AUTHOR’S NOTE: Welcome to the one year anniversary of “Scared Silly!” One year ago today I launched this site with the inaugural review of the four star horror-comedy classic, “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.” I want to thank all of the fans who have stuck with me through the past twelve months, through both prolific periods and those with delays. I truly appreciate your loyalty and patience as we explore this wonderful sub-genre of movies together! Let’s kick off the next twelve months with a review of yet another four-star horror comedy delight – Happy Haunting!
RATING: **** out of ****
PLOT: As typesetter Luther “Scoop” Heggs (Don Knotts) heads toward the spooky old Simmons mansion in the middle of a thunderstorm, he drives past a stumbling drunk right before the souse is clonked on the head by an unseen person with a two-by-four. A neighborhood woman witnessing the scene cries “murder” which gets Luther’s attention so he stops to investigate. Luther rushes to the police station to report the incident. With his rival Ollie (Skip Homeier as the newspaper’s ace reporter) and boss George Bennett (Dick Sargent as the paper’s editor) on the scene, Luther is mortified when the drunk man suddenly appears alive and well. Back in the boarding house where Luther lives with his rival and some elderly folks, talk turns to a legend of the old house being haunted in the wake of some gruesome murders that once took place there. When Luther is given a chance to write a little throw-away mention about the upcoming 20th anniversary of the murders, Mr. Kelsey, the newspaper’s janitor who was a gardener at the house at the time of the murders encourages Luther to elaborate. Spinning the tale of what happened that fateful night, Luther delivers an atmospheric piece that is a little more than a throw-away and elicits great interest from the readers. The editor and Ollie think it would be a great publicity stunt to have one of the reporters spend the night in the house on the eve commemorating the murders. Naturally (with Kelsey’s subliminal suggestion) they turn to Luther to guarantee they’ll have a sensationalized piece fueled by his overactive imagination! They get a whopper of a tale with an unexpected side effect: Luther is declared the town hero for braving the mansion (especially by the old folks who make up the Psychic Occult Society)! But the paper is also cited in a lawsuit by the heir, nephew Nick Simmons claiming that the family name has been besmirched. Can Luther prove he saw what he said he saw or is he destined to go from zero to hero and back again?
REVIEW: Of the few films of the 1960s to carry on the horror-comedy tradition, none was more traditional than this Don Knotts opus. This is perhaps due to the fact that Knotts himself was such a throwback to classic comedians like Bob Hope and Joe E. Brown. Knotts was a master at portraying the cowardly character who feigned bravado to impress the ladies. “Mr. Chicken” was also peppered with supporting players that were (or would become) familiar to TV audiences of the Sixties – the same way the cache of character actors who populated classic B-movies of the 1940s and ‘50s became household faces, if not names. Last but not least it really got across the small town feel and/or sense of community that often permeated the classic “old dark house” motif.
Despite these old-fashioned touches, there were some modern conceits. Start with the music playing behind the opening credits – the jazzy score by Vic Mizzy is almost James Bond-esque in spots. The initial action takes place over the opening credits, a device employed in some movies prior to the 1960s that became more prevalent from the ‘60s forward. The “scare” scenes include a “bleeding portrait” – complete with gardening sheers piercing the neck of the woman in the painting! This gorier-than-usual image for a horror-comedy actually leaks blood-red! Come to think of it, the full technicolor process used is also more of a modern touch, as the majority of horror-comedies prior were filmed in black and white. Unlike the remake of “The Old Dark House” the color really works here – the set designers went out of their way to make it all look effectively spooky and creepy.
So here we have this film, with its low-budget, its TV sitcom lineage in full view (shot on the Universal studio lot and bearing more than a passing resemblance to many of the Universal TV shows then on the air) and working actors with nary (apart from Knotts) a marquee name in the bunch… and me bestowing a full four out of four star rating! How can that be? Is it really as good as “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” and “Arsenic & Old Lace?” I’ll say this: its direction and production values may not be up to the level of those two classics, but like Laurel & Hardy’s short “The Live Ghost” (which I also gave four stars) and the Vincent Price-Peter Lorre-Boris Karloff laugher “The Raven” any shortcomings are obliterated by the solid performances and genuinely effective and sometimes downright creepy atmosphere. In addition to Knotts bringing his A-game, “Mr. Chicken” also succeeds in spades due to its script. It is one of the best-scripted horror-comedies since 1948’s “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.” Most if not all of the pieces fit, and the comedy comes out of the characterizations – the reactions of each personality to the situations they find themselves in. While the script isn’t quite as polished as some of the other four star Scared Silly delights it is quite underrated and much better than any of its detractors would have you believe.
