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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.
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".
But as a drama, there is none, or almost none. Andy's character didn't like his girlfriend sitting with a guy at a party where he was a waiter, so he rudely goes over and throws a drink on him. Then he is demanding of the girl, so she tells him to take a hike.
He decides instantly to quit school and join the Coast Guard. After one unfunny training scene, he picks a fight with the non-com trying to wake him up. That gets him assigned as a cook on a ship, without any training.
The head cook, Walter Matthau, is surly and wants nothing to do with him, and doesn't care that he hasn't been trained at all. Meanwhile, Andy sees a girl in a bar.
He goes after her in a most disturbing way. Right after meeting her, he is so grabby, huggy that he is totally unlikeable. The second time he sees her--no real date, no getting to know her, he just can't keep his mitts off her. He talks about taking her to a hotel.
This is supposed to be 1941. He knows almost nothing about her, but wants a hotel. When she resists, he is indignant and thus spoils that relationship. Then we learn that although she told him she isn't seeing anyone special, that she is engaged to the head cook. So we see that she is totally unfaithful to her fiancé.
This is about where I checked out. Nobody in this film is likable. There is no intense, or even interesting drama. Our "hero" is totally self-absorbed and seems to have no real "mission", no great task to accomplish at work and no desire for a real relationship with a woman, just quick sex.
I'm just glad this miserable film didn't ruin Andy's career, because his great roles as Andy Taylor and Ben Matlock, plus some other films make him one of my all-time favorite actors. I cannot imagine he ever worked in a film or show that was worse than this.