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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. - The Complete First Season
Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. - The Complete First Season
Paramount // Unrated // December 12, 2006
List Price: $38.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Paul Mavis | posted December 11, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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On the last broadcast episode of the 1964 season of The Andy Griffith Show, gas station attendant Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors) marches into Sheriff Andy Taylor's (Andy Griffith) Mayberry office, singing the Marine Corps hymn, announcing that he has just signed up for active duty. Having co-starred on The Andy Griffith Show for only a year and a half, it was quite a coup for the multi-talented Nabors to be given his own starring vehicle. Originally intended for George Lindsay (who would go on to play Goober Pyle, Gomer's nephew, on the Griffith show), the Gomer Pyle spin-off series was the idea of Aaron Rubin, a veteran of TV comedy. Rubin had worked as a writer for the classic military service comedy, The Phil Silvers Show, as well as being a producer, writer and story consultant for the enormously popular The Andy Griffith Show. Along with Andy Griffith (who gets an "Associated with" credit at the end of each Gomer Pyle episode), Rubin's premise took the bumbling, country yokel with the heart of gold, and stuck him into the toughest military outfit in the world, matching Pyle up with the meanest, loudest drill instructor they could find, Sergeant Vince Carter (Frank Sutton). A pilot was shot, featuring Sheriff Taylor taking Gomer to his induction, while helping Gomer through the first few hours of his boot camp. That fall, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. premiered, and was an immediate smash hit with the viewers, ranking third overall in the Nielsen ratings for the 1964-1965 season, even beating out its original host series, The Andy Griffith Show. During its five year prime-time run, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. never left the Nielsen Top Ten.

It's strange that Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. has never received the kind of fan adoration or critical scholarship that's been afforded its host series, The Andy Griffith Show. Equally popular with viewers, it has lasted for decades in syndication all over the world, just like The Andy Griffith Show. It features one of that show's most popular reoccurring characters, supported by most of the creative talent that went into making The Andy Griffith Show a pop culture phenomenon. Perhaps it was the critics' initial reaction to the character that dimmed its later appreciation. Certainly The Andy Griffith Show was well-liked by the critics during its original broadcast run, but they didn't think it was the masterpiece that everybody considers it now. And when Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. premiered, those same critics were even less kind. Something about the over-enthusiastic, slow-on-the-uptake Gomer going through the slapstick motions of Marine basic training, rubbed the urban, elitist critics the wrong way, provoking a disdain for the show and the character that quickly made even the mere mention of the series's name a punchline for comedians and talk show hosts who wanted a cheap laugh. Despite its enormous popular success, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. was never nominated for an Emmy.

Viewed today, the first season of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. comes off extremely well compared to its ignominious reputation. First and foremost, it accomplishes what it sets out to do: it's funny. That may seem simplistic, but creating a comedy show that gets laughs over forty years later is a quite an accomplishment, and it's nothing to be taken lightly. You have to hand it to Jim Nabors; he is funny as Gomer Pyle. Comedy of course is subjective; what strikes one person as hilarious can cause teeth-grinding with another (Jerry Lewis would be the acid test for that theory). So it's difficult to bring somebody over from the "other side" if they don't think something's funny. Either you find Nabors funny as Gomer, or you don't. I do. Enacting a character such as Gomer, a totally pure, naive, optimistic, good-hearted personality, who also happens to be a slow, "country bumpkin," takes a complete commitment by the actor, a willingness to be 100% honest in his portrayal, while being "in the moment" and at one with the character, at all times on the screen. Otherwise, the character becomes a cartoon; we never really believe in him as a whole person. While critics then and now may suggest that's precisely what Gomer is - a grotesque cartoon characterization - I found that not to be the case at all. Nabors is quite adept at making Gomer a believable human being, with faults and a range of emotions that result in quite an endearing, likeable character. Nabors may state (in one of the episodes' commentaries) that's he not a great actor (he had never acted before taking on the role for Griffith), but perhaps what he meant was that he's not a well-rounded actor. Creating a character such as Gomer Pyle, which people remember and still seek out forty years later, is nothing to sneeze at for any actor, regardless of their pedigree.

Of course, you can't have such a sweet character like Gomer in a show without a counterbalance, and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. found a brilliant one in the guise of Frank Sutton's Sergeant Vince Carter. A classically trained actor, Sutton is letter-perfect as the hot-headed Sgt. Carter. I can't imagine a tougher assignment for an actor than Sutton's basic responsibility in Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.: blow up at Pyle each time he screws up. But somehow in this first season, Sutton manages to bring a new spin to each of his patented explosion scenes, doing a slow burn better than just about anybody in the business. There's something about the absolute insanity of his rage, the savage anger in his face and voice, that makes Sutton totally riveting (and quite hilarious) when he's chewing out Pyle. Again, if that was all Sutton did, he'd be a cartoon, as well. But he manages to bring subtleties to the role, as well; all one has to do is watch his alert, bright eyes to see that this is a great actor listening, watching, and reacting to Nabors. He's totally in the moment and the character, just like Nabors. They're a justifiably famous TV comedy team, with a chemistry together that is rare.

