Throughout the 1960s, Don Knotts enjoyed box office success with a series of wholesome, family-oriented comedies for Universal. At the end of the decade, Universal took a gamble by starring Don Knotts in a mildly risque social satire, THE LOVE GOD? Contemporary filmgoers responded coolly to this film, but it has stood the test of time as both a witty lampoon of media manipulation and a fine showcase of Knotts's talents.
Knotts plays Abner Peacock, the mild-mannered editor of a floundering bird-watching magazine, The Peacock. Osborn Tremaine (Edmund O'Brien) takes over the publication. While Abner's away on a bird-watching safari, Osborn transforms The Peacock into a pornography magazine. When Abner returns, he finds himself with a notorious reputation.
Director/writer Nat Hiken (the genius behind THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW and CAR 54 WHERE ARE YOU?) humorously examined the way the media and special interest groups distort people's images for their own self interests. A civil liberties lawyer (James Gregory) who represents Peacock when he's arrested by the FBI presents his client as an experienced smut peddler instead of an unwitting dupe so he can pursue his theories of Constitutional free speech law. The press perpetuates the myth of Abner as a "filthy little degenerate sex fiend" because it makes great copy. And the new editor of Peacock (Anne Francis) insists that he cultivate the image of a debonair womanizer because his scandalous publicity has boosted the magazine's sales.
As played by the goofy looking, geeky acting Knotts, Abner is laughably unconvincing as a Hugh Hefner type. The comic incongruity of this situation is enhanced by the ladies' swooning reaction over him as if he was Adonis reborn. Hiken satirically demonstrates in these sequences how the media can make the public go wild over certain individuals they would normally scoff and ignore.
If Hiken provides the film's bite, then Don Knotts provides the film's heart. As in his other films, he is a klutzy nerd who seems easily manipulated by others. But Knotts also provides a beguiling innocence and a folksy amiability that wins the audience over, making them root for him to succeed. THE LOVE GOD? is an underappreciated highlight in Knotts' career.
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