23 September 2011


The Ghost and Mr. Chicken

1966/ Director: Alan Rafkin/Writers: James Fritzell, Everett Greenbaum

Cast: Don Knotts, Joan Staley, Liam Redmond, Dick Sargent, Skip Homeier, Reta Shaw

Sometimes we all have a certain movie in our lives that holds a special place. A link to fond memories and long forgotten times. When it comes down to it I am a sentimental sap. For me The Ghost and Mr. Chicken with the fidget king Don Knotts is one of those films. The 1966 Universal film had already been out for some time before I began catching it late night on old network TV. If you're too young that means no cable or VCR. The image was adjusted by "rabbit ear" antennae that usually had strips of tin foil at the top to secure a slightly better image. The film, as I recall, played annually as part of a Halloween program and I had to stay up past midnight usually to catch it. No problem for me as I seem to be nocturnal by design. Knotts of course is best remembered for his role as the quirky and nervous though tough talking and big hearted Barney Fife from the Andy Griffith show. He won some Emmy's for his performance on the show and after five successful seasons he went on to continue making "big pictures" after the successful The amazing Mr. Limpit in 1964. The story here, from an interview with Knotts, seems to be that he was under the impression that The Andy Grittith show was to end after five seasons and Griffith seemed to be of the same idea. Knotts secured a contract with Universal only to find Griffith had decided to continue on with the show and offered Knotts to continue. Of course it was too late and he would return now and then to reprise his role as the shaky Barney. The Ghost and Mr. chicken is supposed to built, at Knotts suggestion, on an episode of The Andy Griffith Show called the Haunted House where Barney and Gomer go to retrieve Opie's lost ball on the grounds of a haunted house in Mayberry.

There is some disagreement about whether or not the Universal back lot studio house (located on used in the film is the same one made and used for the creepy mansion in 1960's Psycho. Wikipedia says yes and IMDB says no. IMBD claims the credits roll over the house used for the TV show The Munsters but the Simmon's House in the film is actually situated next door to The Munster's House. The house, of course, plays an important role in the film as any haunted house does in a haunted house movie. Knotts plays Luther Heggs, a basement confined typesetter with aspirations of moving upstairs and being a real reporter (he's been studying that and karate for years through the mail). He works for a small town paper in Rachel Kansas run by George Beckett (Dick Sargent, the 2nd Darren of Bewitched) who is a decent guy and likes Luther. He is harassed by the jockish bully Ollie who called him "scoop" and patronizes his dreams. Seems too that Luther and Ollie live in the same boarding house and Luther must endure Ollie's taunts over the meal table. Luther also has a big crush on Ollie's "girl" Alma (sexy in that All American girl way Joan Staley) and tries his best to get her attention and soon has the chance of his lifetime when he is offered the chance to stay a night in the Simmon's murder mansion to capitalize on the 2oth anniversary of the infamous murder-suicide of "old man" Simmons and his wife.

The night in the mansion soon turns into a terror fest for poor Luther as he is soon haunted by loud noises, secret passageways, blood stained, self playing pipe organs and a portrait of Mrs. Simmons with a pair of garden shears in her throat, blood gushing from the wound. Luther passes out but following the news story the next day he becomes a town hero. A picnic is held in his honor and he delivers a nervous speech and later receives a summons to appear in court in a libel suit. Seems the surviving heir of the Simmons estate, Nicholas Simmons (Philip Ober), does not take kindly to new plans to save from the house from destruction. Seems the banker's wife (Halcyon Maxwell played by Reta Shaw), who owns 51% of the banks shares, feels the house is a bone fide conduit to the spiritual world and one she and her little sisterhood of small town "occultists" want to preserve. Nick Simmon's crafty lawyer makes mince meat of neurotic and shaky Luther in court and all seems lost until the judge decides the best way to settle the matter is for the jury to go to the Simmon's mansion at 11:30 that evening and wait until the stroke of midnight to see just what happens. And what happens is nothing and Luther is further made to look like a fool in front of the towns people and the people who believed in him like George Beckett. As a dejected Luther walks away from the house the organ music resumes and he finds the paper's janitor, and his friend, Mr. Kelsey (Liam Redmond) at the keyboard. Seems the whole affair was staged by Kelsey to draw out the real murderer, Nicholas Simmons, and to clear himself of suspicion since his garden shears were the murder weapon. The film ends with Luther marrying the robust Alma and all in all this is a great movie.

The direction by classic TV sitcom director Alan Rafkin is nearly flawless and it is too bad he did nto do more big screen projects as he handled this one just fine. The music score my Vic Mizzy suits the film perfectly and the theme song was ripped by your humble editor here and is posted below for your pleasure, as are some pictures of lovely Joan Staley from her Playboy shoot. She would all but stop making films after this film when she suffered a near broken back from a fall from a horse. She would make TV appearances and it seems great to me that she even got this role considering she was a Playmate model. Things weren't as uptight as I thought they were. The on-running gag in the movie of yelling "Atta boy Luther" (or another name) started a bit of a trend for a while. The gag was supposed to be the idea of Andy Grittith and I recently saw a newer film that had a person in the background yell "Atta boy Luther" though I cannot find the film now. If someday I do I will return here and edit this post. A scene from the film appears in the Jim Carrey movie Yes Man and it was possibly Knott's best film. He has spoken highly of it and some of his other Universal films, including The Shakiest Gun in the West and The reluctant Astronaut though he seems to harbor some regrets for the more risque film The Love God?. Included he opening music by Vic Mizzy and a little audio sampling from the film's intro here as well.