8/4/12

The Other Andy: The Girl in the Empty Grave (1977)

It was only a little over a month ago that entertainment lost a real legend, Andy Griffith. Since then, I’ve found myself taking quite a few trips to Mayberry to catch up with a number of episodes of The Andy Griffith Show that I had missed, but my mind often drifted to The Other Andy, the one that isn’t as strong in the zeitgeist as the folksy character Andy Taylor. I’m talking about the actor Andy Griffith who made some really interesting, and, yes, campy, genre filled films both before and after his career as a TV lawman. After beginning his career as a singer and storyteller, Griffith found his way to the Broadway stage in No Time for Sergeants which quickly became a successful film property. This lead to his casting in Elia Kazan’s tale of fame gone awry, A Face in the Crowd, a film which is nearly universally regarded as a classic. It wasn’t too long after this heavy hitting film that the backdoor pilot for The Andy Griffith Show appeared as part of The Danny Kaye Show. The segment proved popular, and Griffith assumed the role which would define his career. Unless, that is, you run into one of those rabid Matlock people, and then I advise you to use all applicable caution
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When The Andy Griffith Show came to an end after seven seasons (and continued with the Griffith-less Mayberry R.F.D.), Andy struggled to find another project that would offer the same success as his eponymous show. Two shows in a row, Headmaster and The New Andy Griffith Show, only lasted one season, and the same fate befell his series Adams of Eagle Lake, Salvage 1 (a sci-fi series based off the work of Isaac Asimov), and The Yeagers. During the years when he was struggling to find a show, Griffith made some fascinating choices in roles in Made for Television Movies. One of these films, Pray for the Wildcats, is the stuff of myth and legend around The LBL for throwing Andy Taylor and Captain Kirk into conflict during a dirt biking journey, but he made a large number of these films, some of them one offs, some of them hopeful backdoor pilots, but all of them showing off The Other Andy. Today, I want to talk about one that leaves Griffith in the role of Sheriff, actually Chief of Police in this case, with a few bumbling deputies and no gun on his side, but the problems are larger than Aunt Bee’s nasty pickles or a few rogue moonshiners. This time Griffith has murder on his hands in The Girl in the Empty Grave.

Griffith stars as Abel Marsh, the Police Chief of a small Southwestern town. It’s a quiet relaxed kind of community where the local petty thief comes and goes as he pleases at the Police station. Abel is assisted by character actor Claude Earl Jones and James Cromwell (?!?) as his inept Police force. When Abel's deputy reports that he saw Elizabeth Alden (Deborah White), a notorious wild child who drove plunged to her death after driving here car off a cliff, Abel scoffs at his deputy. Then he sees her himself and begins to poke around the investigation of Elizabeth’s death. As he starts to come up with more questions than answers, he starts to believe that it may not be the Alden’s daughter buried in her grave. As Abel gets closer to the truth, people start getting murdered, imposters show up to claim to be Elizabeth, and even his friends will come under suspicion.

The Girl in the Empty Grave has a title evocative enough to have come from one of the masters of the giallo, but, while it shares a love of red herrings, the movie plays out like a classic whodunit with little surprises as the plot unfolds. Though the final couple of twists are a bit left field, it was too little too late to save what could have just as easily been an episode of Murder, She Wrote. That’s not to say that The Girl in the Empty Grave is not without its charms. Griffith is earnest without all the folksy charm of Andy Taylor, and the character seems competent to handle a murder investigation while still being able to chat about the best fishing. This film and Deadly Game, also released in 1977, were attempts to spin the character of Abel Marsh into his own show. The attempt failed, and by all reports, The Girl in the Empty Grave is the better of the two efforts. The highlight of the film is the interaction between Griffith and James Cromwell as his affable Fife-esque deputy. It’s a role that I wouldn’t have expected from Cromwell, but deeply entertaining. Director Lou Antonio was a television series and movie stalwart, and he applies an even hand to the proceedings which doesn’t hinder the action or raise it above its TV roots.

This was Griffith’s second attempt at a straight up cop show, the first Adams of Eagle Lake, had been spun out of the TV Movie Winter Kill. So he had reason to believe that the course could lead to something again, but if The Girl in the Empty Grave is the better of the two films, then there was little to hook an audience into wanting to see more beyond Griffith. His lawman is serious, but compassionate, but there was no warmth or humor to the character as if he was consciously trying not to fall into any of the tropes of Andy Taylor. While The Girl in the Empty Grave shows that The Other Andy was always  trying to escape the long shadow cast by Mayberry, sometimes the result just makes the audience long for an Ernest T. Bass sized brick to throw at the screen. Well, I hope you enjoyed this look at The Other Andy, and join us back here each Saturday this month for another installment as The LBL remembers Andy Griffith in a different way.

Bugg Rating

Sadly there's no trailer for this one, but here's another side of Andy singing the song "Mama Guitar"


2 comments:

  1. When I started reading this, I was hoping you'd dug up something where Andy played the bad guy (only one I could dig up was a TV movie called Savages).

    Interesting stuff, though. I was a huge fan of the TV show, but never really got into much else that Andy did, to be honest. He'll always just be Andy Taylor to me.

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  2. Dont worry James. I've got some evil Andy coming up over the next few weeks. This week I more wanted to set up his wilderness years between Andy Taylor and Ben Matlock.

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