“Atta Boy, Luther!”

28 Sep

The liner notes on The Ghost and Mr. Chicken soundtrack cd are full of behind the scenes tidbits, which almost makes up for the lack of extra features on the DVD.

I happen to know that John Waters loves a certain ghostly 1966 flick because we have actually spoken about it one-on-one. Twice, in fact. Now, if that makes me a name-dropper, so be it. I have also seen Johnny Depp on TV singing the same movie’s praises. The terrif  offering to which I refer is no less than 1966’s The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, starring the one and only, the legendary iconic comic genius, Mr. Don Knotts.  Even though the American Film Institute somehow forgot to include this priceless suspense-comedy gem in its 2000 retrospective of the 100 Funniest Movies (American style, that is),  it delivers plenty of laughs in scene and after scene, whether through clever dialogue (“With all her heart, she came home last night and vibrated for an hour”), priceless comic characterizations (including the grand theatrics of indomitable Reta Shaw and the fully vested, button down villainy of the incomparable Charles Lane), or a healthy dose of slapstick (much too much to include parenthetically).  Not only that, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken serves up a fair amount of thrills and chills alongside the laughs. I’ve seen this movie dozens upon dozens of times since my childhood in the sixties, and there are still moments that never fail to send chills up and down my spine. I like this movie so much, and think that it has so much to offer, that I decided to watch it with the students in my class.  Really? What is it about this movie that makes it worth recommending after all these years? The Ghost and Mr. Chicken continues to amuse, haunt, and inspire me as both a movie fan and a teacher thanks to Knotts’s extraordinary gift for comedy, the contributions of composer Vic Mizzy, and the lessons the film offers about  writing’s  dos and don’ts.

Yep, it’s true: despite his bumbling persona, Don Knotts was a man who enjoyed great success in life. For example, long before he won a staggering 5 Emmy awards for playing Barney Fife, he was elected 1942 Senior Class President at Morgantown High School in Morgantown, VA. Knotts passed away in 2006 at the age of 81.

First of all, Don Knotts is as much a comic genius as either Charlie Chaplin or Lucille Ball. The five Emmys he won as Best Supporting Actor for his memorable role as Deputy Barney Fife in the revered The Andy Griffith Show offer some pretty persuasive evidence of that. Of course, Knotts’s character in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, Luther Heggs, is just a big screen variation of Fife, and why not? After all, the movie was penned by James Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum, two writers from the Griffith show. Though uncredited, Griffith reportedly worked on the screenplay according to the soundtrack’s liner notes; likewise, the movie was directed by another Griffith team member, Alan Rafkin. Furthermore, the plot of a fourth season episode of the Griffith show, entitled “The Haunted House” placed Fife in the same predicament as Heggs, investigating strange occurrences in a spooky old house. Are there similarities? Of course there are, but then Charlie Chaplin donned his bowler and funny shoes as “The Tramp” more than once, and when Lucille Ball finally found her niche in TV, she played her madcap “Lucy” character in a total of four series.

What good is a great hero without a great villain? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Charles Lane. Though not the actual bad guy of the piece, Lane plays a humorless lawyer who attempts to ruin Heggs in a libel suit. Nobody, but nobody, was better, or ever will be better, at playing sourpuss, officious bureaucratic pricks than Charles Lane, who racked up hundreds of TV and movie credits inhabiting one variation after another of a steely eyed functionary. He continued to work well into his 80s, and died at the age of 102 in 2007.

Yes, Don Knotts’s gift for comedy makes The Ghost and Mr. Chicken amusing after all these years, and, yes, there are similarities between Fife and Heggs; however, Knotts does not play a small town deputy. Instead, he portrays the local newspaper’s typesetter though he aspires to be reporter. What this character shares with Fife is that he’s a wiry little man with big dreams and even bigger emotional swings. Luther is a schlemiel who reacts first–and wildly–and asks questions later.  When he’s afraid, he isn’t just scared, he’s hysterical (“keyed up” is the term used to describe him more than once). For example, at the beginning of the movie, when Heggs thinks he’s stumbled onto a story about a murder, he’s wildly animated, so much so that his body seems to pull him in different directions all at once. Later, when he’s at the police station trying to file a report, he doesn’t take kindly to being told to calm himself. This is when Knotts cuts loose with righteous indignation, a rubbery face, and bulging eyes, all the while ranting and repeating the question, “Do murder and calm go together?”  Knotts even ups his own ante when he’s startled by the appearance of the very much alive man he believes has been murdered: “Calver, you’re dead,” he cries before he has a chance to even process what he’s just said.

