“Atta boy, Luther!”
Perfect in every way, Don Knotts’ 1965 scare comedy, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, from Universal, is a speedy, hilarious continuation of the slightly surreal, character-driven heartland comedy found in the iconic TV series, The Andy Griffith Show.
By Paul Mavis
That shouldn’t be a surprise, since it was written by TAGS’s best scripting team, James Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum (with an uncredited assist by Andy Griffith and Don Knotts), and directed by TAGS veteran Alan Rafkin. Don Knotts has never been more spastically unhinged, and his supporting cast here is a veritable “Who’s Who” of superlative American supporting comedic actors. Beautiful in saturated, wide Technicolor Techniscope, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is the perfect family film for Halloween.
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Luther Heggs (Don Knotts), a typesetter for the Rachel [Kansas] Courier Express dreams of becoming a full-fledged newspaper reporter. But after mistakenly crying murder (“Calm? Calm? Do ‘calm’ and ‘murder’ go together? ‘Murder’ and ‘calm?’) over a simple case of spousal battery on the town drunk, Calver Weems (Hal Smith), Luther finds himself again the butt of the town’s jokes. Certainly Ollie Weaver (Skip Homeier), a hot-shot, nasty, sniping reporter, takes advantage of the situation, mercilessly teasing Luther about his mistake. It doesn’t help, either, that good-natured schnook Luther is hopelessly in love with Alma Parker (Joan Staley), the town beauty and Ollie’s frequent date.
However, back at the Courier Express, Mr. Kelsey (Liam Redmond), the paper’s janitor, takes Luther a little more seriously, suggesting that Luther substitute an anonymous filler item with a story on the Simmons’ mansion (with Kelsey basically writing the story himself while Luther sets the type). You see, it was twenty years ago that the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Simmons were found at the mansion. Mrs. Simmons had been stabbed in the neck by Mr. Simmons, and, half-mad with the blood still dripping from his hands, went running up to the organ tower, insanely playing the organ before throwing himself out the third story window.
Luther’s historical item causes a sensation in Rachel, and again with the subtle help of Mr. Kelsey, the paper’s owner, George Beckett (Dick Sargent), suggests that Luther spend the night in the murder house, on the anniversary of the killings (“the horribleness and the awfulness of it will never be actually forgotten,”). Luther, the original Mr. Chicken, is terrified at the thought, but steels himself to the challenge and agrees.
Once there, he goes through a series of comically frightening, but harmless scares, until he hears knocking, then maniacal laughter, and then organ music. Terrified, he exits the house, but not before seeing a pair of gardening shears sticking out of the bleeding portrait of Mrs. Simmons. Too terrified to be coherent, Ollie and George write Luther’s story, which causes another sensation in Rachel, with Luther now the town hero.
But Nicholas Simmons (Philip Ober) isn’t amused. The nephew of “Old Man” Simmons, Nicholas has returned to town to tear down the mansion, but Hegg’s story has attracted the attention of Mrs. Halcyon Maxwell (Reta Shaw), the president of the Psychic Occult Society of Rachel, Kansas—and owner of 51% of the town’s Savings and Loan…which holds a lien on the mansion. So before he can tear down the house, Simmons has to discredit Luther. Will the Simmons’ ghost make itself known to everyone in Rachel, before Luther is sued for libel and the Courier Express is shuttered?
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is the kind of “perfect” movie that, within its narrow range, expertly meshes its various elements to create a seemingly effortless, unified entertainment. What it sets out to do, it does masterfully, creating a comedy that in many ways is more fun and easy to watch, than more ambitious or critically appreciated titles (I’d watch this over Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid or The Fortune Cookie any day).
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Right out of the gate from its 1960 premiere, The Andy Griffith Show struck a chord with television audiences all over the country (but particularly in the South and in the Midwest) with its down-home, yet surrealistically tinged, comedy. After five years, when Don Knotts left The Andy Griffith Show for a big-screen movie career at Universal Studios, he searched around for a similarly-themed subject that would compliment the small-screen persona he had already established.
