‘Angel in My Pocket’ (1969): Has this Andy Griffith film been memory-holed?

Inexplicably missing-in-action movie from TV icon Andy Griffith. On April 1st, 1968, The Andy Griffith Show broadcast its final first-run episode, ending the-then #1-rated television show in the country, after eight highly successful seasons. Just one short year (and a day) later, Universal Pictures released Griffith’s charming little family programmer, Angel in My Pocket…and America couldn’t have cared less. That’s show biz.

By Paul Mavis

Written, directed, and cast with many of the same people that had made The Andy Griffith Show a beloved sitcom, Angel in My Pocket was damned with faint praise from the few critics who bothered to review it, but for whatever reasons, the same tens of millions of people who tuned in every week for eight years to watch “Andy Taylor” and the gang in Mayberry, decided not to show up and watch “The Reverend Samuel D. Whitehead” and his family in Wood Falls, Kansas. Curiously, no matter how fervently you may wish to correct the historical record and view Angel in My Pocket today, you’re going to have to settle for some blurry, fuzzy, washed-out bootleg copies of it, since Universal has refused to ever officially release it on home video (not even VHS). The question is: why? 

In the center of the country sits Wood Falls, Kansas, a quaint, picturesque little town essentially “ruled” by two feuding families: the Sinclairs, led by Will Sinclair (Henry Jones), the mayor of Wood Falls; and the Greshams, led by Axel Gresham (Edgar Buchanan). Both men, and their various relatives, sit on the Board of Governors for the care-worn Methodist Church of the Redeemer, where nothing gets done except firing the latest pastor unlucky enough to be assigned there (the current count: seven pastors in the last ten years).

What’s exasperated Bishop Morenschild (Larry D. Mann) to do with Wood Falls? Send in the Marines, apparently: newly ordained minister Samuel D. Whitehead (Andy Griffith), a Marine Corps combat veteran of Korea who worked in a brickyard to pay for seminary school, is finally given his first church. Crammed into Sam’s beat-up 1956 Nash Ambassador Super V8 for the long drive to Kansas, are his pregnant wife, Mary Elizabeth (Lee Meriwether), his three kids Sammy, Dink, and Rachel (Buddy Foster, Todd Starke, Amber Smale), his complaining mother-in-law Racine (Kay Medford), and his lazy, good-for-nothing drunk bum of a brother-in-law, Bubba (Jerry Van Dyke).

The Whiteheads’ initially positive reaction to the seemingly Norman Rockwell-ish Wood Falls is immediately shattered when, heading to their church, they come upon a full-scale riot in the town square, as the Sinclairs and the Greshams duke it out over the upcoming mayoral election (the political position has seesawed between the two families for 60 years). At the Church of the Redeemer (is that the same interior set used in Universal’s The Night Walker?), Sam and his family meet the deadpan caretaker, Calvin Grey (Parker Fennelly), who’s seen everything in his long years at the church.

What follows is a series of escalating, angry confrontations between Pastor Whitehead and the penny-pinching, do-nothing feuding families as he tries to actually get things done in Wood Falls. From a new boiler for the church, and a new pipe organ (from a burlesque house), not to mention asking the Board for a living wage, to addressing the overcrowded, poorly-supplied local school his kids go to, to trying to change the very politics of Wood Falls, Sam plots an inevitable collision course with the church’s (and town’s) bosses.  Who will win?

Finding reliable information on Angel in My Pocket’s production proved difficult, mainly because everyone had a different story to tell. For instance…was Griffith’s development deal with Universal for 3, 5, or 10 pictures? Because I read all three. One of Griffith’s biographers stated he received a $2 million dollar salary for Angel in My Pocket—a ridiculous number compared to established A-list movie stars at the time (they didn’t even pay Sean Connery that to return as James Bond a few years later). More than likely, looking at Angel in My Pocket’s inexpensive production, shot on the Universal lot and cast with well-known but inexpensive supporting character actors (as well as an “unproven” television star transitioning back into a long-stalled movie career), that $2 million was likely the entire budget for Angel in My Pocket—his salary included.

What isn’t hard to determine is Angel in My Pocket’s reception: the majority of critics dismissed it with condescending, backhanded compliments (or just openly derided it), while moviegoers, despite Griffith later darkly suggesting Universal lied to him about its final gross (entirely possible), stayed away. I went back and looked at the archives for my local newspaper for April, 1969. What amazed me was Angel in My Pocket premiering—with absolutely no artwork, no large ad—at one relatively small, third-run neighborhood house.

