Third time's not the charm for 'ol Andy. Warner Bros.' Archive Collection of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released The Girl in the Empty Grave, the made-for-TV mystery that originally aired on NBC back in 1977. Starring Andy Griffith, Jonathan Banks, James Cromwell, Mitzi Hoag, Claude Earl Jones, George Gaynes, Byron Morrow, Mary-Robin Redd, Robert F. Simon, Sharon Spelman, Hunter van Leer, Edward Winter, Don Keefer, and Bill McLean, The Girl in the Empty Grave was by most counts the third (or maybe even the fourth) prospective pilot Griffith tried to float for a TV series where he would play a laid-back, small-town sheriff, surrounded by a quirky group of locals and co-workers (...sound familiar?), solving murders in the spectacular Northern California mountains. Unfortunately for Griffith, the public wisely preferred the talented actor playing it either strictly comedic or strictly villainous--something always seemed lost in translation when he shot for the middle ground...which is certainly the case in The Girl in the Empty Grave. No extras for this nice-looking fullscreen transfer.
A beautiful Mach II Mustang takes a slo-mo high-dive of a San Bernardino mountain cliff, and viola, we have a mystery. You see, several months after the fatal crash, Jasper Lake Police Deputy Fred (Claude Earl Jones) swears he saw the driver of that Mustang, the dead Elizabeth Arden, drive right through town. Of course nobody believes him, especially Police Chief Abel Marsh (Andy Griffith), who has more than enough troubles on his hands besides a ghost, including trying to pry some nickels out of the stingy county coffers, dealing with local eccentrics like Whit (Bill McLean), the most hapless thief you ever saw, and trying to keep pretty local doctor Susan Glasglow (Sharon Spelman) interested. But when Abel sees the same girl whiz through town, he's convinced something is up, a feeling confirmed after an awkward visit to Elizabeth's shifty-acting parents, David and Mrs. Alden (George Gaynes and Sybil Scotford). As Abel continues to kick the dirt around the increasingly puzzling mystery, he discovers that no one actually saw Elizabeth Alden's body, not even former Senator and neighbor Jedediah Partridge (Robert F. Simon), who buried the cremated remains. There's no mistaking, however, the bodies of David and Mrs. Alden when they're found murdered in their house, so it's a race against time to find out once and for all who is that girl in the empty grave.
Despite the legendary status Andy Griffith now holds for headlining not one but two iconic television series--1986's Matlock and particularly 1960's The Andy Griffith Show (a series I would imagine many TV lovers would put near the top of any list of "best of" shows, regardless of genre)--there was a time during most of the '70s and early '80s where the still-popular performer spun his wheels in a variety of lower-profile projects, some worthy, some not, while always looking in vain for a new successful TV series. When Griffith, bored with playing Sheriff Andy Taylor, decided to walk out on The Andy Griffith Show, television's number one-rated series, a lot of industry insiders wondered how Griffith was going to translate that success into a new venture. A move to the big screen stalled when his (wonderful) family movie, Angel in My Pocket, failed with critics and audiences in 1969 (what a pity Universal won't release this funny movie on DVD). A return to television pronto seemed in order for Griffith, but his much-hyped "relevancy" series on CBS, the 1970-1971 comedy/drama Headmaster, was such a misfire with the public that it was quickly re-tooled midseason into Mayberry-clone The New Andy Griffith Show...which was cancelled in the spring when it drew no better numbers than Headmaster--a one-two punch to Griffith's top industry status. Guest spots on other star's shows (The Doris Day Show, Here's Lucy), as well as leading roles in made-for-TV movies (The Strangers in 7A, Go Ask Alice, Pray for the Wildcats...why isn't this classic on DVD!?) were a bit of a come-down for Griffith, who still sought the security of a successful TV series (I can still remember Match Game's Richard Dawson sneering, "Goooood cracker!" as he and host Gene Rayburn shared a laugh at Griffith's expense, mocking what was arguably Griffith's most widely-seen--and probably most profitable--role in all of the 1970s: as a TV pitchman hawking Ritz Crackers). In 1974, in addition to Wildcats and that other MTV classic, Savages, Griffith starred in the made-for-TV outing, Winter Kill, an ABC Movie of the Week prospective pilot that found Griffith playing Sam McNeill, a laid-back small town Northern California sheriff trying to find a serial killer--a concept not at all dissimilar to The Girl in the Empty Grave.
