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The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, Don Knotts

From the video box: In one of his most popular films, Don Knotts stars as a newspaper typesetter whose dream of becoming a reporter materializes after he spends a night in a haunted house. (1966, color)

Mark says: Don Knotts may have been a one-trick-pony (all of his roles seem to be a theme on Barney Fife) but he crafted the twitchy-cowardly-lovable character so well that I would have been disappointed to see him play anything else.

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is the first film Knotts starred in after his departure from The Andy Griffith Show. He plays Luther Heggs, a newspaper typesetter with aspirations of becoming a big-time investigative reporter. Unfortunately, Luther’s aspirations far surpass his talents. He seems doomed to take taunts from not only his co-worker, Reporter Ollie Weaver (Skip Homeier), but from the general populace at large.

Luther is almost an exact replica of Barney Fife. He talks big, but is an obvious coward. He’s easily flustered, awkward with women, and ridiculed by men. He’s also completely hilarious. I love this movie today almost as much as I adored it when I was growing up.

You’ll recognize most of the characters as regular TV fixtures from the time period. Many of them even had steady roles on The Andy Griffith Show. This isn’t too surprising considering that both the credited writers (James Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum) were writers for Andy Griffith. In fact, though not credited, Mr. Griffith himself was brought in during the re-write.

Pretty Joan Staley plays Alma Parker, Luther’s love interest. Of course, Luther is a blundering mass of nervous energy in her presence. He also has to compete for her affections with suave Ollie. Alma’s primary function in the film is to be sympathetic to Luther and serve as his motivation. She is perfectly acceptable in the role, and wholesomely likable.

Liam Redmond (Curse of the Demon) plays Kelsey, Luther’s friend. Kelsey was an eyewitness to the murder-suicide that occurred at the old Simmons place (a house that looks suspiciously similar to the house in Psycho) twenty years earlier. Kelsey convinces Luther to write an article on the event and then slip it into the newspaper disguised as filler. The editor (Dick Sargent) does not read the article until after it is printed. Surprised to find that Luther is the author of the piece, he offers him a follow-up assignment: Spend the night alone at the Simmons’ house on the twentieth anniversary of the murder-suicide.

You can guess the hijinks that follow. Luther is reluctant to take the assignment, but to impress Alma, and to spite Ollie, he enters the house shortly before midnight. All sorts of spooky things happen, and Barney, er, Luther, reacts in a typically cowardly (yet determined) fashion. Amazingly, his story gets published and he becomes a local hero. Luther’s glory is short-lived, though, as Nicholas Simmons (Phil Ober) has recently returned to town to have the family house demolished. Nicholas sues Luther for slandering the Simmons name. Luther is then put in the position of having to prove the events of the night in one of the funniest courtroom scenes I have ever watched.

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, being a comedy, really isn’t scary, but I do remember being frightened by certain scenes as a child. For example, when Luther discovers the garden shears plunged into the painting of Mrs. Simmons, the blood trickling out is surprisingly graphic. The tale of the murder-suicide itself is an unlikely background for a comedy starring Don Knotts, but it works perfectly.

Vic Mizzy composed the impressive original musical score. Even if you stripped away the dialog, the music would convey the nuances of the story. The haunted organ number (everyone’s favorite piece) is spooky, yet somehow jaunty. Hearing the score, even after all of these years, still makes me smile.

Each scene of The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is a perfect comedic vehicle for Don Knotts. He is surrounded by a charming cast of character actors who add their own particular brand of humor to the film. Everyone from the “Psychic Occult Society of Rachel,” to the hen-pecked banker, Mr. Maxwell, is a complete delight. This is family comedy at its finest, despite a somewhat gruesome premise.

Don Knotts not only allowed us to laugh at him, but he gave us an opportunity to laugh at ourselves. Men, particularly, seem to hold a fondness for this reluctant hero. He took male vulnerabilities and exaggerated them to the nth degree, and though often appearing foolish, he never lost that lovable quality. The guy had spunk.

Boy, am I going to miss him.

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is directed by Alan Rafkin.

Scene to watch for: Ellen Corby (The Strangler) plays Luther’s grade school teacher, Miss Neva Tremaine, and recounts his boyhood antics for the court.

Line to listen for: “Attaboy, Luther!”

Luther’s speech: “I have been called brave. What is brave? Let me clarify this. Of course we all know this is short for brave-r-y. That goes without even being said. But it is also a symbol of another thing. It is a symbol of doing one’s duty no matter what is scaring him personally. Take your World War II. There were many heroes in World War II. What were your heroes? Who were your heroes? Let me clarify this. Thank you for having me.”