The key phrase here actually is “believe.” There’s an authenticity to this film amidst its eccentric characters. This is a story that one could actually imagine happening, at least for the most part. Ask your parents about small-time life and the various characters who wove in and out of it and you get an idea of a time when community was a bigger part of people’s lives – warts and all. After all, people weren’t as distracted by things like 500 channel TV services, cell phones and the Internet. They actually not only interacted directly with one another – they also spent time together, too! There were also more people back then prone to jump to (and stick to) fantastical explanations of things than the generally skeptical generation today – something else that can be attributed to the Internet which puts the art of “debunking” at everyone’s mouse-clicking fingertips. You may not believe what’s happening on the screen, but you believe that the characters on the screen believe what’s happening.
A major reason for this film’s setting fitting like a comfortable old shoe is the uncredited involvement of Andy Griffith. Whether asked to help or just jumping in in support of Don, Andy’s fingerprints (as well as those of his TV show’s writers) are pretty evident. The town of Rachel, Kansas is only a few steps up the evolutionary ladder from Mayberry. Maybe a few less back roads and tumbleweeds but still the same old “small town loaded with eccentrics” sensibility. A running gag in the film is also attributed to Griffith: a voice in the crowd (whose owner is never revealed but seems to be at every major public event that takes place in the movie) prone to exclaiming “Attaboy, Luther!” The line brings a smile every time, especially when it comes unexpectedly such as when the bailiff retrieves a bible for the judge and explains that “Arnold had it.” This revelation is followed by “Attaboy, Arnold!”
One seemingly small but quite nice touch is the way the movie carries on the Abbott & Costello tradition of “funny” character names that relate in some way to the whole. Don Knotts is Luther Heggs. Heggs of course reminds one of “eggs,” which are laid by chickens… and Don is the chief chicken here… the title “Chicken” and the film’s #1 scaredy cat. Knotts is the king of nerves and hyper from the get-go, but in a wonderfully funny and endearing way. It also establishes that he is the nebbishy character that will inevitably be the butt of others’ jokes. Luther’s rival Ollie ruthlessly ribs him, calling him “Scoop” and referring to his press card as a price tag amongst other cruelties. In the court scene the prosecution uses Luther’s bookworm-ish tendencies to paint a negative portrait. When it seems Luther has been proved a fraud, even his backers – the old ladies from the Psychic Occult Society – turn on him, including one who beans him with her handbag! In perhaps the most poignant scene, Ollie displaces Luther at lunch with Alma, leaving Luther to sip his soup standing up. The viewing audience’s sympathies are with Luther the whole time, even when the characters on screen have abandoned him.
There are four main set-pieces in this film: Luther’s first misadventure within the “haunted house,” his triumphant speech at the public celebration of Luther having spent the night in the house, the courtroom scene where the Simmons heir tries (and succeeds) to discredit Luther, and Luthor’s return to the mansion to restore his good name.
In the haunted house scenes, the horror-comedy trappings are as numerous as those found in the best of the genre: a thunderstorm and whistling winds, a screeching cat, a revolving bookcase that reveals a hidden passageway, a Victrola that starts playing records on its own, cobwebs, things that go “bump” in the night, etc. There are not a lot of original touches here (this film even has the same kind of trap door that dumps people onto beds of coal seen in the aforementioned remake of “The Old Dark House”) but while these “scare” elements are overly familiar and even time-worn, they are all performed with gusto and great care here. A couple of the devices used are even intricately woven into the story: in addition to the painting that bleeds red this film features an organ that plays on its own (or does it)? These last two bits feature prominently into the plotline and one particular character’s connection to the proceedings.
A benefit of this film’s script are those scenes that surround the scare sequences. The scene in the park where Luther is celebrated as a hero probably goes the longest way toward cementing audience sympathy for the character. The town desperately wants to believe in him, even after the notes to his speech blow away and he bumbles his way through it. Luther ends up giving a great circular speech that goes absolutely nowhere despite his best efforts to be totally serious and in command. The scene also serves as a short-hand to further develop some of the characters already introduced as well as introduce new ones like Deputy Herkie.