Heggs is also the kind of guy who is super sensitive about his lack of obvious manly fortitude, so whenever he believes his masculinity–or integrity–is being questioned, his whole body stiffens, he puffs out his chest,  and then he barks out some inane line that’s supposed to make him seem like a real tough guy even when such a reaction might not be the most appropriate, but Knotts makes it funny because his bravado is often quickly undermined. In one lunchtime scene, he musters all his courage and lays down the law, so to speak, to one of his taunting co-workers. Heggs points his finger at the rival defiantly and proceeds to exit the diner in a huff only to be reminded that he has no tab upon which to settle his bill. Immediately, his whole body goes slack, and he’s a frustrated dithering mess.

Of course, Knotts can deliver pratfalls, and does so more than once, but my favorite bit occurs when he is standing almost–almost–perfectly still, and that is the moment Heggs experiences stage fright while delivering a speech at a special chamber of commerce picnic given in his honor. Again, when Heggs feels awkward in front of a crowd, he isn’t just mildly nervous. Instead, his whole body is at war: his neck and shoulders visibly tense; meanwhile, his fingers tremble, seemingly unable to be at peace, and he has no idea what to do with his arms. Not only that, his voice wavers at a high, thin pitch.  Sure, it’s funny when Knotts stumbles and goes off half-cocked, but he’s never funnier than when he struggles to appear gracious and eloquent and, once again, cannot calm his nerves. More than any scene in the movie, I think this one routine shows why Knotts is an acting genius. The next time you watch The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, try–try–to pay less attention to his pained face and half-baked speech and instead focus on how he acts all the way down to his fingertips; then, look at how he holds his shoulders. If this doesn’t show the mark of a skilled thespian, I don’t know what does. To reiterate, I don’t think Chaplin or Ball could have played this particular scene any better.

Among composer Vic Mizzy’s dozens of TV and movie credits, he is perhaps best known for the creepy and kooky, snap-snap happy, Addams Family theme. Interestingly, even though many of The Ghost and Mr. Chicken cast and crew were also associated with The Andy Griffith Show, Mizzy had nothing to do with that show’s larky, whistle-happy title music.

If Knotts makes me laugh, and he does, then Vic Mizzy’s score just flat-out gives me the willies. Mizzy might not have the name recognition as fellow film composers Henry Mancini, Bernard Hermann, or John Williams,  but he worked steadily in films and TV for decades before dying at the age of  93 in 2009. His score for The Ghost and Mr. Chicken isn’t just incidental. No, it is fully integral in that a key plot element is an old dusty, blood stained organ whose last owner reportedly stabbed his wife, and then, with blood still dripping from his hands, played the instrument maniacally before leaping to his death from a tower window. Twenty years later, his ghost reportedly haunts the decrepit mansion and plays the organ at midnight. It is this ghostly phenomenon that spooks Heggs into an inconsolable frenzy–and no wonder. Mizzy’s organ theme is as sinister and as overwrought as, say, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.”  Certainly, it’s as startling as the opening strains of the old Perry Mason theme (by Fred Steiner), a show I avoided as a small child because the music actually terrified me. Anyway, every time I hear Mizzy’s swooping, diabolical organ music, I get goose-bumps. The sound of it is practically blood curdling. Indeed, it sounds like that very thing, that is, if you can imagine what the sound of blood actually curdling might be. Speaking of  Perry Mason, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken‘s main theme rightfully belongs to a whole genre known as “Crime Jazz,” of which the premiere entry is no doubt the theme from Peter Gunn (Mancini). Mizzy’s jazzy score helps set the tone for the whole movie from the first ominous strains  that play over the Universal logo scene to the opening credits sequence in which Heggs drives home during an evening storm, lightning cutting through the sky and an increasingly frantic game of one upmanship commences between an electric guitar, a xylophone, and a full-tilt horn section–while in the background an old woman shrieks about the murder she believes she’s just witnessed.  This main theme recurs throughout the movie though Mizzy shades it differently depending on the tone of each scene. A little more sly percussion and  nervy flute as Heggs  pokes his way through the allegedly haunted mansion; slowed down with a mournful woodwind during moments of  waxing nostalgic or self-reflecting. Mizzy launches another well-timed musical zap  when a victrola magically comes to life, and a old ragtime number plays at warp speed. It might not seem like much to read about in a blog, but every time I watch this movie with newcomers, they always jump at that very moment. Again, this movie continues to haunt me largely due to Mizzy’s wicked musical gifts. Oh yeah, according to the soundtrack liner notes, no less than Henry Mancini once said of Mizzy, “If you want a great job done fast, then get Vic Mizzy. No one does a better job than he does!”

The exteriors of the Ghost and Mr. Chicken’s Simmons manse were filmed on Colonial Street, located on the Universal Studio’s backlot. These days, Colonial Street is the setting for Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane, and the facade of the Simmons place , known as the “Allison Home,” serves as the residence of Gabrielle and Carlos Solis.