A mainstream studio release aimed at families, starring mega-TV star Griffith, should have opened, at the very least in my type of market, at the local drive-ins. However, Angel in My Pocket couldn’t even manage that in a market (Midwestern, much of it still rural or suburban) that perfectly fit Griffith’s demographic appeal. Evidently, even the booking companies and theater owners saw little chance for its success (I checked out other cities, too, including bigger ones like Pittsburgh, and while there was some minimal advertising, the longest run in any city was two weeks. Pretty dire).

I don’t know about your experiences, but my earliest memories—real memories, not manufactured “recalled” memories planted there by family or through an active imagination—all revolve around going to the movies, and certainly going to see Angel in My Pocket when I was four, is one of my earliest. That particular summer, my local drive-in brought it back for a week in the summer, on the bottom of a double bill with a huge hit from that same year: John Wayne’s True Grit. I could spend ten paragraphs trying to figure out why that particular double feature implanted so early on me, but why bother?

It’s all just guess work, anyway—who knows what a four-year-old is really thinking, or why? But I can still see in my mind flashes, images from both movies, viewed through our station wagon windshield, and this rather powerful connection to a concrete, identifiable past always crops up whenever I hear the theme music to either movie (I love Angel’s mellow rocking Glen Campbell-ish sound, laced with church bells—too bad no soundtrack album was ever released).

Excluding my own interests in having the movie out on home video, I simply can’t understand why Universal hasn’t released Angel in My Pocket on tape or disc (it did play infrequently in syndication in the 70s, and a few cable networks carried it for awhile in the 80s and 90s, but it’s disappeared the last few years, it seems). CBS continues to make millions off re-working The Andy Griffith Show for home video; why wouldn’t Universal want to soak up some of that leftover gravy?

Is it a legal issue? Maybe the Griffith estate controls the movie’s rights. I could see Griffith himself not wanting this “failure” out there while he was alive (although he had 43 years to get over it)…but his family can’t see there would be a greater demand for it from his many fans, now that he passed on? 

Maybe it’s simpler than either one of those theories. Maybe Angel in My Pocket’s original film elements are so physically degraded (or simply gone or lost), that there isn’t anything to remaster and release. I kinda doubt it: archivists always seem to find some pristine print in Argentina or some place, if they really look around. However, it’s entirely possible.

I have this reoccurring fantasy that I win the lottery—an obscene “F.U.” amount of dough, mind you, so I don’t have to ask how much things cost—and I go first to 20th Century-Fox and tell them the sky’s the limit on finding the lost 1966 Doctor Dolittle footage, before I go to Universal and offer to pay to restore and re-release Angel in My Pocket into 1,100 theaters over the Memorial Day weekend, and then onto 4K Blu (knowing Universal, though, I’d get their bill padded out with 40-year-old overhead from The Rockford Files, and it’s suddenly time to call the lawyers). It’s a nice daydream for a few minutes, I suppose…until I realize some pretentious assholes on a wonk “cineaste” forum (those dumbf*cks over at Criterion are good candidates) would question the color timing and aspect ratio and bit rate of my DVD restoration…and we’re right back to where we are now.

And where we are now, are bootlegs. Granted, you can tell that Angel in My Pocket wasn’t lensed by Freddie Young. It’s shot in that 1960s “Universal programmer” house style which is basically “Really Wide Television-scope,” with static Techniscope, framed either from the center of the house or mid-level close-ups, rather ugly, flat lighting, and backlot production detail (it’s instantly recognizable…and I love it). Still, I’d at least like to see people’s expressions if they’re not in close-up, and that can be difficult with these 10th generation, stolen-from-network-broadcast, 480i analog bootlegs. I mean…my old rabbit ears and tin foil looked better, quite frankly. Still…you take what you can get.

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There’s every indication that Griffith thought, prior to its release, that Angel in My Pocket was a solid family picture with a nice message, one that would resonate with his fan base while keeping up with the changing times. According to several accounts, he worked on the screenplay quite closely with The Andy Griffith Show’s best scripters Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum, who, by no coincidence, also penned the first three solo big-screen comedies for former TAGS co-star, Don Knotts, made for Universal…and all of them moneymakers: The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, The Reluctant Astronaut, and The Shakiest Gun in the West (Griffith also made sure to enlist Knotts’ producer Edward Montagne, and veteran TAGS helmer Alan Rafkin…who also directed Knotts’ best outing, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken).