Certainly, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. isn't perfect. The premise, which is rather limited, probably hastened the decision to end the series after only five years (Nabors states in his commentary that he couldn't pass up a chance to do a variety series that CBS offered him). After all, there's not much you can do with Pyle and Carter when they've spent five years in training, with Carter yelling at Pyle for his umpteenth foul-up. As the series progressed, Carter became more of an overt friend to Gomer, while Gomer became much more competent in his duties. You can already see the progression the series would take here in the first season, when Carter, despite his hatred for Pyle's disorganization, comes to realize that Pyle is a hard worker and a good soul. Still, the shadow of Vietnam (which was ever-escalating during the show's 1964-1969 run) necessitated CBS's demand that Pyle never be deployed into action, less the realities of the world intruded on the fantasy land of Gomer's and Carter's Marine life. It's a sad fact that many of the boys seen marching with Gomer in the opening title sequence were later killed in battle during the war (a fact that Nabors acknowledges in his commentary). Many critics disparagingly pointed out the show's unwillingness to deal with the war, but honestly, what were the producers of the show supposed to do - turn Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. into a hard-hitting, fact-based drama? The public was well aware of what was going on in Vietnam; they saw it every night on their national news. Perhaps Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. offered, just for a half hour every Friday night, a reassuring respite from the horrors of that all-too real war. Yes, it was a fantasy version of Marine life, but in its own way, justified, since Gomer never actually went off to war (a justification that Hogan's Heroes, can't so easily claim). Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. never claimed to be anything but an entertaining comedy, and at this, it succeeded expertly.

Here are the thirty, one-half hour, black-and-white episodes of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.: The Complete First Season

DISC ONE:

Gomer Overcomes the Obstacle Course
Eager to please Sgt. Carter, Gomer goes above and beyond the call of duty to conquer the obstacle course.

Guest in the Barracks
Sgt. Carter blows a gasket when he catches a red-faced Gomer sneaking a recruit's girlfriend into the barracks.

Private Ralph Skunk
Gomer adopts a pet skunk over Sgt. Carter's protests and turns it into a secret weapon for the Marines.

Captain Ironpants
Gomer is going to transform a straightlaced lady Marine into a glamor girl.

Gomer Learns a Bully
A new recruit bent on trouble is transferred to Sgt. Carter's platoon and targets Gomer as his patsy.

Pay Day
When Gomer is caught loafing, he refuses part of his paycheck, despite opposition from the Pentagon.

DISC TWO:

Nobody Loves a Sergeant
No matter how hard Sgt. Carter "rides" Gomer, the recruit can't help liking him -- a source of unending torment for Carter.

Gomer and the Dragon Lady
In revenge for fouling up an exercise, Carter pits an unwitting Gomer against the alluring but un-kissable "Dragon Lady."

Survival of the Fattest
As the oddest pair in a five-day wilderness survival test, Gomer and Carter manager to surprise everyone.

A Date for the Colonel's Daughter
When Gomer escorts the Colonel's daughter to an enlisted men's dance, the Colonel's wife pegs Gomer as a wolf.

They Shall Not Pass
Gomer concocts some way-out tactics when his platoon takes to the field for war games.

Sergeant Carter, Marine Babysitter
On the way to pick up his date, Carter gives Gomer a lift and ends up spending the whole evening babysitting.

DISC THREE:

The Case of the Marine Bandit
Gomer and Carter become unwitting accomplices in a slippery robbery scheme.

Sergeant of the Week
Carter mistakenly believes Pyle is dying and tries to make Gomer's "last days" as pleasant as possible.

Grandpa Pyle's Good Luck Charm
Gomer thinks the good luck charm given to him by Grandpa Pyle will turn him into a leader of men.

Dance, Marine, Dance
Carter tries everything in his power to break the contract that he and Gomer signed for dance lessons.

Sergeant Carter's Farewell to his Troops
When Sgt. Carter announces he's quitting the Corps, his men hope a certain sexy lady Marine can help to change his mind.

The Feudin' Pyles
After Gomer buddies up with a fellow country boy from near his hometown, he discovers their families are feuding.

DISC FOUR:

Love Letters to the Sarge
Sgt. Carter is on Cloud Nine when he starts receiving anonymous love notes -- written by Gomer.

