Originally published October 26th, 2013
We interrupt our weekly foray into the Disney Vault – which I’ll be posting later – to look at a live-action film starring one of Disney’s beloved actors, Don Knotts. While The Ghost and Mr. Chicken isn’t a Disney movie, Knotts created several enduring characters for that studio, and it appears said studio took a page out of the handbook Universal laid out with this film. Spooky enough for a child to enjoy, but with a gooey, caramel-coated heart at the center of it, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is a delightful Halloween treat for the young and young at heart.
Desperate to become a reporter small-town typesetter, Luther Heggs (Knotts) gets the opportunity to achieve his dream when he’s asked to spend a night in the haunted Simmons mansion; a night of mysterious noises and organ playing causes Luther to write the story of a lifetime. But when the mansion’s new owner seeks a retraction, and Luther’s job, the local yokel will have to prove the house is truly haunted.
My mother recommend this to me because she’s a huge fan of Don Knotts’ films. Ask her about The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964) sometime. I’ve watched Knotts in his later films, and hadn’t watched the work he did after leaving the immense success known as The Andy Griffith Show. With that, the cockles of my heart were warmed by The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. This is a good, old-fashioned haunted house movie with a Scooby Doo ending. The perfect throwback to Saturday mornings as a kid! An air of menace exudes from the house the first time you see it and someone gets their head bonked on the sidewalk. (IMDB mentions it was the house used in Harvey, but I swear it’s also the house from The Munsters.) The small town of Rachel, Kansas is one where everyone is involved in each other’s business, and thus reputations are fairly rock solid. Luther Heggs is commonly considered a buffoon eager to jump on a story no matter how ridiculous; thus, he believes a man who’s been hit on the head has been murdered.
Don Knotts is a master of comedy, particularly of the facial and slapstick variety. His hands do a lot of the action as he attempts to show off his skills at karate, but it usually involves slapping people’s heads or tree trunks. A scene of him somersaulting into an uneven elevator had me in stitches, mainly because it looks like Knotts did his own stunts. Luther just wants a chance; the typical nice guy who never gets the girl or the dream job no matter how hard he tries. The movie’s plot comes into effect once Luther spends a lone night in the Simmons mansion, a house whose history of murder and scandal increases with every person who recounts it. Knotts;s bug-eyed expression and nervous personality is like a chihuahua and it’s not too long before he’s jumping at every bump in the night. There isn’t much time spent in the house after that, and the movie turns into a courtroom procedural on par with the proving of Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street. The final test involves the entire courtroom returning to the house to see the events Luther saw happen again, and a twist involving murder and kidnapping. It becomes rather ludicrous but Knotts’ affability and the comic tone keeps everything light. It has the previously mentioned Scooby Doo ending, but who doesn’t love live-action cartoons when they’re genuinely funny?
The rest of the cast is composed of television actors, several of whom also entered popular culture through their respective series. Dick Sargent, aka “the Other Darren” of Bewitched fame, plays Knotts’ editor George Beckett and his persona as a father-like figure works. Other Bewitched alums include Reta Shaw and Sandra Gould as members of a women’s society who support Luther, and Charles Lane as the lawyer out to ruin the newspaper. The actors all have an intricate web of performances with each other, adding an additional layer of community to the movie. Love interest, Joan Staley is sweet as the girl next door, Alma. Her character isn’t complex, and only has a few scenes of smiling and going on a date with Luther, but that’s all you need for this type of film.
All in all, I enjoyed The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Don Knotts turns in a wacky performance in an eerie film which never becomes too intense for the youngest of viewers. It’s akin to going to a haunted house run by your best friends; a small-town carnival of intrigue with a neat bow waiting at the end.
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