However, critics didn’t see what Griffith saw. Reviews of Angel in My Pocket, then and now, often use the word “idealized”—and not in a nice way—when discussing its depiction of Midwestern small town life (unless drug use, White racism, and patriarchy-run-amok are front and center in any movie out there today, liberal critics tend to scream “Fantasy!” before calling the appropriate authorities). However, I’m not sure where they’re getting that: Wood Falls is hardly Mayberry. Angel in My Pocket’s tone is always humorous first, but beneath the laughs is a depiction of a town that looks like a postcard on its surface, but underneath suffers from rot: economic, political, and spiritual.

Having grown up in a small Midwestern town myself during this same time period, what I see here in Angel in My Pocket looks pretty familiar—minus the laughs. Like the Sinclairs and the Greshams, there were a couple of long-standing families whose relatives seemed to “run the show,” both politically and economically, for years and years and years (and wasn’t everyone made to know it, too). Complaints to local government were met with lots of glad-handing and promises (and no action), just like Mayor Sinclair shining Sam on…and right out his office door (again: just like today). The schools were perpetually underfunded and sometimes falling apart, just like elementary teacher Steve Franken practically crying about the over-crowded classrooms, no heat or chalk, and rotten floorboards. And going to church was the easiest part of being a member—the actual running of the church was just as politicized as local government. Don’t get me wrong: it was a relatively nice place to grow up…but no one thought it “idealized” by any stretch.

 Angel in My Pocket’s gently mocking depiction of Midwestern Protestant religion and churchgoing is spot-on, as well, jibing with my own experiences at a small-town Methodist parish. We had our young couples, too, lined up to shake the minister’s hand, just like in the movie…as well as the gossipy old bags who loved to poke their noses into everyone’s business, like the delightful Ruth McDevitt and Margaret Hamilton here (we had one older parishioner, known as “Aunt Bee,” who would get out the church registry and call up families after service and, if a kid answered, ask if Mommy and Daddy fought a lot, or did they have money problems, or did they make too much noise at night in their bedroom. I miss Aunt Bee…).

The most prosperous members of our church ran the church like their own private club (just like the Sinclairs and Greshams), while the rest of us were implored at every service to give up even more money we didn’t have, for various irrelevant projects and committees…just like Hamilton’s “Clean Sheets for Missionaries” committee. When we have several scenes of Bishop Larry D. Mann and his irreverent assistant Al Checco worrying more about the complaint letters coming from Wood Falls’s V.I.P.s, rather than working to see that the townspeople’s spiritual needs are being met, it’s rather difficult to claim Angel in My Pocket’s treatment of religion is sanitized and homogenized and outdated.

That overall claim from then-contemporary critics—that Angel in My Pocket was “outdated” for 1969, the year that Easy Rider, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and Midnight Cowboy hit it big—of course ignores the fact that more traditional movies such as The Love Bug, True Grit, and Hello, Dolly! were big hits with the public, too (even if Dolly still lost money for Fox). Angel in My Pocket may owe more to Frank Capra, in terms of addressing social issues, than Abbie Hoffman, but there is “protest” here that’s right in line with 1969 sensibilities. Griffith sums it up succinctly when his wife wonders if they’re finished in the town, after he pulls their children out of school to protest its conditions: “Just because I’m a minister doesn’t mean I have to give up my citizenship! I got a right to speak out—things are wrong here!”

When Griffith exclaims that, “all this town needs is a little shove,” he means it quite literally…although the scripters are smart enough to leaven this arrogant pronouncement with a healthy (and funny) dose of reality: the Sheriff, informing Griffith that the Sinclairs and Greshams will fix the school, says Griffith is lucky an election is near, implying that’s the only reason he got his way.

In terms of righting the town’s spiritual problems, Griffith is far less successful, encountering one setback after another, until the finale, SPOILER! where nothing short of the church burning down, finally brings the warring families together. How that’s “saccharine” (another frequent critical charge) I don’t know, unless the reviewers were carping about the obligatory happy ending (I’ve always felt if Angel in My Pocket had ended with the church destroyed and Griffith desolate—with no sudden redemption or validation from the families that “learned their lessons,” with only despair and nothingness facing him at the end—that twisted, malcontent critics would have hailed it as a subversive classic).