Finally, one thing that continues to inspire me and makes this movie a natural for an in-class screening is what it has to offer about the dos and don’ts of skillful writing. Mostly, it’s the don’ts that dominate. As noted, Luther’s big dream is to be a reporter–and he has even earned a correspondence school certificate (as he has also learned karate via correspondence school).  The trouble is, Heggs is imaginative, but he’s not especially skilled, and his attempts at wit and erudition fall flat. There are two particular mistakes  he makes that I often find myself correcting with my own students. The first is a tendency toward the “water-is-wet” claim. I first learned about this claim when I read a book called Understanding Mass Media back in high school.  The gist of it is a statement that might sound profound to the unschooled ear but says absolutely nothing insightful about the given topic, that is, nothing that could not be deemed self-evident by anyone but the lowliest fool: water is wet. Yeah, right. I have to remind my students that arguments aren’t won by generalizations, so writers have to make sure that every word in a sentence, a paragraph, or a whole essay is somehow working purposefully and persuasively, and generalizations and circular reasoning won’t cut it. Luckily, my students get to  see and hear Luther make such pronouncements as, “When you work with words, words are your work” and something to the effect of, “Well, I’d rather eat good food over bad food any ole day of the week.” Of course you would, Luther. Who wouldn’t? Another area in which Luther errs is leading with an attention-getting device. I’ll be frank: when my students need a strong opening remark and are stumped, I encourage them to simply ask a question (“Should big businesses make campaign contributions to politicians?”). Most of the time it works; however, many students tend to lapse into rhetorical indulgence, and their essays become bogged down in questions that are never answered: “Shouldn’t the government be more interested in the welfare of the average American citizen and not just the owners of big businesses? Don’t we pay taxes also? Why should we stand for this?” I have to remind my students that posing a question is fine but some perspective is needed. They need to be arguing a case, presenting suitable evidence, and answering questions–not asking questions. Luckily, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken serves up a brief example of how this approach can turn sour rather quickly.  Once again, at the “C of C” picnic, Heggs begins his speech innocently enough by posing the question, “Who are you Luther Heggs to be a guest speaker at this luncheon,” but then he quickly dissolves into nonsense: “What is a guest speaker?” The rest is pretty much downhill from there as Luther continues to ask a host of other questions, each one followed by a clarification that turns into yet another question before ending abruptly. Indeed the best part of this entire speech is that it marries the overworked rhetorical question to the “water-is-wet” claim as Heggs answers the question “What is brave?”  by explaining that brave is “short for brave-er-rey,” as if that is somehow enlightening.  Thus, in one fell swoop my students get to see that too many rhetorical questions, coupled with a wealth of bogus “water-is-wet” claims, add up to a great big bunch of nothing, and make the speaker/writer look, well, a little foolish. Because the lesson is presented comically, it seems harmless and goofy rather than mean spirited, and I’m happy to report that in our post-screening discussion, a number of students picked up on this particular angle, so I hope they feel accomplished and well prepared for their next assignment, which is to write a movie review Let me clarify: what is a movie review ?

Thanks for your consideration…

If you want to read more about the Allison Home on the virtual tour of Universal Studios, please click on the following link: http://www.thestudiotour.com/ush/backlot/street_colonial_2.html

The following link should redirect you to a newspaper clipping detailing former class president Knotts’s visit to his school’s 60 year reunion:

http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=ufEyAAAAIBAJ&sjid=ywgGAAAAIBAJ&pg=6755,8215878&hl=en

Even though Vic Mizzy passed away a few years ago, he still has an official website that is apparently supported by representatives of his estate. Click here to access the site:

http://www.vicmizzy.com/

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3 Responses to ““Atta Boy, Luther!””

  1. Lezlie King 28 September 2011 at 11:13 am #

    “Taro…Caro…Salamond!!”

    “And they used Bon-Ami!”

    Brilliant catch phrases my husband & I still use any time we get a chance.

    Saw this movie for the first time at a theater on the downtown square in Tyler. After, instead of waiting for our parents to pick us up at the theater as told, we walked across to see the fountain. I fell & busted my chin open on the steps. I still have a small scar from the stitches, every time I rub my chin I think of this movie.

    As a four year old the organ playing on it’s own scared me to no end. And even in a viewing today it gives me a momentary chill.

    One of my cherished movies in my DVD Don Knotts collection.

    • listen2uraunt 29 September 2011 at 10:53 pm #

      I know, right, Lezlie? It’s amazing what I started when I screened it for my students, 99.9 % of whom had never seen it. Two days later they came to class quoting it and re-enacting parts of it. Yay! I did not see it in a theatre as a child though I remember seeing the preview, and being scared senseless. The first time I saw it was on the late show. I still get chills. What a great thing this movie is.

  2. Lyle Gunderson 14 June 2015 at 10:09 pm #

    I saw this wonderful flick in the theater when it came out. Several scenes scared me to bits, and I’m sure you know which ones!

    A famous director or producer of horror or suspense movies said this movie has the greatest build-up of suspense he’s ever seen. I wish I could remember who it was or exactly what he said. Spielberg? King? Dunno.

    Anyway, introducing my sons to it tomorrow!

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