The courtroom scene is reminiscent of the comedies the MGM studio made in the 1940s. In those films, such legendary talents as Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers and Laurel & Hardy were put through their paces and brought to lower-than-low spots that they had to rally from and overcome. The formula didn’t work as well as for those classic characters as it forced them into situations where they lost their natural resourcefulness. But the Luther Heggs character is established early on as not having a lot of resourcefulness or even nerve so when the outside forces conspire against him its understandable how quickly he falls from the townsfolks’ favor.
The scene is one of the best-written in the movie and gives some real veterans a chance to shine. The prosecution brings out Luther’s grade school teacher. She starts by saying lots of good things, but then the lawyer asks her to elaborate on how Luther was a “keyed up” kid. She notes his many eccentricities – like eating bread from the middle to avoid the crust, losing his shoes as he ran, and most of all making up stories – including finding a skeleton (Luther protests that it was a squirrel skeleton, not human), telling a girl he liked that his cavity filling was a short wave radio that could pick up messages from Admiral Bird (Luther says he only wanted the girl to like him) and writing an essay about his father claiming the he was really the Prince of Wales but there was a mix-up at the hospital. Then a CPA is called to the stand. He claims to have heard organ music accompanied by screams coming from the mansion on separate occasions at midnight. He is soon rebuffed when the lawyer mentions that the CPA is president of a UFO society (when asked where their last meeting was held, the CPA says “on Mars”). Last but not least Luther himself is called to the stand. The prosecution plays up Luther’s love of newspapers – Luther says that if you were to cut him, he’d bleed ink and that “when you work with words, words are your work.” This feeds right into the lawyer’s hands, who accuses Luther of exaggerating so he can go from typesetter to reporter. Luther excitedly protests, standing up and recounting everything he saw, with the members of the ladies occult group answering him as if he was a Pentecostal preacher, until their leader faints at the mention of the bleeding portrait!
As mentioned above, the town is loaded with many interesting characters bordering on the eccentric… and played by several notable character actors and comedic talents. Dick Sargent was known primarily as one of the two actors who portrayed Darrin Stevens, husband to witch Samantha on TV’s long-running sitcom “Bewitched.” He played many other roles in films and on TV, usually alternating between put-upon domestics like Darrin and more take-charge authority figures like the newspaper editor he plays here. His resume includes a couple of horror flicks that are unintentionally funny – “The Beast with a Million Eyes” and “The Clonus Horror.” Joan Staley as love interest Alma also had an extensive career including recurring roles on TV’s “Perry Mason” and “77 Sunset Strip,” guest spots on “The Munsters” and “Batman” and appearances in the Elvis films “Kissin’ Cousins” and “Roustabout” and the suspense classic “Cape Fear.” Luther’s rival Ollie was played by Skip Homeier who had already racked up several credits playing crumbs, starting out paying troubled teens and growing up (and into) gangster and desperado roles. Another journeyman actor, most of his roles were movie or TV one-shots (although he did have a recurring role on TV’s “The Interns”) and included parts in several episodes of such fantasy fare as “Walt Disney’s Wondcrful World of Color” (including one called “The Strange Monster of Strawberry Cove”), “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Star Trek,” “The Bionic Woman” and “The Incredible Hulk.” James Millhollin as the lawyer Milo Maxwell was a throwback to the likes of Franklin Pangborn and Everett Edward Horton playing hotel clerks, waiters, authority figures and the like with a flowery yet nervously fluttery presence. Pick a classic TV series and odds are he was on it – he was on “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” four times in fact as four different characters! – and among his notable genre show appearances were multiple shots on “The Twilight Zone” and a part on “Lost in Space.” James Begg plays Herkie the cop and is yet another veteran of countless movies and TV shows as both a character actor and a producer. He appeared on both “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Bewitched” as well as providing voices for several animated “Scooby Doo” projects. George Chandler is here as Judge Harley Nash. He had the title role in the TV series “Ichabod & Me,” was president of the Actor’s Guild from 1960 to 1963 and his career spanned the late 1920s through the late 1970s. His extensive credits include roles in W.C. Fields’ classic short “The Fatal Glass of Beer,” a pair of Mr. Moto movies and a couple of episodes of “The Abbott & Costello Show” as well as “Kolchak the Night Stalker” and many more. Phil Ober