Aside from any deeper meanings that can be gleaned—if you really stretch—from the screenplay, Angel in My Pocket has a surplus of that homespun-but-sly Fritzell and Greenbaum (and Griffith) wit that suffuses even the TAGS episodes they didn’t write. You’d be excused in thinking Andy Taylor walked into the Whitehead house when Griffith keeps repeating, “Just fine! How are you?!” to his two sons, when they keep asking him how he’s doing after his workday. Lovely Lee Meriwether (who’s just right in this role: good-humored and bright, and frequently laughing at the silliness around her) luxuriates in her romanticized snap judgement of Wood Falls (“It smells so nice and peaceful!”)…right before they pull up to the town riot, where she switches modes, yelling out to Griffith, “Watch out for your partial!” (I love her later checking it, after Griffith gets smacked in the jaw, sticking her thumb in his mouth and shoving it around, checking the fit).

Lots of steady-laugh one-liners crop up, too, keeping Angel in My Pocket humming along. When Griffith asks Fennelly if he’s lived in Wood Falls “all your life,” Fennelly, very much alive, replies, “Not yet.”  Medford, always getting a laugh, has only to whisper “real synthetic pearls,” as she admires a fellow parishioner, for us to completely “get” her character. When Griffith, giving his first sermon, flat-out lies about what he said when he saw the town riot (inventing outrage to make the sermon more dramatic), his son Sammy yells out to the unamused congregation, “I didn’t hear him say that, Mama!” (what parent couldn’t relate to that moment?).

The burlesque scene is an amusing “break” in the storyline, not only because we can enjoy the delightful The Girls of All Nations number (the girls are incredible, particularly hot-as-hell Anne Besant’s “Miss England”…and is that the legendary Georgie Tapps as the dancing MC?), but also to see Griffith give his innocent “aw shucks” shtick a good workout. When he’s interacting with bounteous “Miss Holland” Joy Harmon, I don’t know what’s funnier: him yelling, “Do you have a hearing problem?” when he’s fixing the electric wire to her little windmills (guess where they spin…), or Harmon snappily explaining, “Don’t worry; it’s mine,” as she snatches a wad of gum off the theater wall and starts chomping it (statuesque Beverly Powers is just as funny with her facial expressions, as she tries to keep the beat and strip to Griffith’s erratic organ playing. I mean a pipe organ. I mean a musical organ).

Even though Angel in My Pocket was one of the first movies to receive a “G” from the new MPAA rating system, there’s a familiar rural coarseness, an almost barnyard-type of focused humor that I love in these types of movies. Medford’s obsession with high colonics (where she gets rid of her “poisons”) is referenced several times (when she states that Natasha, who runs the parlor, gave her advice on a sore shoulder, Griffith offers, “seems like the shoulder is out of her territory,”).  Van Dyke’s character is a cartoon assembly of gastronomic sounds (always at an inopportune time), along with more serious, implied concerns (when Griffith is trying to manhandle the ragdoll Van Dyke out of bed, the lazy drunk whines, “be careful of my rupture!”).  The clergy house has a scatological bent: we hear the exaggerated flushing sounds every time someone uses the toilet. Even a spilled glass of water on the front of Dink’s pants elicits an understanding, “Probably all the excitement,” from Fennelly (when told it’s just water, he counters, “Always the danger of bursitis,”).

Angel in My Pocket certainly isn’t perfect. It’s weakest link is one of its most critical, unfortunately: the “Romeo and Juliet” subplot involving Jack Dodson and Elena Verdugo. SPOILER! Griffith’s determination to marry this couple, who have been secretly meeting for 25 years, is the final catalyst that gets Griffith canned from his job. Not only do we never buy they’ve been meeting in secret for that long (it’s like something out of a silent movie scenario), but Dodson and Verdugo are directed to be so dour and quiet and colorless that we instantly don’t care what the hell happens to them (this is a comedy—couldn’t they be even a little fun?).

Luckily, a remarkable collection of old pros (many of them TAGS alumni) helps you ease past this third reel mistake. There simply are no more actors like these anymore, nor I fear, will there ever be again. Delightfully daffy Ruth McDevitt absolutely slays with a perfectly timed 3-beat pause before quietly snarling over her shoulder, “What does he know?” when dismissing Fennelly to Margaret Hamilton (who gets the movie’s cruelest joke, when she’s overheard in church saying Griffith reminds her of George Brent). Henry Jones (a personal favorite) achieves a look of demonic incredulity when listening to Griffith’s boisterous choir singing (and make sure you repeat his withering, weary, disdainful voiceover, “Now?” when he’s told Griffith is waiting outside his mayoral office).

