I'm less than two hours away from taking my kids trick or treating as I write this so I better get crackin'. Well, with Halloween, I thought this year I would review some great literary or film horror - something like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or Stephen King's Carrie. It turns out I'm critiquing something else -
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.
This 1966 comedy-mystery-slight horror movie played last weekend at the historic Augusta Theater in Augusta, Kan. And when I say comedy, it's the right word. The great Wikipedia calls the film a "comedy drama." Horse manure. Comedy drama? What does the writer of that article think this film is? An episode of Louie or Orange is the New Black. Any movie with a title like The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is going to be straight comedy or at least attempt to be.
What makes this movie? Who steals it? Owns it? Two words: Don Knotts.
Here, Knotts plays the nervous, twitchy, high-energy, bug-eyed character he honed on The Steve Allen Show in the 1950s and brought to perfection in the '60s with the role of his life - Deputy Barney Fife from The Andy Griffith Show.
In The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, Knotts plays Luther Beggs, a typesetter at a small town newspaper, the
Courier-Express, who wants to move up to reporter. At the beginning of the movie, Beggs thinks he's on to a hot story when he witnesses what appears to be a murder. He frantically runs to the police station and while he's recounting his story, the supposed victim walks in. He was the town drunk and had just been hit over the head by his irate wife.
The next morning, Beggs arrives at the breakfast table of the boarding house where he lives, and finds reporter Oliver Weaver (Skip Homeier) making fun of him to the old ladies who live there. On top of that, Luther has a crush on Alma Parker (Joan Stanley - she was Playboy's Miss November in 1958), who seems to be Oliver's girlfriend.
But Luther finds a way to regain his dignity. Kelsey (Liam Redmond), the Irish janitor at the paper, convinces Luther to write a small piece about the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Simmons murder. According to town legend, Mr. Simmons murdered his wife, Mrs. Simmons, then played the pipe organ and leaped to his death from the window of the organ loft. It's rumored that the organ keys still have blood stains and the ghost of Simmons plays the organ at midnight.
After his article appears, the paper's editor George Beckett (Dick Sargent - Yes, that's the second Darin from Bewitched) has the hot idea of having Luther spend the night in the haunted house and report what happens. When the nervous Luther stays in the cobweb-filled house, he discovers a hidden stairway that leads to the organ loft. Luther goes up to find the bloody organ keys seemingly playing by themselves, at midnight.
When Luther's frightened account of the event appears in the paper, sales go up and Luther becomes a town celebrity. However, his new status is threatened when Nicholas Simmons (Phillip Ober), the nephew of the dead couple, denounces Luther's story as fake and sues him for libel.
On this score, I have to deduct a few points from the movie. I'm a journalist. I took communication law in college and I know you can't - according to press law - libel dead people. And someone can't sue for libel on behalf of other people. But it's part of the story and it leads to Luther's conflict - proving his innocence as the evidence is stacked against him.
I won't tell how this film ends, but it's a light-hearted comedy from the '60s. Draw your own conclusion, hopefully as you're watching the movie. I found that you can watch The Ghost and Mr. Chicken for free on the internet, but that doesn't compare to the experience of watching the old movie on the big screen in an old fashioned movie theater. If you don't have that opportunity, I say at least watch the film on a big screen TV.
The idea for The Ghost and Mr. Chicken sprang from a 1963 episode of The Andy Griffith Show in which Barney went to a haunted house. For the movie, Knotts brought in director Alan Rafkin and writers, Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbam - all of whom had worked on The Andy Griffith Show.
Their influence - along with Knott's comic acumen - show in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. While the movie setting and characters don't rise to the hyper-nostalgic level of small town endearment that made The Andy Griffith Show irresistible, it does share similarities with the TV series.
The story takes place in a small town - Rachel, Kan. - not much different than Mayberry, N.C. and the ladies of the town's Psychic Occult Society project the kind of comic hyperbole expressed in characters from the The Andy Griffith Show. Like the TV show, the movie celebrates rural life without being cornball.
Sure the movie's no work of art, but it was better than I expected. It gave me some laughs and its family entertainment. So much of what my wife and I like, we have to watch when the kids aren't around. It's nice and refreshing to see something safe. There's a gentleness to the film, an innocence that avoids treacly sentimentality by standing on its own simplicity.
If your family is like mine and you like to watch old cheesy movies on Sunday afternoons - or on Saturday nights at old fashioned movie theaters - this would be a good one to check out.
Phillip Ober had a small role in the film comedy, but he acted in some tremendous '50s drama and suspense films - From Here to Eternity and Hitchcock's North by Northwest. Also in the courtroom scene from The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, you will notice - if you watched TV at all during the '70s - that the part of Luther's old elementary school teacher is played by Ellen Corby - Grandma Esther Walton from the Depression set, The Waltons. Corby received an Oscar nomination for her role as Aunt Trina in the 1948 comedy, I Remember Mama. I think it would be cool to see what she was like when she was young.
I saw one of the minor characters in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, and thought - "Mrs. Kravits! Bewitched." Yup. That was actress Sandra Gould (AKA Gladys Kravitz) right there with future Darin, Dick Sargent.
Here's where the gateway grows thick and abundant. The various actors and actresses in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken had numerous roles in TV shows from the '50s and '60s. To watch them all would be to ride the enchanted TV Land highway to bliss - a generation really. I say watch all you can fit in: I Love Lucy, I Married Joan, Perry Mason, Playhouse 90, 77 Sunset Strip, Wagon Train, Bonanza, The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Dream of Jeanie, Star Trek...
Lastly, I will mention that Vic Mizzy, who wrote the film's musical score, "The Haunted Organ" (it sounded a little like the Doors) also wrote the theme songs to The Adams Family and Green Acres. Ah, TV Land.