Sergeant Carter Gets a "Dear John" Letter
When he receives a "Dear John" letter, Carter thinks things couldn't get any worse -- until he finds out the "other man" is Gomer.

Daughter of the Sarge
When Sgt. Carter's adopted Korean daughter gets engaged to a Marine, he automatically thinks it's Gomer.

Officer Candidate Gomer Pyle
Sgt. Carter decides to take the Officer Training Exam, not knowing that Gomer has the same plans -- and then passes the test!

Old Man Carter
The big birthday bash that the platoon throws for Carter just makes him feel "old."

Gomer Makes the Honor Guard
When Carter has to pick four men from his platoon as honor guards, he'll do anything to keep Gomer out of it.

DISC FIVE:

My Buddy -- War Hero
Gomer acts as a go-between to prevent Sgt. Carter and his old wartime buddy from coming to blows.

Double Date with the Sarge
As if double-dating with Gomer isn't bad enough, Carter faces a financial crisis when their dates order filet mignon.

The Jet Set
While doing a simple errand downtown, Gomer somehow winds up on a round trip flight to Rome.

Sergeant of the Guard
Gomer attempts to single-handedly thwart a gang of thieves who have been robbing a Marine warehouse.

Gomer Dates a Movie Star
Gomer faces a dilemma when he's asked to escort both the Colonel's daughter and a famous movie star to an enlisted men's dance.

Gomer the M.P.
While on M.P. duty, Gomer commits a major blunder and marches a government investigator off to the brig.

The DVDs:

The Video:
The image quality of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.: The Complete First Season sometimes varies, with certain scenes showing some picture noise, as well as scratches and dirt, while most other episodes are glossy smooth. Obviously, the source material is the problem here, so it doesn't look like there was any restoration work done. Still, these look very good, and won't disappoint the fans.

The Audio:
The Dolby Digital English mono soundtracks are strong, and accurately represent the original audio presentations.

The Extras:
First off, there's an unique feature on the Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.: The Complete First Season DVD set that I've never heard before: audio introductions to all of the menus and individual episodes, courtesy of Jim Nabors. It's really a cool feature, and gives the discs a personal touch, which I'm sure is what Nabors wanted. On disc one, the pilot episode for Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., from The Andy Griffith Show, is included. It's essential viewing to see the transition from Mayberry to the Marines. The disc producers have also included the rare black-and-white sales promotion pitch bumpers for the pilot, performed by Nabors. As well, Nabors offers an interesting audio commentary for this pilot episode. Nabors also provides an audio commentary for the premiere episode of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.. Nabors has lots of stories to tell about the show, as well as emphasizing his well-known affection and respect for the Marine Corps. Nabors comes across extremely well here (he doesn't sound a day older than Gomer from forty years ago), offering an extremely heart-felt, sincere thank you to his fans at the end of the commentary. On disc two, there's another interesting commentary from Ronnie Schell, who played Duke on the series. A friend of Nabors, Schell also sounds exactly the same, and he has a wealth of information packed into a short 25 minute commentary. It's a shame we couldn't hear more from these two gifted actors. Disc two also has a short color clip from The Lucy Show, which features Nabors at the very end (it's more loud than funny). On disc three, there's an undated, 11 minute interview with Nabors, conducted by British TV personality, David Frost. It's a quick, but interesting look at Nabors relaxing outside of his Gomer Pyle persona. And on disc five, there's a short 9 minute clip from The Jim Nabors Hour, Nabor's CBS variety show that followed the Gomer Pyle run. The clip features a skit entitled The Brothers-in-Law, and features Frank Sutton and Ronnie Schell, as well. Most alarming is watching Frank Sutton breathing so heavily during the skit; it's not surprising when you hear Schell, in his previous commentary, recount how Sutton smoked 18 Brazillian cigars a day.

Final Thoughts:
Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. never received the critical respect it deserved during its day. Perhaps Jim Nabors was too good portraying the "knuckle headed, goldbricking, goof-off" (Sgt. Carter's words, not mine) country boy Pyle; perhaps critics thought he wasn't really acting. Or maybe it was the fact that the show offered simple pleasures to loyal fans, executed by total professionals who didn't care if the critics liked them or not. And loyal fans they were; in that neglected "fly-over" country between New York and L.A., Jim Nabors was a TV superstar, and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. quickly became a pop culture icon. The Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.: The Complete First Season disc set now gives everybody a chance to see how the show first developed, as well as offering over 12 hours of solid, well-earned laughs. Jim Nabors and Frank Sutton are an inspired comedy team, and their antics in the Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.: The Complete First Season episodes are quite entertaining to behold. Fans, of course, will buy this, but I'm highly recommending the Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.: The Complete First Season disc set for skeptics, too.


Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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