Lighting on a fondly-remembered TAGS episode from 1963, The Haunted House (by Harvey Bullock), Knotts reasoned this kind of story could well showcase his “Nervous Man” character, while bringing in family audiences looking for laughs and mild chills. Knotts requested TAGS scripters Fritzell and Greenbaum to him develop it, but when the trio ran into some story construction snags, Knotts asked Andy Griffith to come in and work out the kinks (which he did, uncredited, for two weeks for a token salary).
Knotts, Fritzell, and Greenbaum then spent about three months hammering out a script (with Griffith still kibitzing material here and there), with Universal okaying the project under the title, Running Scared (soon to be changed due to copyright issues). Working off an exceedingly modest budget of $670,000, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken was given a ridiculously short shooting schedule of only 17 days, which prompted a nervous Knotts to request TV director Alan Rafkin be hired to helm the movie. Delivered on time and on budget, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken was rolled out regionally in 1966, becoming profitable down in the South before it even went into general national release (it grossed over $4 million in its first four months). Anything that returns 5 times its budget is considered a smash to the studios, and both Knotts and Rafkin were signed to lucrative contracts with Universal.
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken approaches its standard “haunted house comedy” plot in much the same manner that a typical Andy Griffith episode would do: the central situation is merely an excuse for the comedy to come out of the characters’ interactions—not from the gags themselves. Indeed, one might expect Knotts’ terror-filled night at the Simmons “murder mansion” to be the movie’s big laugh-filled finale…but instead, it comes in towards the beginning of the movie, after all the characters have been well-established.
This main spook sequence is beautifully modulated, with Knotts quite astounding in the various ways he can summon up fit-shaking terror. One expects the movie to be filled with these kinds of scenes (thank god they never remade this with Jim Carrey, as often threatened a few years ago—it would have been a CGI-choked nightmare). However, most of The Ghost and Mr. Chicken‘s comedy comes from sketches surrounding this main premise. It’s that essentially gentle, sideways TAGS approach to humor that values the set-up and aftermath to a gag, over the gag itself.
Of course, when utilizing an underdog lead performer like Knotts, you have to make him pathetic, to get the audience to first root for him, and then to write him off as a true loser…before he finally triumphs over his snotty, superior “betters.” And everyone gets the better of Luther in Rachel: the town rowdies hanging out at the police station, his work colleagues, a stranger eating Jell-O, even the old ladies—the “girls” at Mrs. Natalie Miller’s (Lurene Tuttle) Boarding House (hysterically played by Jesslyn Fax and Nydia Westman)—can’t help but laugh at Luther’s bumbling.
Most sequences are designed to maximize Knott’s social and physical awkwardness, including having lunch with Alma (trying to eat chicken soup standing up), the hilarious Chamber of Commerce picnic where Knotts tries to give a speech without his notes (a variation of his first “Nervous Man” skit that gained attention for Knotts at the beginning of his career), the humiliating court trial, where Luther is basically labeled a lunatic, and the final trip to the Simmons mansion, where he’s shown up in front of the whole town, when none of the things he described in his story are present in the mansion.
These scenes and others showcase Fritzell’s and Greenbaum’s absolute mastery of the good-natured but slightly surreal Capraesque humor that was so successfully nurtured on The Andy Griffith Show. For those of us who grew up in rural or rural/suburban America during the late 60s and early 70s, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is especially amusing because the social customs and characters spoofed here were still floating around in small town America.
You could still find guys hanging out at the police station or the post office or outside the drug store, watching everything and making jokes about the citizenry. There were still screwy, daffy ladies at church and at town socials, exactly like Mrs. Hutchinson and Mrs. Cobb of Mrs. Miller’s Boarding House, with their print dresses and elaborate hats from J.C. Penny’s, and their endless bickering and gossiping (if someone said “bosom” in public, they probably would have been embarrassed just like Knotts here). Town picnics weren’t complete without a terribly prepared and delivered speech by some local town notary. And most little towns had a dilapidated old house that kids made up stories about—or dared each other to go into, on a dark night. The contrived fantasy murder mystery story might be silly in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, but the basic honesty of the characters continues to strike a chord with viewers who recognize these people and social conditions in their own lives—or at least in their memories (I never see older women in print dresses and hats anymore, and they don’t have town socials in my now-not-so-small-town anymore; more’s the pity).
