to
get his kissing partner past first base. Unable to score, he decides to
drop out and join the US Coast Guard. After training, Mr. Griffith is
stationed at a Boston, MA harbor. He is made assistant cook to gruff,
light-haired Walter Matthau (as "Red" Wildoe). They have some very
un-funny drunk scenes and both go for pretty Felicia Farr (as Stella).
In real life, she will marry actor Jack Lemmon. After the Japanese
attack Pearl Harbor, Griffith's ship is called into service.
"Onionhead" refers to a recurring subplot about Griffith going bald,
although he has one of the best heads of hair in the cast. Considering
the personnel involved in making this film, it's a disappointment and
most interesting for that observation.
**** Onionhead (10/1/58) Norman Taurog ~ Andy Griffith, Walter Matthau, Felicia Farr, Ray Danton
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This movie is trying to be all things to all viewers, and it fails at
each of them. There's plenty of story here, but the mixture of comedy
and drama is so uneven and just plain weird, that the movie is
There's a pretty good service comedy buried somewhere in there, but its never given a chance to fully come out and build up a head of steam. There's also an interesting character study of a troubled young guy (Andy Griffith) and his attempts to grow up in the military during WW2 (he even gets to use his Matlock skills at one point). There's also the basic story line from "An Officer and a Gentleman" in here, with Andy dealing with women just interested in marrying a military man for his pay and benefits. Unfortunately, each of these potentially interesting stories are tossed together, so that you never know from one scene to the next, which story is about to have its turn.
Andy and Walter Matthau played a great antagonistic relationship in "Face in the Crowd". Here, they're playing comedic pals, and they seem to work less well together. A drunk scene, in particular, looks like the worst dinner-theatre acting I've seen in some time.
I have seen the movie a few times over the years, and usually enjoy it for what it is. Its not a comedy, though it has funny moments, and the characters are interesting even though none of them is really appealing. I suppose it would have to be classified as a drama, though it isn't really dramatic in theme or treatment, and it isn't exactly slice of life, its too scatter-shot to be that. A series of incidents that define the character and development of a man from callow youth through cynical adult to something a bit more compassionate and understanding by the end of the movie. This movie was apparently something of a departure for Andy Griffith, as he rarely returned to this sort of material in his career, seeming to prefer a more slapstick, comedic role, but it does indeed demonstrate his capability of handling material outside that venue.
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