Friday, October 30, 2015

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken ( 1966 )

Ephraim Simmons murdered his wife in cold blood and then played the organ before killing himself; the keys are still stained with blood, and could never be cleaned off.... even after using Bon-Ami! Or so the rumor goes. It takes a man with spunk, like Luther Heggs, to get to the bottom of the real story.
 
Heggs ( Don Knotts ), a timid typesetter for a small-town newspaper, boasts that he can spend the night in the Old Simmons Mansion where it is rumored that the ghost of Mr. and Mrs. Simmons still reside. His chance to prove his courage - and impress his sweetheart, Alma Parker ( Joan Staley ) - comes when he writes an article on the local "haunted house" which creates such a stir that Luther's  boss ( Dick Sargeant ) challenges "Scoop" to spend a night in the old house and do a follow-up story. During the midnight vigil, the terrified Luther discovers a hidden staircase, the blood-stained organ mysteriously playing by itself, and a portrait painting with shears stabbed right through it.

"It was terrible. It was just terrible. I'll never get over it as long as I live!"


After his story is published, a town picnic is given in honor of Luther's courage, but he soon finds himself embroiled in a libel suit when the Simmons' nephew comes to town and demands that he retract his story or prove to the court that what he saw was not just his imagination playing tricks with him.

Don Knotts had just garnered three Emmys for his role as Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show from 1960-1966 and, after hearing that Griffith intended on ending the series after the fifth season, began to embark on a film career. While Knotts had a few minor roles in feature films ( It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; Move Over, Darling ) it was not until 1964 that he received star billing in Warner Brother's The Incredible Mr. Limpet. This picture was received poorly at the box-office, however, Lew Wasserman screened the film over at Universal and decided that had Mr. Limpet been made by a studio with experience in family pictures it would have met with great success. Knotts was then offered a five-picture contract and given free rein to screenwriters and key personnel. Atta boy, Don Knotts!

Television screenwriters Everett Greenbaum and Jim Fritzell teamed up with Andy Griffith to create a spine-tickling film that spotlighted Knott's unique comedic flair and combined all of the homespun humor of The Andy Griffith Show. A plethora of familiar character actors portrayed the citizens of the fictional small town of Rachel, Kansas, including a motherload of Mayberry-ites such as Hal Smith ( Otis ) as the town drunk , Hope Summers ( Clara ), Ellen Corby ( in an amusing sequence as Hegg's former schoolteacher ) and Burt Mustin ( Jud ).

 
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is packed with humorous one-liners but it is not the script that makes the film the memorable comedy classic that it is - it's these character actors and the brilliant facial expressions they display with every line. Jesslyn Fax stands out as Hegg's adorable landlady and Reta Shaw gives a beefy performance as the leader of the ladies' Psychic Occult Society ( "Taro, Karo, Salome!" ).

"I was only two blocks away that awful night, at my sister Clara's. We were sort of... listening.. to the organ, you know... the midnight bells were ringing... I turned to Clara and said, 'Clara, the organ music sounds straaange tonight!'.....

However, Don Knotts needed no support when it came to getting an audience to laugh. His nervous speech at the town picnic is a tour-de-force of comedic timing and remains one of the highlights of the film. Another memorable scene takes place at the diner - Luther leaves his seat beside Alma for a moment and a truck driver takes it, leaving Luther to slurp his soup from a standing position. Only Knotts can portray such a lovable small-town boob ( he even drives an Edsel! ).
 
 
Production on The Ghost and Mr. Chicken began in July 1965 and wrapped up within seventeen days, thanks to a swift television crew behind the cameras. Since the picture had a low-budget most of it was filmed on the Universal backlot. The famous Simmons mansion was a long-standing structure originally built in the 1940s and used for many Universal classics, including Harvey ( 1950 ). Keep an eye out for the Munster mansion next door, 1313 Mockingbird Lane.

Calm? Do "murder" and "calm" go together? Calm and murder?!


While most of the cast and crew knew what an entertaining film they were making, they did not realize just how popular it would become. Universal decided to release The Ghost and Mr. Chicken as a double-feature with Munsters, Go Home! to test the waters, not certain whether audiences wanted to watch two hours worth of Knottisms. Within one week of its release The Ghost raked in $1,500,000, nearly double its initial cost and, in cities across America, the film was extended for weeks to packed houses.

A sprightly ghost theme by Vic Mizzy ( based on Mr. Ghost Goes to Town ) and a marvelous "haunted" organ anthem permeate this Midwestern comedy gem filled with frightfully funny moments, a chilling atmosphere, stellar character actors, and one of Don Knotts' greatest nerve-rattled performances, making it appealing for all ages and the perfect film for a Halloween night.

This is our contribution to The Universal Pictures Blogathon hosted by yours truly, Silver Scenes. To read more articles on your favorite Universal classics head on over to The Master List of guest writers. Happy Halloween!

2 comments:

  1. I just watched this last night! It's my favorite Don Knotts film!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I am typically not a Don Knotts fan, but this is his best film and he's quite amusing in it. IN fact, as you point out, it's a well-done movie of its type.

    ReplyDelete

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