More than any other movie or TV show he appeared in, Knotts is nothing short of inspired in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, trembling and jerking in all his spastic glory. The opening scene, where Knotts thinks he sees a murder from his Edsel (what else would Luther the loser drive?) is expertly built by director Alan Rafkin, with Knotts seemingly vibrating right off the screen as Rafkin increases the frequency of Hope Summers’ screams. Never more hilarious than when he’s trying to control his unresponding body, or steel himself for action (watch him try and get up the nerve to attack Simmons in the mansion), Knotts’ vocal delivery is just as hysterical as his peripatetic gyrations (Knotts’ early radio experience clearly comes in handy).
Ably assisting Knotts are a hall-of-fame line-up of America’s funniest supporting character actors, including Shaw (“You haven’t eaten your tapioca,”), Fax (“his eyes were so dark!”) Westman (…and they used Bon-Ami!”), Harry Hickox as the exasperated Police Chief Art Fuller (“He’s so keyed up!”), Charles Lane as Simmons’ hatchet-faced defense attorney Mr. Whitlow, George Chandler as easygoing Judge Harley Nast (“Where’s the Bible?”), Robert Cornthwaite as Springer, Luther’s attorney, Sandra Gould as Loretta Pine, who kills with her one line at the picnic (“I get to feed the speaker!”), Cliff Norton as Charlie the Bailiff, Ellen Corby as Luther’s third grade teacher, Miss Neva Tremaine (“He was painfully thin and keyed up,”), Jim Boles as town wiseguy Billy Ray Fox, Al Checco as loony Gaylord Patie, Herbie Faye as the guy in the diner who’s slow to give up his seat to Luther (“I’m almost up to my Jell-O.”), Harry Hines, as the fake Rotarian/town bum at the picnic, J. Edward McKinley as Mayor Carl Preston, Bert Mustin as Mr. Dellagondo at the boarding house, Eddie Quillan, as the elevator operator who can’t quite get the car level with the floor (giving the film one of its best sight gags, when Luther does a header getting in), Dick Wilson as the Bandleader, and last but certainly not least, the magnificently mournful James Millhollin as Milo Maxwell, the hang-dog, henpecked banker whose day is made when his pneumatic secretary approaches him (“Of all your sweaters, I love this one the most!”). There will never again be performers like these superlative comedic actors; it’s a joy to watch them assembled here.
Shot on the Universal backlot in that amazingly short seventeen days (think about the garbage that comes out today, taking years of preproduction and shooting, at the cost of tens of millions of dollars?), The Ghost and Mr. Chicken sports a candy-bright color scheme, made comic-book dark and grainy due to shooting in Techniscope. The house next to the famous “Munster Mansion” is initially shown as the Simmons mansion, but later, the Simmons’ entrance is obviously 1313 Mockingbird Lane, re-dressed for Knotts’s film. The sets are pure Universal storage, with props and furnishing reused in countless films from that period, all adding to the cozy familiarity of the piece.
And ultimately, that may be the best element of The Ghost and Mr. Chicken: that comforting familiarity, born out of the known, expected comedy elements found in America’s most beloved sitcom, The Andy Griffith Show, tweaked by a superior comedic effort by Don Knotts in his first true leading role (most of his screen time in the earlier The Incredible Mr. Limpet was animated). Watching The Ghost and Mr. Chicken every Halloween, jazzed up by the truly triumphant score by legendary composer Vic Mizzy (the brilliant, bombastic, creepy “Organ Theme” is, in my opinion, one of the most successful music cues in any film comedy) one finds the movie getting better and better, with each passing year.
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. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.