If middle-America had a healthy turnover of weekend double-features at the local flea-pit, here in Australia a kid was more likely introduced to Alan Rafkin’s 1966 The Ghost and Mr. Chicken as a matinee or early-evening feature on black-and-white weekend TV of the early 70s. Australia lacked America’s seasonal focal point of Halloween, and the fullness of its monster craze of the late 50s and early 60s, but it didn’t prevent a goosebump-y appreciation of its laughs.
Opening on a dark and stormy night over Rachel, Kansas (pop. 6,384), we find Luther Heggs driving into town as composer Vic Mizzy’s jazzy opening-title thuds and ‘knucklebones’ on the soundtrack. Coming up on the left between flashes of lightning: The Old Simmons Place, that house every small town has; empty, run-down, and the scene of an infamous (and grisly-sounding) double-murder/suicide nearly twenty years ago to the day. As Luther passes the house, an unseen assailant swings a two-by-four into the head of local inebriate Calver Weems. Screams erupt, seemingly from nowhere; Luther’s eyes bulge, and his hands shake on the wheel as he reverses his car into a row of trash cans to return to the scene of the crime. And we’re off on this Universal horror-comedy classic, which must surely rest in the company of Halloween perennials like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Mad Monster Party? (1967) and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966).
Luther (Don Knotts) is one of the little guys; a lowly filler and typesetter at The Rachel Courier Express, almost beneath the notice of the Editor Mr. Beckett (Dick Sargent from TV’s Bewitched (1964-1972)) and sole reporter Ollie (Skip Homeier, who wore the second-best prosthetic ears in an annoying episode of Star Trek’s (1966-1969) vilified third season). Luther carries his press-pass in the hope of cracking the big story that propels him to respect as a fully-fledged member of the Fourth Estate. Calver’s murder (“BANG! Right on the head!” as a hysterical witness repeatedly informs him) looks like that story – until, embarrassingly, it isn’t; because Luther has jumped the gun, as is his wont.
Luther isn’t unloved in town. The little old ladies, his neighbours at Mrs. Miller’s Boarding House (what if Stephen King named his boarding-house landlady in “Salem’s Lot” after her? …. nahhhh) have quite a soft spot for him, though they allow themselves some guilty amusement at his expense the next morning as Ollie gleefully recalls the Weems ‘murder.’ Luther tends to be outwardly over-imaginative, has been “keyed-up” since childhood, and is a bit of a blowhard (for example, alleging a years-long correspondence course in karate has made his “whole body into a weapon”, though the muscle memory isn’t quite there yet). He’s also more than a little suggestible; his co-worker Mr. Kelsey (Liam Redmond, from Night of the Demon (1957)) seems to be manipulating him for his own reasons. Poor Luther is also smitten with Alma Parker (Joan Staley), town beauty, girl-next-door… and Ollie’s regular date.
Talked into sneaking in his own write-up on the Simmons anniversary as needed filler, Luther is steered by editor Beckett into an anniversary-sleepover (alone) in the Simmons house. Once there, he’s softened up by a series of “explicable” scares but these give way to the less-explicable: rattling chains and spooky laughter, leading stricken Luther to the loft where, as midnight strikes, the ghost of Old Man Simmons, true to local legend, invisibly belts out composer Vic Mizzy’s unforgettable ‘Haunted Organ’ theme before his popping eyes. Panicked, Luther is further overwhelmed by the sight of Mrs. Simmons’ portrait stabbed and gushing blood. He passes out. When he awakes, he’s a hero and town sensation, literally overnight. It seems his luck has turned on all fronts, but fame can be very fickle… and one of his concerned readers is none other than Nick Simmons (Phil Ober), the intimidating heir to the estate, who badly wants the house demolished. Before long Luther is in court charged with libel, and must save his story, his reputation, the house and The Rachel Courier Express.
Star Don Knotts had established his small-town nebbish credentials in the beloved Emmy-winning role of Deputy Barney Fife on five seasons of The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968). With a small number of feature appearances under his belt, most recently starring as a fish in The Incredible Mr. Limpett (1967), Knotts decided it was now or never for a dedicated movie career. Then, unexpectedly, Andy Griffith took his show to a sixth season. Knotts was not yet committed to his new path, but in the end signed a five-picture deal with Universal Studios.
Director Alan Rifkin had a forty-year career of mostly episodic TV, including many episodes of The Andy Griffith Show. However, it is the “The Haunted House” episode, directed by Earl Bellamy, which is considered a direct inspiration for The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Compared to Barney in a haunted house, though, Luther is a full-tilt, teeth-chattering hysteric. More on that later.
