Though a constant television presence, even beloved by many, The Andy Griffith Show was, for some reason, one of those shows I never watched. Looking at it now, especially sequentially, I can see what all the fuss was about. It's a charming, sweet, and funny series, quite unlike its lesser spin-offs (I did watch Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. as a kid) and the "rural" sitcoms that eventually came to dominate CBS's prime-time schedule until the network's "rural purge" of the early ‘70s.
Though not quite an overnight success, Andy Griffith's rise immediately preceding The Andy Griffith Show was nonetheless meteoric. He started out as a comic monologist, his "What is Was, Was Football" becoming an instant classic in 1954. The following March he starred in the live television version of No Time for Sergeants, which was expanded into a Broadway show the following year (for which Griffith was nominated for Tony Award and won a Theatre World Award), and finally a movie version of the same material in 1958. After another Broadway success, starring in a musical adaptation of Destry Rides Again, in which he was nominated for yet another Tony, Griffith again impressed critics and audiences in his film debut, A Face in the Crowd, playing a drifter who eventually gains national influence and fame, first on radio and later as a television personality. Audiences used to Griffith's breezy Southern charm were shocked by his portrait of a self-absorbed, amoral egomaniac.
Innovative television producers Sheldon Leonard and Danny Thomas, in synch with Griffith's interests, carefully developed a situation comedy suited to Griffith's unique talents, one which would draw heavily on the actor's North Carolina roots and the colorful people he knew there. A backdoor pilot was fashioned, in which Griffith, as Mayberry, North Carolina Sheriff Andy Taylor, made his debut on a February 1960 episode of Leonard and Thomas's The Danny Thomas Show, "Danny Meets Andy Griffith." The following October The Andy Griffith Show premiered and it was an immediate smash, ranking fourth among prime-time network shows during the 1960-61 season.
The Andy Griffith Show, shot in black-and-white 35mm, looks great in high-def. As with Paramount/CBS's release of I Love Lucy: Ultimate Season 1, viewers are given the option of watching the more familiar syndication cuts or their original network versions. You'll definitely want to select the latter, as each episode features original footage of the cast sometimes literally singing (even Aunt Bee!) the praises of Post Cereal and Sanka Coffee ("It's G-o-o-o-o-d!"), in segments cleverly tied to that week's storyline.
It's a marvelous set that, significantly, also includes Return to Mayberry, the highly-rated 1986 TV reunion movie featuring most of the surviving cast. It, too, was shot in 35mm and looks splendid as it's in high-def, too. Indeed, most of the set's other worthwhile extras are HD.
The first season of The Andy Griffith Show is a good place to start for newbies like me because the series at this point is solid character-driven comedy (with dashes of light drama) focusing on folksy widower, Sheriff and Justice of the Peace Andy Taylor (Griffith); his six-year-old son, Opie (Ron, then "Ronnie" Howard); spinster Aunt Bee (Francis Bavier), Andy's paternal aunt who acts as a surrogate mother for Opie; and nervous, rail-thin and bumbling Deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts).
Other show fixtures like Goober and Gomer Pyle (George Lindsey and Jim Nabors), Helen Crump (Aneta Corsaut), Howard Sprague (Jack Dodson), and Ernest T. Bass (Howard Morris) were still several seasons away from their debuts, so there's much more focus here on Andy and his immediate family. Episodes typically revolve around the small town crises facing Andy: trying to sell off a dilapidated cannon that had been rotting for years in the town square; resolving a Hatfields & McCoys-style local feud so that a young couple in love can marry; Andy coming to terms with his pharmacist girlfriend's (Elinor Donahue) decision to run for town council, the first woman to do so, etc..
Most of these stories parallel issues Andy is grappling with in raising Opie, lessons in things like honesty and sexism. Drawing on Andy's monologist past, shows often find time for Andy to tell Southern-spun takes on famous fables or moments in history. As with Leave It to Beaver, already in the middle of its six-season run, the show is somewhat revolutionary in that Andy rather than Opie is often in the wrong; about half the time it's the son rather the father teaching a valuable lesson. Howard, an unusually talented child performer, has terrific screen chemistry with Griffith to boot.
Knotts became The Andy Griffith Show's instant breakout character. He'd appeared with Griffith in both the stage and film versions of No Time for Sergeants, in-between finding fans with his many appearances on Steve Allen's show. He'd prove so popular, in fact, that Knotts eventually left the series to pursue a fairly successful career in feature film comedies stretching into the early 1980s.
In these first season shows Griffith plays an extension of his comic monologist/No Time for Sergeants characters, though one a bit wiser and less the country bumpkin. By the second year, Griffith realized he was better off playing straight man to Knotts and that growing list of eccentric supporting characters. That said, he's still a delight to watch.
Another delight are the Post Cereal and Sanka Coffee commercials typically featuring Griffith, Howard, and sometimes Bavier, spots cut from the syndicated versions of The Andy Griffith Show. Unlike the almost disturbing trumpeting of cigarettes-are-good-for-you approach in the I Love Lucy ads, that season one set released simultaneously from the same label, on The Andy Griffith Show there's much obvious effort to incorporate the stars and their characters into new, creatively done ads each week. These self-contained bits soft-sell cereal and coffee and are amusing in their own right.
Video & Audio
As with the concurrently released I Love Lucy, The Andy Griffith Show looks terrific, nice and crisp with strong blacks. The original network material (presumably preserved, as with I Love Lucy, in 16mm) is softer, more washed out but still acceptable and integrated well with the pristine material. The 2.0 lossless mono is also good when one remembers all the pops and crackles on 16mm syndication prints of yore.
Supplements include Return to Mayberry, the well-regarded 1986 reunion film, presented in high-def. Filmed in 35mm (and color, obviously) but thankfully not finished on videotape as was the trend with so many shows like this beginning around this point. It looks great, too. Also in high-def is The Danny Thomas Show show episode featuring Andy Taylor debut, as are the Howard family's On-Set Home Movies. Finally, there's Edward R. Murrow's Person-to-Person interview with Griffith from June 1957, just as his star was rapidly ascending. It's a smart and fascinating addition.
A charming, funny series presented to perfection with fine extra features, The Andy Griffith Show: Season 1 is a DVD Talk Collector Series title.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.