Do Murder and Calm Go Together? --- Calm and Murder?
Vincent Canby, a former New York Times film critic of impeccable taste, wrote the following on February 9, 1967 --- "That the American movie public is not particularly homogenized, nor quite as sophisticated as might be indicated by the success of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf is illustrated by the success of The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, a film that is probably unknown to most New Yorkers." Canby went on to marvel at the $2.5 million in rentals Universal had so far collected "from what the trade calls the "cornball" territories in the Middle West and the South." Well, a lot of us unsophisticated cornballs look back on The Ghost and Mr. Chicken with great fondness. I suspect there are even pockets of near-illiterate rubes that consider it one of the sixties' best. Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf may command more respect, but I’d lots rather see Don Knotts than 129 minutes of Liz and Dick shrieking at one another (and pass me the gas pipe in lieu of sitting through that one again). Mr. Chicken’s impact upon our culture should not be underestimated. A few years ago, I had on CNN during a press conference for a candidate announcing withdrawal from a senatorial election. Just as the guy made his announcement before the packed assemblage, some wag among the crowd shouted Attaboy, Luther! and broke up the place. Suddenly there was consensus, and this group became a non-partisan body celebrating an immortal catch phrase from a comedy masterpiece filled with such pearls of wit. Our own Liberty Theatre brought it back by popular demand within a month of its initial March 1965 booking. I shall always remember that engagement for a shocking incident I witnessed in the upstairs lobby, but let that keep a moment --- first; there is The Ghost and Mr. Chicken’s premiere to consider …
Universal figured this one for regional saturation openings. The test market would be New Orleans and surrounding territories. A world premiere for late January 1966 brought Don Knotts, Joan Staley, Dick Sargent, and producer Edward Montagne to town for three days of promotional activity. "Autograph parties" for the stars were lined up for Baton Rouge, Alexandria, and Shreveport. A special luncheon found various local leaders being named "honorary mayor" of Universal City (as was Joan Staley as shown here). Local television outlets conducted a contest to designate "The Girl That I Would Like Most To Haunt My House." A no-doubt boozy cocktail reception with the New Orleans mayor was welcome break from Willie Stark-ish business as usual, and race track fair grounds provided background for an orgy of beauty contests, auto competitions ("The Ghost and Mr. Chicken Handicap"), braying disc jockeys, and a parade featuring sixteen torch bearers and a Dixieland band (shown here aboard one of the floats). Don Knotts was awarded a black belt by the local Karate association, no doubt inspired by body-as-a-weapon gags in the pic. As you’ll see from the trade ad, attendance was boffo. Universal accountants would later acknowledge this as the year's biggest profit show, despite their greater advertising push on The Rare Breed, Beau Geste, and others destined for lesser profits. Prerelease openings took place next in the Charlotte market, starting January 27, and it was only after these regional play-offs through late winter and early Spring that The Ghost and Mr. Chicken finally saw general release in May of 1966. By summer, the kiddie market was fairly choked with competition --- A Man Called Flintstone, Birds Do It!, Munsters Go Home, Batman, Tarzan and The Valley Of Gold --- the list seemed endless. One exhibitor who got in on some pre-release money rhapsodized over Mr. Chicken --- "they stood in line for over a block in freezing weather … it pleased his fans one-hundred percent, as it was the Don Knotts they all loved on TV."
At the time it was new, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken played like a Disney live-action comedy when they used to be good. By 1966, the Flubbers and Parent Traps had become ossified Ugly Dachshunds --- excruciating Lt. Robin Crusoes. Mr. Chicken was just what that exhibitor, and all the rest of us liked --- lots of fun and laffs with tele-established Don Knotts --- a moviegoing comfort level equal to that of watching at home in your pajamas. TV in Techniscope. "Rachel, Kansas" was the sort of place most likely to book Mr. Chicken and its Universal brethren, and indeed, this might have been the last year when small-town formula pics could still work, as such places were themselves becoming the stuff of quaint nostalgia. In Rachel, ladies wear hats and gloves, no irony intended or implied. Everyone’s familiar from some other movie or TV show. We took them all for granted then, not realizing how soon most would be gone (excepting Charles Lane, of course!). Don’s character is the perfect adult identification figure for kids --- no doubt, like them, he’d been picked on at school, and characters make sport of him yet. How likely was it that former Playmate bombshell Joan Staley would choose Don over slickster Skip Homeier? This alone was sufficient wish fulfillment for most boys in the audience. If Don could triumph over grown-up bullies and get a girl like this, maybe there’s hope for us all. Biggest laugh? I’d submit the elevator scene with Eddie Quillan --- the payoff fairly shook the house --- still one of the funniest moments in movies. Always nice to greet an old friend as we hear thunderstorm effects they used back in Frankenstein days, and speaking of sound, you can have scores from Lawrence Of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago --- give me Vic Mizzy any day. Wish he'd play on classical music stations I listen to --- maybe then I’d be more receptive to their interminable pledge drives. Subsequent Don Knotts features couldn’t measure up to The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. I remember a bitter Saturday morning disappointment seeing The Reluctant Astronaut in 1967 (the horribleness and the awfulness of it will never actually be forgotten).
That shocking incident mentioned earlier involved one of my eleven-year old classmates and a much older and worldlier girl of twelve. Tony had vaulted the customary social barriers separating fifth grade boys from sixth grade girls and managed to entice one of these unobtainables into becoming his steady. This vexing goddess, whom I shall call "Debbie" (because that was, after all, her name, and presumably still is) was locked in a passionate embrace with Tony in the Liberty's upstairs lobby during a matinee performance of The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Several of us concealed on the stairway were witnesses to said brazen display of public osculation, and a frenzied response brought Col. Forehand out of his manager’s office. Efforts to collar the miscreants went unrewarded, so he asked that my group flush Tony out of the auditorium where he'd sought refuge and bring him to justice. Despite the offer of free passes, this did not seem cricket to me (plus the fact I was already getting all the Colonel's discarded pressbooks --- why jeopardize that with what might turn out to be a bungled manhunt?). Within moments, the Liberty’s screen was obscured by rapidly moving silhouettes of adolescent boys in search of their prey. Tony was found cowering near the back. Debbie had long since fled the building. The vigilantes he once called friends dragged him screaming up those stairs. I’ve seen fear in men, but never a thing like this. Whatever punishment the Colonel meted out that day was never disclosed to me. Just last week, I saw one of the survivors eating barbecue in town. Tony's fate is less certain, though there is reason to believe he remains to this day under psychiatric observation.