What does a title say about a movie? With something like Eat, Pray, Love, it says, “here’s a movie about insufferable rich whities, whinging about their champagne problems”. I’ve never seen Eat, Pray, Love, but I do remember a few reviews on its release that basically backed up my assumption. But when I see a movie title The Ghost and Mr Chicken, I expect something pretty light, silly and fun. When I see a movie title like The Ghost and Mr Chicken and that is stars Don Knotts, I expect something feather light, super silly and crazy fun. And this is a move that delivers on everything that the title promises.
The main character of The Ghost and Mr Chicken is played by Knotts, so it might come as a shock when I tell that he’s not the town stud, slaying vag all over the place on the regular. Instead, cast against type, Knotts plays Luther Heggs, the awkward, nervous and confidence free typesetter at the local, small town newspaper. With dreams of becoming a real reporter, he accepts an assignment to sleep in a house abandoned 20 years earlier, after a vicious murder / suicide. Widely believed by the local townspeople to be haunted, a night in the house is Luther’s chance to impress his editor (Dick Sargent, AKA Derwood 2.0 from Bewitched), and his dream girl, Alma (Joan Staley).
After a night of secret passages, organs playing themselves and a cacophony of creepy crap, Heggs writes his article and emerges as the town hero. But his new found glory doesn’t last for long. When the current owner of the house sues the paper for printing what he calls lies about the house and its former inhabitants, the newspaper is threatened, as well as Luther’s recently boosted confidence and budding romance with Alma.
Watching The Ghost and Mr Chicken, I was reminded of a common thread I’ve noticed in a few of these older movies. The basis of murder, suicide, and death in general, as the basis of some wacky old madcappery. Here, as in Arsenic and Old Lace and The Trouble With Harry, some really dark, horrific shit has gone down to set these story in motion. But in every case, they’re never treated like dark and horrific shit, just springboards for plenty of broad comedy. It’s also what I like most about all three movies. The commitment to the jokes amidst what should be such a dark backdrop, makes them all the funnier.
Don Knotts is one of those dudes who, from what I’ve seen, only ever played one character. But that’s fine, because that one character is hilarious and so watchable. Playing the bumbling idiot isn’t easy. There’s a very fine line between funny and just aggravating. Knotts makes Luther an idiot, but he makes him such a big hearted, sincere idiot, that even with his dumbest decisions, it’s still impossible not to like him. Which is a great description of The Ghost and Mr Chicken over all. Even when going for the cheapest, easiest and most obvious jokes, the movie is just so innocent and optimistic, it’s impossible not to like.