Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Overlooked Movies: The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966)

As often happens on this blog, you’re going to have to put up with some nostalgia before I get to the actual subject of this post. Or you can just scroll on down, I won’t mind, honest.

I’ve mentioned the Eagle Drive-In Theater before. When I was growing up, it was only about a quarter of a mile from my parents’ house if you cut through back yards, a field, and the parking lot of the Western Lodge Motel. I saw a lot of movies there. Somebody always took me until I was about ten years old, but after that point I usually walked, sometimes with other kids from the neighborhood, sometimes by myself. (Times were different then. Those of you who are old enough know that, and those who aren’t, just take my word for it.)

The Eagle had a promotion during the summer called Merchant’s Night, which was, I believe, on Tuesday each week. Businesses around town would buy bunches of really cheap tickets and give them away to their customers with purchases made in their stores. With those tickets, you could get in free on Merchant’s Night. The double feature was always older movies (cheaper for the theater to rent, I’m sure), so you got a lot of Elvis and Audie Murphy movies from four or five years earlier.


I loved this Don Knotts movie (the first one he made after leaving THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) when I saw it as a kid. Svengoolie ran it on his show a few weeks ago, so I had to record it and watch it for the first time in almost 50 years. Knotts plays Luther Heggs, a typesetter on the local paper in the small Kansas town of Rachel. He has an ambition to be an actual reporter, though. One of the local legends involves a creepy old house in town where a notorious murder/suicide occurred 20 years earlier. The old man who owned the house murdered his beautiful young wife in a fit of insane jealousy, then climbed into a tall tower attached to the house, played crazy tunes on the organ there, and finally leaped to his death.

So who do you think gets the job of spending the night in the murder house on the twentieth anniversary of the crime? Actually, how do you think the rest of this movie is going to go? Because you’ll probably be able to predict everything that happens in it, right down to the identity of the bad guy.

But here’s the important thing: It doesn’t matter. This is a wonderful film, and I had a big smile on my face the whole way through it. It’s just a beautiful snapshot of small town Americana, from the diner where the citizens of Rachel eat to the bandstand in the town park. I’ve been known to say that a little of Don Knotts goes a long way, but he’s great in this one, doing all of his usual nervous routines but pulling back from them when he needs to. Dick Sargent is the owner and editor of the newspaper, Skip Homeier is the arrogant reporter who makes life miserable for Knotts’ character, and Joan Staley is the beautiful girl-next-door Knotts has a crush on. The supporting cast is full of familiar faces: Hal Smith (Otis from THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, playing the town drunk here, too), Burt Mustin (from LEAVE IT TO BEAVER), the great Charles Lane, and many more.

My friends and I loved this movie when we were kids. We spent weeks hollering “Attaboy, Luther!” (the movie’s most famous running joke) at each other and thinking it was hilarious. It’s still pretty funny. Watching it now, I still love it. I know intellectually that those days really weren’t simpler, better times for everybody, but they were for me and THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN did a great job of transporting me back there for a while. Attaboy, indeed.


Scott D. Parker said...

Absolutely LOVE this movie. I saw it as a kid back in the 1970s on Houston's channel 39 every time it was on. Have loved it ever since. Last summer, it was on TCM (I think; maybe one of the other retro movie channels) and watched it again. Knew all the lines, including "Attaboy, Luther!" and "let me clarify this." The main theme, with its Munster-like bass guitar and xylophone, gave the movie yet more quirkiness. And that organ music! I was of the perfect age to be a little scared of the scenes where Luther spends the night in the house (bloody garden shears anyone) but just ate up the whole scheme to capture the bad guy. It's also one of the reasons I still enjoy Scooby Doo shows because they are just like MR. CHICKEN.

For me, MR. CHICKEN and TE APPLE DUMPLING GANG are my favorite Don Knotts movies.

Oh, and when I saw that Svengoolie was showing MR. CHICKEN a few weeks ago, I taped it despite owning the movie on VHS. Why? Because Svengoolie always gives trivia and behind-the-scenes stuff.

James Reasoner said...

I fast-forward through most of the Svengoolie comedy bits but always watch when he's talking about all the actors in the movie and what else they were in.

Barry Traylor said...

I agree that is a fun movie. It was also nice to grow up in the late 1940's and early 1950's.

Mike Doran said...

As time goes on, The Ghost And Mr. Chicken is moving perilously close to being regarded as a Classic.
Everything and everyone in this is just plain right - it all comes together as a whole.

The all-star cast (I think so, anyway) -
For the longest time, I thought that was Rhys Williams playing the typesetter; years later I learned that that gentleman had health problems that would have made the more active parts of the role problematical for him. As it is, many people I know are still shocked when they recognize Liam Redmond from his many British films ("What's he doing in a Don Knotts movie?").

The Mayberry contingent, of course, probably brought there by director Alan Rafkin, and the "serious" actors like Sargent, Homeier, Philip Ober et al., and a genuine mystery plot from the writers - everyone brought their A-Game.

And of course, "Attaboy, Luther!", spoken by co-scenarist Everett Greenbaum, years before he joined the regular rotation of judges on Matlock.

So much for More Than You Wanted To Know>.

I'll just add that Don Knotts's other Universal comedies of that period have virtues of their own that people should come to recognize - eventually …

Lawrence Person said...

Knotts was the American example of the type of comedian more commonly found in Britain: The comedic schlub and noble failure. And he played it to a T.

Another far more obscure Knotts vehicle, The Love God?, is well worth taking a look at as well.

James Reasoner said...

THE LOVE GOD has been recommended to me several times. I plan to look for it.