Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source bootleg VHS
The Mr. Chicken of the title is Luther Heggs (Don Knotts), a man for whom the term milquetoast was invented. Luther is the typesetter for the Rachel Courier Express in Rachel, Kansas (“Home Plate for Wheat and Democracy”) with ambitions to be a great investigative journalist. His first opportunity comes when he is assigned to spend the night of the twentieth anniversary of a murder-suicide in the old Simmons Mansion (a.k.a. the “murder house”). Although Luther is scared to death of the place, he agrees to the mission in order to impress Alma, the girl he is sweet on.
The minute Luther sets foot in the house, creepy things start to happen. First, Luther sees a gramophone begin playing on its own. Then, he begins to hear clanking chains, thudding footsteps, and soon a sinister laugh. Luther thinks that Ollie, his rival at the paper and for Alma’s affections, is trying to scare him until a bookcase opens up to reveal a staircase leading to a loft where a bloodstained organ pumps out a frightful tune on its own. Luther, afraid for his life and threatening the unseen spirits with karate (he studies it by mail), eventually comes upon a portrait of the murdered woman punctured with garden shears and gushing blood. At this point, Luther, as would anyone, faints.
The next day, the Rachel Courier Express runs Luther’s story of his horrific night in the murder house and Luther is acclaimed as a town hero. The Rachel Chamber of Commerce gives a picnic in Luther’s honor and the Psychic Occult Society of Rachel claims Luther as their local hero. Even Alma agrees to go to dinner with Luther. Everything is looking good for Luther until the nephew of the murdered Simmons woman sues Luther for libel for damaging the family name.
In the ensuing court case, Luther must prove to the court that what he says he saw actually happened. Led by Luther, the judge, jury, and public visit the house whereupon nothing happens. The bookcase does not whoosh open, the portrait is intact, and (most damaging of all), the organ does not play. Just as Luther seems to have lost the last of his new friends, his only old friend, the janitor of the Courier Express, confesses that he faked the haunting. For those who have yet to experience the magnificence of this picture, I will not spoil the Scooby-Doo style denouement. It will suffice to say that Luther becomes the town hero once again when he saves Alma’s life and exposes the truth about the old Simmons place.
After his great success on The Andy Griffith Show, where he won five Emmy awards for his portrayal of Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife, and his first leading film role (albeit as an animated fish) in The Incredible Mr. Limpet, Don Knotts starred in a series of comedies tailor-made to his talents for Universal Studios. The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) was the first of these, followed by four more over the next five years. The Reluctant Astronaut (1967) followed the formula of Mr. Chicken, but this time accidentally sending Knotts” nervous janitor into space. 1968’s The Shakiest Gun in the West was a remake of The Paleface, which originally starred Bob Hope as the nervous dentist who becomes an unwitting Western hero. The Love God? (1969) breaks from the formula enough to allow Don Knotts” nervous bird-watching magazine editor to transform into a Hugh Hefner-style pornography magnate. (Yes, you did just read “Don Knotts” and “pornography” in the same sentence.) By 1971, Universal’s love affair with Knotts was winding down and the last film in the cycle was How to Frame a Figg, where Knotts plays a nervous town hall clerk who is framed for corruption. Knotts moved on to work as part of an unofficial Disney repertory company where he made several comedies paired with Tim Conway and a few others without him. He still works in film and television, although his appearances are rare. John Waters has tried repeatedly to get Knotts to appear in one of his films but was told by Knotts’ agent that poor Don was “very expensive, mostly blind, and forgets his lines.” Waters replied, “Well, I’m glad you#8217;re not my agent!”
Don Knotts is probably not the first name that comes to your mind when you think “comic genius,” and it’s true that he does have certain limitations as a performer and actor. Nonetheless, the work he does within those limitations is peerless. In supporting parts in movies and in his famous television role, he developed a persona that was a combination of Buster Keaton’s loveable loser who always comes out on top and Lou Costello’s bigmouth who doesn’t have the temerity to follow his words with action. Knotts finessed and expanded this persona in his rather formulaic film work for Universal and, later, Disney, but the genius of Knotts lies not in his interpretation of material but in the perfect control he has over his expressive, goofy face and rubber-limbed body and the way he uses those assets in comedic situations. In The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, Knotts” character reacts not only with fright at every bump and thump in the haunted house, but reacts with minutely degreed variations on fright — from a panicked jump into a defensive pose to full-on knee-knocking, teeth-chattering, eye-bugging terror. Knotts also knows when to rein it in. A perfect example is the speech Knotts gives as Luther Heggs in front of the Rachel Chamber of Commerce. The scene is a tour de force of comic timing and controlled movement. As written, it’s just a scene where a man loses the notes from which he was planning to speak and improvises, horribly, for a couple of minutes. Knotts takes this small moment and uses it to amplify the nervousness we all feel when addressing the public until it is an explosively funny symphony of anxiety. What’s key, however, is that it is not overplayed. Knotts does not go for the broad physical humor and desperate laughs a Jim Carrey or a Robin Williams might. He’s not performing pratfalls or taking pies in the face, he’s simply performing a comedic exaggeration of an everyday jumpy pantywaist and it’s hilarious.
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is, overall, a very sweet-natured comedy. It’s just the thing to watch when you are sick of foul-mouthed puppets, flatulent grade-schoolers, and grown men who shoot bottle rockets out of their assholes (though all of those have their particular charms as well). There are jokes at the expense of such easy targets as small-town drunks and gossips, the newspaper trade, spiritualism, and henpecked husbands, but the humor is genial and not unkind and is all in the context of a celebration of the pleasures of small-town Midwestern life.