Now, a lot of histories at this point state that the failure of Winter Kill to get a series' greenlight led to another retooled series that was sold to ABC called Adams of Eagle Lake, where Griffith yet again played a laid-back small town Northern California sheriff, now called Sam Adams. However...I can find no indication this "series" was ever put on ABC's 1975 primetime schedule, either in the fall or midseason (for starters, it's not listed anywhere in any edition of "the Bible:" Brooks' and Marsh' The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows). I suspect instead that Adams of Eagle Lake was cancelled prior to actually being scheduled (or very soon after the schedule was announced), with its just two episodes burned off in 1975 as stand-alone TV movies (email me if you know different). Another failed big-screen appearance (the flop Hearts of the West), another failed series pilot (the urban-set Street Killing), and more dodgy TV guest-spots (The Bionic Woman, the animated Rankin/Bass Frosty's Winter Wonderland) led Griffith to dust-off the "laid-back small town Northern Californian sheriff" concept yet again for not one but two prospective pilots: The Girl in the Empty Grave and Deadly Game, both of which aired within a few months of each other in the fall of 1977, this time on NBC. Why Griffith was so attracted to this TV series concept is anybody's guess (too close to Mayberry for comfort, and not nearly different enough in execution), but these last two outings proved no more successful than Winter Kill or Adams of Eagle Lake. Two more failed series (Salvage 1 and The Yeagers), along with another big screen bust (the spoof Rustlers' Rhapsody), and many more made-for-TV movies would follow before Griffith finally had a bona fide big hit with 1986's mystery series, Matlock, where he did not play a laid-back, small town Northern California sheriff....
Whew! That's a lot of wasted effort in service of a series concept that was already pretty close to the massively successful The Andy Griffith Show: just substitute killers for Otis the drunk and Ernest T. Bass and you have a fair approximation of the show Griffith must have imagined springing forth from The Girl in the Empty Grave. Clearly, the gentle pace and tone of The Girl in the Empty Grave (director Lou Antonio seems to get Griffith's placid groove), along with its many throwaway comedy scenes reminiscent of the down-home humor Griffith excelled at, indicated Griffith wanted to stick as close as possible to his past monster hit, giving the audience a familiar "hook" as he grafted on the crime/mystery element to make the format seem "new." And most of the time, that strategy works pretty well in The Girl in the Empty Grave. Written by Lane Slate (the excellent Alan Alda MTV Isn't It Shocking?, the big-screen hoot The Car), and based very loosely on his 1971 big screen outing, They Only Kill Their Masters...where James Garner played a laid-back, small town Northern California sheriff...The Girl in the Empty Grave initially strikes a nice balance between mildly intriguing mystery (Elizabeth's intial car crash is soooo slooooow and stretched out it's ultimately quite weird, while Griffith's sleuthing is effectively measured), and all the Griffith Mayberry-ism he so clearly wants to pepper throughout the story (Leonard Stone and Mary-Robin Redd as a bitching pair of amorous, pushme-pullyou ambulance company employees pretty much walk off with the movie's funniest scene--"Harry, do you want to go into the supply room?" "I don't know...do you?" while Bill McLean in the Don Knotts role consistently scores laughs, his extended stolen tomatoes bit is a highlight).
Perversely, the biggest problem The Girl in the Empty Grave has...is Andy Griffith, the sole reason for which the movie was created in the first place. It looks strange to write it, but if someone else had starred in this, even though the story and the pacing seem so calculated to Griffith's strength, I'm betting it would have been brighter, more memorable, just because Griffith comes off as such a downer here. When I wrote my review for The Andy Griffith Show's last season, I noted how tired and tight and more-than-mildly pissed-off and irritated Griffith seemed by that point in the series. Well...he didn't improve on that off-putting demeanor by this point, at least not in this outing. Griffith, an immensely talented performer, couldn't be beat when he went flat-out for bumpkin humor (the hilarious No Time for Sergeants), nor was he any less appealing when he eventually gentled-down Andy Taylor's warm country ways in the golden seasons of The Andy Griffith Show. On the flip side, as a straight-up villain, Griffith could be shockingly good; one only need see titles like Kazan's A Face in the Crowd (he made his contemporary Brando look like a complete pussy), or TV outings like Murder in Texas or Savages or Pray for the Wildcats to see an actor who could plumb ice-cold, even feral depths of moral depravity. However, in The Girl in the Empty Grave, there's a middle-ground Griffith that can be seen often in this mid-70s period that is neither humorous nor villainous, but rather constricted and unhappy (its all in his dark, unsmiling eyes). He looks annoyed rather than amused by the comedy bits he partakes in here, while the dramatic moments and mystery elements show him to be curt and even snappish in a most unattractive way (watch his uncomfortable scenes with the delightful, sexy Spelman, particularly the one in the bar--they're a real eye-opener). For one of the most affable, genial performers to ever grace the small screen, it's remarkable how unsympathetic he comes off in The Girl in the Empty Grave--neither particularly interested in what's going on around him...nor even remotely interesting to us. Often with these old unsold TV pilots, particularly if they star an actor we like, the popular critical lament is, "Why did the network pass on such a cool idea?" Here with The Girl in the Empty Grave, though...the network got it right.
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.