essaying the role of villainous Nick Simmons was a bit of typecasting. The former Broadway actor famous for his crooked authority figure roles also had an infamous personal life. He was prolific on the small screen with guest-shots on many series including “Boris Karloff’s Thriller” and “The Munsters.” The ubiquitous Charles Lane turns up here as lawyer Whitlow. Lane was the stern-faced authoritarian who always looked older than he was, until his actual age caught up with him (he managed to live to 100). Where do you even start with listing his innumerable credits? Suffice to say he appeared in everything from the Capra classic “It’s a Wonderful Lfe” to the less-than-classic “Charlie McCarthy, Detective” (removing a bullet from the title ventriloquist dummy’s body)! Before he became every TV producer’s favorite go-to guest star, he also appeared in the classic horror-comedies “The Cat & the Canary” with Bob Hope and “Arsenic & Old Lace” with Cary Grant as well as several appearances in films in the “Blondie” series, parts in fan-favorites including “Tarzan’s New York Adventure” and “Mighty Joe Young,” and roles in a couple of Abbott & Costello features (“Ride ‘em Cowboy” and “Pardon my Sarong” and the solo Costello film, “The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock”). Last but not least is Liam Redmond as Kelsey, the newspaper’s janitor. His role is pivotal and really the second most important part in the film after Knott’s Heggs. Redmond was more known for drama and appeared in many roles that played off his Irish heritage. Most notable was portraying one of the professors in the classic Jacques Tourneur horror film “Curse of the Demon” (aka “Night of the Demon”). He crossed several genres including westerns, costumers/period pieces, crime dramas and spy series including guest shots on “The Avengers” and “The Saint.”
Redmond does an exceptional job here as his character Kelsey literally and figuratively drives much of the action. It starts when Kelsey dictates to Luther the story behind the “murder house.” This inspires Mr. Bennett the editor tries to think of a way to capitalize on the anniversary of the Simmons murder to help sell more newspapers… and it’s Kelsey who “coughs” out the suggestion that someone stay in the mansion overnight – an idea Mr. Bennett takes credit for. When Mr. Bennett exclaims that it must be someone with a wild imagination – a coward – Kelsey shouts out to Luther who is in the next room, putting the idea of Luther into Bennett’s head. At the film’s climax it is apparent that that Kelsey’s involvement in the case and his interest in the resolution are of tantamount (and hand’s on) importance.
In the end, it is of course the masterful performance of Don Knotts that puts this one over in a big, big way. Knotts is unbelievably funny in this film. And actually he’s more than that, as he is in complete control delivering whatever each scene calls for. This ranges from multiple ways to show how scared he is (everything from chattering teeth and knocking knees to bugged-out eyes and flailing limbs in a desperate attempt at martial arts) to amazing restraint when he’s feigning bravery, to simply maintaining composure while trying to deliver a speech without his notes… even though we know he’s terrified inside! He also is adept at dramatics, bringing a genuine pathos to his character that ensures that audiences can’t help but root for him. It is a tour de force performance and a standout in a career that was loaded with high marks, and contributes in large part to making “The Ghost & Mr. Chicken” the classic horror-comedy it is.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: As if the who’s who of character actors mentioned above wasn’t enough, there are additional performers in this film who shine large despite their miniscule parts.
Start with Ellen Corby as Luther’s former schoolteacher. She will forever be known as the grandmother on “The Waltons” but her roles are numerous. They include bit parts in two Laurel & Hardy classics (“Sons of the Desert” and “Babes in Toyland,” aka “March of the Wooden Soldiers”), playing a maid in Abbott & Costello’s “The Noose Hangs High” appearing in Jerry Lewis’ “Visit to a Small Planet” and two major horror-comedy roles: playing one of the Gravesend clan in “The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters” as well as Mother Lurch in the classic “Addams Family” TV series.
Eddie Quillan plays an elevator operator who can’t quite get the elevator to line up with each floor. It is a nice showcase for his comedic talents, which were on display for many years in movie musicals and shorts (including a Columbia short subject series as half of a comedy team with Wally Vernon). Quillan actually appeared in one of the very first horror-comedies, the 1926 silent Mack Sennett short “The Ghost of Folly” with bathing beauty Alice Day and future Columbia studio-mate Andy Clyde. He was also in the classic “The Grapes of Wrath” as well as Abbott & Costello’s “It Ain’t Hay” as a con-man. His career extended into the late 1980s with many TV roles, including playing several characters on the classic “Addams Family” TV series.
