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.