Before my family and I relocated from Teays Valley to Ravenswood, West Virginia in the fall of 1972, I spent my formative years attending St. Francis of Assisi in St. Albans. It was a Catholic school, and I’ve always had mixed feelings about it because while I remember with great fondness the wonderful friends I made while in attendance (some of which I hooked up with again when I joined Facebook), the experience overall was a dismal one. I was at complete odds with the authoritarian nature of parochial school; in third grade, I don’t think a day went by when I wasn’t being paddled for some nefarious infraction of the rules (most of those were fairly mild, like talking in class or having an untidy desk).
I thought about those halcyon days of my schooled youth the other night when Mom and I sat down to watch the Svengoolie presentation of The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) on MeTV Saturday night. You see, a few of my St. Francis friends and I used to draw comic books in our copious free time (we’d take some of the manuscript paper and fold it book-wise); my buddy David Berry once did one as an homage to the movie—I hadn’t seen the source material (I would see the actual movie until years later) but I remember being entertained by it (I don’t know whatever happened to Dave but I like to think he kept up with the cartooning because he was quite good at it). The Ghost and Mr. Chicken was former Andy Griffith Show actor Don Knotts’ first post-Griffith feature film (he left the popular sitcom after five seasons to make movies) and not only did it do well at the box office that year it’s become a cult favorite.
Knotts plays Luther Heggs, a typesetter at The Rachel Courier Express in the sleepy hamlet of Rachel, Kansas. He’s kind of the town character (and in that burg, he’s got plenty of competition), and he harbors a burning desire to become a full-fledged reporter. Egged on by the paper’s custodian, Kelsey (Liam Redmond), Luther submits a “filler” story for the next edition commemorating the 20th anniversary of a murder-suicide at the Simmons Mansion, considered by townsfolk to be a “murder house.” Rather than being chewed out by editor George Beckett (Dick Sargent), Luther is encouraged to do a follow-up piece—which he’ll do after agreeing to spend the night in the haunted environs, egged on by reporter Ollie Weaver (Skip Homeier). (Luther and Ollie are also rivals, vying for the romantical attention of the lovely Alma Parker [Joan Staley].)
Heggs spends a harrowing night in Casa del Simmons, experiencing such supernatural manifestations as an organ that plays by itself and a portrait of the murdered Mrs. Simmons in the parlor now sporting a pair of pruning shears (the method by which Mrs. S was originally dispatched to the Great Beyond). The subsequent story elevates Luther to hero status among his fellow Rachelians…and throws a spanner in the works where Nicholas Simmons (Philip Ober) is concerned. Simmons, the nephew of the deceased couple, has planned to demolish the mansion…but the bank president (James Millhollin) can’t sign off on the paperwork because his spiritualist wife (Reta Shaw) has ordered him not to (she owns a majority stake in the bank). Simmons intends to discredit Heggs by taking him and the newspaper to court for libel. Can the hapless Luther clear himself (and the Courier Express) and win the hand of his lady love?
An episode of The Andy Griffith Show, “The Haunted House” (10/07/63), inspired the screenplay for The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, fleshed out by Griffith scribes Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum (and uncredited contributions from Andy himself). (The duo would later pen screenplays for the Knotts vehicles The Reluctant Astronaut  and The Shakiest Gun in the West .) Your enjoyment of Chicken will probably depend on your tolerance for Don Knotts (he’s a fellow Mountaineer—I pretty much have to root for him), which is why my mother was originally hesitant to watch the movie. We’ve been making tuning into Svengoolie a ritual on Saturday nights (I start Sven on a “time delay” so I can fast-forward through the commercials) even though there are some movies we will not sit through (we both vetoed Berserk  with Joan Crawford) and some we regret having done so (as campy as its reputation may be, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman  is painful to sit through).
But Mom liked the movie, and finally learned why I’ve been using the “Atta boy, Luther!” joke all these years. (According to Don’s autobiography, it’s Greenbaum who’s yelling this running gag.) Part of the appeal of Ghost and Mr. Chicken is its incredible array of character thesps; you have old-time radio veterans like Lurene Tuttle, Sandra Gould, and Jim Boles; familiar TV faces like Sargent, Shaw, and Charles Lane; and Thrilling Days of Yesteryear favorites like Jesslyn Fax, George Chandler, and Ellen Corby. TAGS alumni like Hal Smith, Hope Summers, and Burt Mustin are also in the supporting cast; I know I risk leaving out somebody’s favorite—that’s how stuffed this movie is with character greats.
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is a diverting little trifle, allowing Don Knotts to do what he did best: the hypertense underdog who somehow manages to achieve greatness by picture’s end. He’s got a line he says to leading lady Joan Staley—”That was just about the best pounded steak I ever ate”—that always makes me giggle, even if the romance between the two isn’t all that convincing (it’s the weakest thing in the film). It was a grand way to spend a Saturday evening, with Mom getting excited because she could identify the make of car Knotts’ Heggs is driving in the first few minutes of the film (a 1958 Edsel Corsair, cementing the image of Luther as a lovable loser). “Why don’t you run up an alley and holler ‘fish’?”