Burt Mustin plays Mr. Dellagando, one of the elderly residents of the boarding house. He is a familiar face to TV and movie viewers of the 1960s – whenever a story called for a man older (and less stern) than Charles Lane, Mustin got the part! Actually he more often than not played friendlier sorts than Lane. And like nearly everyone else in “Mr. Chicken,” his credits are innumerable. He appeared in an episode of “The Abbott & Costello Show,” played a farmer in the feature “Snow White & the 3 Stooges,” and made scores of other movie and TV show appearances but it is three TV characters that he will be remembered for most: Gus the fireman from “Leave it to Beaver,” Charles Augustus William Smith the septuagenarian bandit from “Dragnet” and Jethroe Collins – who sets Bobby Brady straight about his “hero,” Jesse James on “The Brady Bunch.”
BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:
LUTHER: Calm?!? Do murder and calm go together? Calm and murder?!?
MR. BENNETT: Do haunted houses scare you?
LUTHER (with false bravado): They’re mortar, stone and wood!
LUTHER: Mr. Boob – that’s me – B-double O-B – Boob!
LUTHER (explaining to Alma that he’s been studying karate for years): My whole body’s a weapon!
LUTHER (to Alma): Take your average guy and your above-average girl. Average is just darn lucky to be sitting on the porch with above-average!
LUTHER (as he leaves to spend the night in the haunted house): I’ll see you in the morning.
FELLOW BORDER: God willing!
OCCULT CLUB WOMAN #1: They say there are still bloodstains on the keyboard.
OCCULT CLUB WOMAN #2: That’s right – they’ve never been able to get them off!
OCCULT CLUB WOMAN #3: And they used Bon Ami!
BEST VISUAL GAGS: The above-mentioned haunted house scares all deliver laughs and Knotts in general is a comedic force of nature. Just Don Knotts running around, being scared out of his wits and pretending to know karate moves would be enough to recommend this film (but as a special bonus we’re given so much more)! One particular standout is when Luther is startled by a mannequin and knocks its head off,
FURTHER READING: This film has been written about extensively – you can find several reviews with just a quick online search. I’ll only highlight one of the reviews. “The Ghost & Mr. Chicken” was a highlight of many people’s childhoods, and no one does a better job of conveying that than reviewer Mark R. Hill on the Kiddie Matinee site. You can read Mark’s review as well as several facts and trivia details by clicking here.
There's also a book out on Don Knotts' theatrical films which I haven't read yet but I have to assume it speaks extensively about "Mr. Chicken" since its success along with that of "The Incredible Mr. Limpet" two years earlier were instrumental in solidifying Knotts' career as a simultaneous TV star (as Barney Fife on "The Andy Griffith Show") and cinema star. Buy the book here:
BUY THE FILM: “The Ghost & Mr. Chicken” has been released on DVD by Universal in both stand-alone versions and as part of a Don Knotts collection.
WATCH THE FILM: As of this writing, “The Ghost & Mr. Chicken” is available as an instant view selection on Netflix… and you can watch the trailer right here:
…and as a special bonus, here’s a tutorial on how to play the movie’s “haunted organ” melody!:
Sunday, October 31, 2010
THE GHOST & MR. CHICKEN (1966)
Posted by Paul Castiglia at 12:00 AM
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Happy Halloween... may there be treats, not tricks...ReplyDelete
Thanks for sharing the information regarding the movie,I love the soundtrack of the movie.ReplyDelete
Discount Theatre Tickets
I saw this in the theater when it came out-- in those days there were still films made expressly for the weekend matinee crowd. It is probably the only "scare" comedy I ever found really scary. Of course I was 10 years old, but I have THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN on DVD now, and I have to say, the spooky atmosphere is still very effective, and head-and-shoulders above 95% of the comedies in this category.ReplyDelete
Plus, as you say, the small-town atmosphere is loving, authentic and convincing. I know, because this the kind of town I grew up in.
I grew up in that kind of town, too Lockhart - and over the years when I've explained to folks that the town I grew up in was a lot like Andy's Mayberry and Archie's Riverdale most of them just stare at me in disbelief! :) Thank you for your comments.ReplyDelete