Dyspeptic Medford can’t help but get a laugh with every line, particularly when she’s worrying over her 38-year-old baby, Jerry Van Dyke (“The poor child has had another sinus attack!” or “The good Lord would not want this child to pray on an empty stomach,”). Multi-talented Van Dyke, that most unfortunate of 60s comedians, who could never get over two insurmountable obstacles (his older brother hit it big first, and his lousy career choices), makes the wise decision to underplay the stereotypical bummy brother-in-law character (does anyone even use that joke anymore?), getting easy laughs just staring off into space.

Andy Griffith may be listed first, but Parker Fennelly steals Angel in My Pocket with his Jedi-like invisible comedic timing and a hilarious flatness to his deadpan line deliveries that is impossible to describe…with the possible exception of “otherworldly.” When Griffith asks him if he looks okay for his first sermon, the unsentimental Fennelly merely says, “Wellll…yep,” but that “yep” is not an affirmative. It’s completely dismissive. And hysterical.

Even more inexplicable is Fennelly’s story about “his friend” who used to go to the burlesque house (obviously himself). When Griffith asks to meet him, Fennelly, shocked at the prospect of discovery, sadly intones, “Yep…he died.” It’s at once morbidly sad, and fall-down funny (even Fennelly’s limited physicality is priceless; when he does a slight, involuntary, inebriated detour walking towards a spiked punchbowl, the effect is paralyzingly funny).

As for Griffith (arguably the most accomplished actor in the cast, the guy who out-Brandoed a Brando role in Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd), he breaks his Andy Taylor mold to fashion a preacher who’s a little bit angrier, a little bit more feisty than we’re used to, and it’s a good fit for his talents (it’s also nice to see him get a few more jokes than in TAGS, which he routinely gave away to his costars). By most accounts, Griffith felt Angel in My Pocket would be the start of his second, more successful attempt at a movie career, and was taken aback when it failed.

It’s understandable he’d feel this way, considering he had just come off eight years of substantial, continued public support for his TV series. Some have theorized he was particularly hurt because he couldn’t replicate what his co-star (and on some professional level, rival), Don Knotts, was able to do: maintain a solo leading man career in big-screen comedies (ironically, Knotts’ trajectory would be seriously altered later in 1969, when his raunchy The Love God? completely turned off his family audiences). It’s possible.

But I suspect it was the fans’ refusal to see him as anything other than “Andy Taylor” that got to Griffith, particularly after helping to craft such a likeable little outing like Angel in My Pocket, only to see it not just rejected, but basically ignored. All the reports say he cancelled his long-term movie contract with Universal after Angel in My Pocket tanked…but the studio wouldn’t have just allowed that if they thought they could squeeze two more nickels out of Griffith.

Maybe Universal saw the writing on the wall: an older TV star (Griffith was already 43) restarting his movie career, pigeonholed by the public into a small niche area (“Southern comedy”), with little-to-no chance of “breaking out” into a profitable big-screen leading man. Universal may have thought, “If the TAGS fans didn’t come out for Angel in My Pocket…they’re not going to come out for anything he does.” Griffith was a smart guy—he no doubt saw that reality, too.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

2 thoughts on “‘Angel in My Pocket’ (1969): Has this Andy Griffith film been memory-holed?

  1. To be fair, I’m not sure if the American public has ever been that interested in movies about clergymen. I tried to think of some successful ones and I had to go back almost 80 years to the Bing Crosby vehicles Going My Way and its sequel The Bells of St. Mary’s. A couple of years after this movie another big TV star, Dick Van Dyke, would crash and burn playing a minister in Cold Turkey.

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  2. Well…I can think of a bunch right off the bat, like Elmer Gantry (Best Actor, Lancaster), or Becket (multiple Oscar nods), A Man for All Seasons (Best Pic and Actor, I believe?), along with lots more that involve religion/religious themes, such as The Cross and the Switchblade, with Pat Boone (a wildly successful indie that pulled in over 20 million), Agnes of God, The Nun’s Story, Lilies of the Fields (all nuns, and Best Actor for Poitier), Marjoe (Best Oscar Doc), TV’s blockbuster mini, The Thorn Birds,
    And…let’s not forget a little movie called The Exorcist. heehee.

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