Trivia: Joan Staley (Luther’s love interest) was Playboy’s Playmate of the Month for November 1958.

Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! out of 5.

IMDB Link

13 Comments

  1. This is my all time favorite Don Knotts film. Basically, it’s Barney Fife in a haunted house.

    For me, good music in a film is as important as a good story. This movie has both. Vic Mizzy’s spooky organ music is one of my favorite soundtrack cues; unfortunately I don’t think it was ever released on LP.

    Thanks for pointing out actress Joan Staley was a playmate. I Googled her image and wow! She looks great, even though the centerfold is really tame compared to the stuff today. All of the important parts are covered.

  2. Paul: Yes, I would have to agree this is my favorite Knotts film, too. Joan Staley really was a beauty! Wholesome innocence + sex appeal can not be beat in my book.

  3. This is certainly my favorite Knotts film, and one of my favorites overall. I can watch it time after time and never tire of it! I was lucky enough to find and order the soundtrack CD, and it’s awesome. Fantastic booklet with it also.

    Did you know that the house used in this film is literally RIGHT NEXT DOOR to the Munster’s house? Yes! I was watching the “Munster Go Home” dvd recently and they drove right past the old Simmons mansion as they pulled up to the Munster house. Since then I have seen it in numberous other films, being as it was on the Universal back lot. I can pick it out in a second when I see it!

    Anyway, I love the gentle humor of the film, it never gets old.

  4. Also, most may already know this, but this movie was a bigger version of the Andy Griffith episode where Barney is in a haunted house that local bootleggers are using. They try to scare people away and of course it works on Barney. That episode was sp well received that he decided to adapt it to a longer script and make it his first theatrical release. It worked!

    Another face to look for was Meg Wylie, one of the old ladies in the boarding house. She played “The Keeper” on “The Cage” episode of Star Trek!

    A continuity goof I noticed recently: watch the water sprinkler in thebackground of the scene where Alma is catching some sun in the car. It changes locations several times!

  5. Fred: Great observations! I’m especially impressed with you recognizing the proximity of the old Simmons’ place to the Munster’s home. I had never caught that before. Very cool. I never noticed the water sprinkler’s sporadic movements either. Great stuff. Please drop by anytime with any other stories or observations you may have. I love this stuff!

  6. I really enjoy revisiting the various reviews from time to time, to see if any additional comments have been added. Fred’s contributions with trivia information are extremely fun to read. Since he mentioned the Munster’s house, please allow me to add something I recently read about the house.

    In his book “The Munsters: A Trip Down Mocking bird Lane” author Stephen Cox states, “Now known as one of the primary houses on Wisteria Lane on TV’s ‘Desperate Housewives,’ the Munster house has been brightly painted and beautifully manicured. In one episode of the series, Oprah Winfrey guest-stars as a buyer of the house—but vacates quickly because she’s spooked by the neighborhood.”

    Although I have never watch “Desperate Housewives,” it’s nice to know that the Munster’s house is still “alive and well,” unlike other famous TV houses of the past.

  7. Paul: Like you, I’ve never watched Desperate Housewives, but I am overjoyed that The Munsters’ house is still making TV history.

  8. that a boy Luther!

  9. in ’66 i was four. at the local laundry mat they used to always post bulletins about what movies would be playing the next season at the drive-in. i pitched a fit to see one film. i knew it was going to be scary. my sister said it was a dirty movie. i said it wasn’t a dirty movie, but a scary movie. i could not yet read. i learned that the film’s title was blood and black lace. in the place of this film my mom took me and my sister and one of her friends to see the ghost and mr. chicken. that film was really scary to me at the time. i would not see the bava film until about 5 years ago…but it was worth the wait. john

  10. the munsters house also appears on leave it to beaver. in one epsiode it is the old cooper house where the beaver has to walk a dog for ‘a witch’, in another it is the old mcmahon house that richard breaks the window out of, is caught by the police and tells the officer his name is beaver cleaver and in another the beaver and gilbert are afraid to approch it in the community chest episode. both litb and the munsters had the same creators. the original cleaver house was moved in ’88 to make way for the klopek house in the movie ‘the burbs’. the cleaver house that is now seen on the universal tour is the one used for the ’97 movie remake…alledgedly it also appears on desperate housewives. john

  11. here’s Original 1966 “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken” Lobby Cards & Poster http://tinyurl.com/yguc26r

  12. Hey d, thanks! Very cool.

  13. That movie is awesome.I was 4 years old when this movie came out. I never get tired of watching it. ( nice print alma it has flowers across the bossoms) ( and they used bonami )


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