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Saturday, December 5, 2009

THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN -- movie review by porfle

(This is part one of my look at the "Don Knotts Reluctant Hero Pack", a two-sided DVD containing four of Don's best-known movies: THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN, THE RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT, THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST, and THE LOVE GOD?)

When three-time Emmy winner Don Knotts left his role as the beloved deputy Barney Fife on "The Andy Griffith Show" for a career in movies, THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN (1966) was his second starring role (the first was THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET, a mix of animation and live-action that appeared two years earlier). And, as many of his fans will probably agree, the second was the best, as this is probably still the mostly fondly-remembered movie Don ever made--especially if you first saw it when you were a kid.

One reason for this is that his character, Luther Heggs, is the closest one to Barney Fife that Don ever played in a film. He wears the same old suit and hat, lives in a small town just like Mayberry, and has several of the same characteristics--he's a coward who manages to do brave things when the chips are down, he likes to brag and bask in the attention of others, and he claims to know karate ("My whole body's a weapon" he brags, a quote right out of "The Andy Griffith Show").

Luther is a typesetter for the local newspaper but he dreams of becoming a reporter. So when he's offered the chance to write a big story by spending a night in the old Simmons place, a spooky mansion which most of the townspeople are convinced is haunted, he jumps at the chance. (He's chosen for the job because the paper's owner, played by Dick Sargent, wants somebody with a wild imagination who's also a bit of a kook.)

So, on the anniversary of the night twenty years earlier when Old Man Simmons murdered his wife and then ran up to the organ loft to play maniacal music on a huge pipe organ before throwing himself out the window to his death, Luther enters the house with nothing but a flashlight, a sleeping bag, and a severe nervous condition. Several things happen to seriously spook him out: he jumps when he suddenly sees himself in a mirror, a dressmaker's dummy casts an eerie shadow on the wall, and an old Victrola starts playing by itself (this part is reminiscent of a similar scene in THE EVIL DEAD--maybe Sam Raimi's a Don Knotts fan).

But when Luther beds down for the night on an old couch, the real fun begins--he hears footsteps and clinking chains, followed by crazed laughter which seems to be coming from the organ loft. Creeping upstairs, he finds the cobweb-covered pipe organ, with bloodstains still on the keys. And at the stroke of midnight, the organ begins playing by itself. Practically jumping out of his skin, Luther hightails it downstairs where he finds the portrait of Mrs. Simmons with a pair of gardening shears stuck in her throat and blood gushing from the wound. That's when he passes out.

Luther's night in the Simmons place is the centerpiece of the film, although it happens fairly early on. It generates the rest of the events that take place, which include Luther's being hailed as a town hero, landing the girl of his dreams, and finally being sued for libel by the Simmons' nephew Nick, who is in town trying to have the mansion bulldozed to the ground and its memory erased. The final third of the film follows the trial, and then a return by all involved to the Simmons place to determine whether or not anything supernatural is really going on there.

The story is fun and involving all the way thanks to veteran "Andy Griffith Show" writers James Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum, who penned some of that series' best episodes. Some wonderful running gags keep popping up, such as the "Attaboy" guy who is never seen but always heard ("Attaboy, Luther!" "Attaboy, judge!") and Mrs. Cobb (Nydia Westman), the old lady from Luther's boarding house who is forever amazed by the fact that no one was ever able to wash the bloodstains off the organ keys ("And they used Bon Ami!" is her frequent catchphrase).

There's the elevator operator (Eddie Quillan) who can never stop the elevator level with any floor (which results in a hilarious sight gag), and local cop Herkie (Jim Begg), who takes his job a little too seriously. The rest of the cast is filled with an almost endless list of familiar faces, including Burt Mustin, Harry Hickox, and two unbilled "Andy Griffith Show" regulars, Hal Smith and Hope Summers.

But the main reason this movie is so much fun to watch is its star, Don Knotts. Whether he's improbably winning the affections of the most voluptuous babe in town, Alma Parker (November 1958's Playmate Of The Month, Joan Staley), or confronting his bitter rival, Alma's erstwhile boyfriend and ace reporter Ollie Weaver (the great Skip Homier), we're pulling for him all the way. I can't imagine not being a Don Knotts fan, but for those of us who are, his performance in this film is awesome. This is Don at his nervous, blustery best, and he plays the role like a virtuoso--putting his high-strung character in the middle of such blood-chilling supernatural goings-on was an ideal choice and Don makes the most of it. He's well-served by veteran comedy director Alan Rafkin, who also helmed Andy Griffith's ANGEL IN MY POCKET (1969) as well as numerous classic TV sitcom episodes, and composer Vic Mizzy, here contributing one of his most memorable comedy scores.

I first saw this movie during a Saturday afternoon matinee in a theater filled with other wildly enthusiastic kids, which is still one of my most fondly-remembered communal moviegoing experiences. It doesn't scare me anymore like it used to (although there are a few pretty good shocks), but THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN is still a joy to watch and, along with "The Andy Griffith Show", remains the perfect Don Knotts vehicle and the best way for kids and adults alike to appreciate his unique talent. Attaboy, Don!

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