As a big-screen comedian, Don Knotts was never funnier, more endearing, or more inspired, than in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, an oddly charming, silly but surprisingly smart small-town comedy from 1966. It’s one of those pleasant memories from childhood that you’re delighted to discover still holds up. Knotts’ character, Luther Hegg, is little more than an extension of, or variation on, Barney Fife; he’s what Barney might become if Andy wasn’t around to calm him with a wink to the audience. And Knotts gives into the foolishness with enormous conviction: the goggle-eyed, wild-haired terror; the slightly self-important preening of a little man who just knows he could be a big deal with the right break; the false bravado that quickly succumbs to cowardice of the first rank (a shtick Bob Hope would have been proud to own); and, curiously, the essential heartbreak and loneliness Knotts is too good an actor to sentimentalize or imbue with undue self-pity.
Alan Rafkin directed, and James Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum wrote the screenplay — the latter can be heard, in an amusing running gag, shouting, “Atta boy, Luther!” — with the un-credited assistance of Andy Griffith, who wanted to help launch his television co-star’s movie career with a bang. Knott’s dialogue is full of delicious character, whose qualities fit their small-town milieu: Would-be witness-stand philosophy (“When you work with words… words are your work.”); uncertain skepticism (“Well, me, I just don’t happen to believe in ghosts… particularly.”); face-saving bravado (“Why don’t you run up an alley and holler fish?”)
Made for $700,000 The Ghost and Mr. Chicken was an enormous success in the hinterlands, giving rise to a snobbish notion that it was just a corny, cheap-jack effort, whipped up fast to tickle the hicks. It isn’t. Aside from its star’s peerless, bug-eyed takes and curiously endearing persona, what make this unpretentious trifle of a movie so pleasurable are: its relative intelligence, and its canny observation of character. They’ve been making inexpensive showcase comedies for rising comedians for aeons now, and most of them are dumb to the point of inanity. (Today they’re both stupid and gross.) One crucial difference: the screenwriters and the director of this movie have a fondness for even the smallest of characters. Every role, however contained, is written and performed as completely individual. The voices (and the faces) are unique, just right for the performers and for the town itself.
Among the gems in the diadem of the supporting cast: The charming Joan Staley (in a black wig; the filmmakers thought her naturally blonde hair made her far too sexy) as Luther’s eventual inamorata, Alma; Liam Redmond, providing a rich and notably thick example of Irish blarney as a busybody custodian; Lurene Tuttle as Luther’s gentle landlady; Dick Sargent as the town’s peripatetic newspaper publisher; Philip Ober as the litigious heir to the old Gothic mansion that forms the centerpiece of Luther’s notoriety; Herbie Faye as a nosy restaurant customer; James Millhollin as the nervous banker who finds in his imperious wife Reta Shaw both immovable object and irresistible force; Sandra Gould, who later replaced Alice Pearce as Mrs. Kravitz on Bewitched, as an excitable spiritualist; ersatz Mayberry resident Hal Smith as the redoubtable Calver Weems; Hope Summers, another Mayberry habitué, as the hysteric in the credit sequence who sees the drunken Calver “murdered.” (“Bang! Right on the head! Bang!“); Eddie Quillan, in a funny bit as a hapless elevator operator; the ageless Charles Lane, in movies from the early 1930s at least, as a prosecuting attorney; Ellen Corby as trial witness who sweetly and innocently twists the knife in Luther’s back; and George Chandler, as the amiable judge. In addition, Jesslyn Fax and Nydia Westman contribute rich characterizations as a pair of squabbling old biddies in Luther’s boarding house. (Westman has another of the movie’s deathless lines: “And they used Bon Ami!”)
The art and set decorators (Alexander Golitzen, George Webb, Oliver Emert and John McCarthy) deserve a nod here for their deliciously prototypical “haunted house,” which adds so much to the spooky atmosphere and comic effect and may be forgiven for overdoing it on the cobwebs — that house has only been unoccupied for 20 years, not 200 — as does William Marguiles’s sharp widescreen cinematography (the movie was shot in in Techniscope.) Vic Mizzy’s delightful score is more than an asset; it’s practically an additional character in the movie: The main theme for Luther incorporates the comic and the creepy, much in the manner of Mizzy’s justly famous Addams Family main title. (That’s the composer himself you hear on the movie’s soundtrack, playing the organ with deliberate badness.) This wonderfully quirky music was finally released commercially in 2004 by Percepto, which also brought out a clutch of Mizzy’s terrific, utterly idiosyncratic movie scores.
One moment of many can stand as an example of the kind of attention to comic detail that informs The Ghost and Mr. Chicken as a whole: In a charming, wordless bit the always delightful Burt Mustin, as another of the boardinghouse regulars, casually removes an egg from the cozy of the bickering woman next to him at breakfast, cracks it open, and eats it. No one notices, and the filmmakers don’t beat us over the head with it; it’s there, on the periphery, if we want to enjoy it.
Can you imagine the people behind Jack Black movies having the courage — and the grace — to do that?