The movie is a cornucopia of beloved character actors—Reta Shaw (from TV’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1968-1970) – no relation – and Mary Poppins (1964)) as Mrs. Halcyon Maxwell, wife of the town’s bank president and leader of the local occult group; Ellen Corby (from The Waltons (1972-1981)) as Luther’s well-meaning hindrance of a grade-school teacher; Robert Cornthwaite and Charles Lane as opposing legal counsels, Lurene Tuttle, Cliff Norton, Sandra Gould, James Milhollin, Bert Mustin. If you don’t know the names, never mind – you’ll know the faces. “Oh, THAT guy!”
Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum’s screenplay is, on the whole, first-rate, offering us such gems as a persistent product-placement that follows every discussion of the indelible bloodstains on Old Man Simmons’ organ-keys; an omnipresent, well-wishing heckler; and, unmissable—Luther’s quivering, neurotic speech at a Chamber of Commerce reception in his honour (mooching Rotarians beware). Here a gust of air reduces his self-indulgent, multi-page notes to one shaking, useless page, and his speech to a series of half-recalled, oddly-endearing verbal fragments that no one in the crowd seems to mind (and which by modern public-speaking standards are practically eloquent).
The film is also a hilarious take on small-town mindsets. Almost as a mob, the townspeople tolerate, adore, despise and adore (again) Luther, more or less in that order. The movie is full of beautifully-played, and barely-restrained hysteria from the very first scene. Mrs. Maxwell and her Psychic Occult Society of Rachel bear special mention: marching into the action behind a banner, these bored housewives with their invocative mantra of “Taro, Caro, Salamond!” zero in on the vibrations they ‘detect’ from the Simmons place (“HAIL, COSMIC CHIEF!”) and from Luther himself, with an electric response ranging from thrilled to almost orgasmic, or in Mrs. Maxwell’s case, to outright hysterical collapse. As Mrs. Maxwell, Reta Shaw comes close to stealing the show. Her breakfast-table laying- down-of-the-law to her long-suffering, bag-eyed husband Milo (James Milhollin) is worth the admission price by itself.
Composer Vic Mizzy’s score sometimes echoes his work from The Addams Family (1964-1966), albeit while still “creepy,” a bit less “kooky.” His unforgettable “Haunted Organ” theme dominates the scene every time it plays, taking on legitimate character-status.
The ‘Old Simmons Place’ on Colonial St. in the Universal backlot, was not, as is sometimes reported, the Munster’s House, though that is literally next door, and wisely kept from view here since it would have been fully dressed for The Munsters, which was also in production in 1966.
Given this is a Universal horror picture, albeit peripheral, it is worth noting that even if the trappings of ‘classic horror’ had become generic by the 60s, there are two brief nods to Universal’s monster past: Luther’s discovery of a secret staircase which he ascends in fright, tearing thru a spider’s web like an over cranked Dwight Frye in Dracula (1931); and a shot of Luther leading a small, lantern-bearing mob up to the Simmons place, if printed in black-and-white, would not be out of place in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931).
On a very minor downside, perhaps Knotts’ and Staley’s scenes together never seem to overcome the fact that poor Luther is very awkward company, and there is almost no credible chemistry between the characters, up to and including the scene where they happen to express their feelings for each other. Until then Luther seems to be scuttling his chances, if any, with nervous (very) small-talk and the conspicuous appropriation of others’ nearby conversations. In the closing scenes, his obnoxious swagger has returned, and while in his inevitable triumph none of the townspeople seem to mind, you have to wonder if he’s learned to be himself even now.
Accordingly, Alma’s turning on Ollie seems abrupt. There are small hints that he may be a bit patronising to her, and he stands her up at the Chamber of Commerce luncheon, but the simple fact is that Ollie, while a jerk, simply isn’t enough of one to be treated so cavalierly by his best girl. He even seems to be willing to have Luther’s back—probably to hog the glory if Luther’s assignment pays off, since he repeatedly scorns Luther’s aspiration to be a reporter, but it’s more ribbing than contempt. He doesn’t regard Luther as serious competition on any front, and never becomes anything resembling a ‘villain’. His hurt is genuine, and when he whispers to Luther that he hopes Simmons and his lawyer “fry” him, it’s hard not to be a bit sympathetic.
There are some evident but minor narrative gaps in the denouement, with explanatory extra shots reportedly turning up (unpredictably) in TV cuts over the years. Their absences don’t detract from the outcome.
Run like Luther Heggs to catch up with The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.