Emerging in the wake of The Kennedy Assassination, Vietnam War, and Psycho’s candid unmasking of mental illness, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken’s unbridled exuberance plays like an act of protest, treating escapism as the remedy for cultural disillusion and the lingering spectre of death as fodder for benign hijinks. By encapsulating the idealism of Norman Rockwell’s Americana and the sumptuous textures of Technicolor processing, Alan Rafkin and Don Knotts lend resonance to the triviality of spook houses and small-town scuttlebutt, revitalizing art as a movement of emotion instead of a reflection of moment.
Seizing its stride and temper from its titular “chicken,” Ghost manifests an environment to mirror Luther Heggs’ (Knotts) agitation, surrounding him with busybodies and adversaries, all keen on keeping him “keyed up” and quivery. In the spare moments between their playful jibes and passed casseroles, the neighborhood coterie spin yarns about the haunted Simmons Mansion, dubbing it a “murder house” in suspect and scandalous recollections, igniting spasms in Luther’s wiry frame.
Strung out on nervous excitement and the warm glances of the assertive Alma (Joan Staley), Luther steels himself for an overnight investigation of the scene of the crime, glimpsing journalistic success and romantic affection in return for an evening’s worth of valor. Though this bravery garners municipal honor and the admiration of resident parapsychologists, his prose borders on the libelous, forcing him and his managing editor into a trial and media circus as absurd as his exploratory escapades.
The farcical nature of the proceedings, born of superstition and vexatious litigation, imparts an artful excess onto the set design, extracting the slapstick from Don Knotts’ bulging eyes and trembling limbs by way of cobwebbed chambers and raucous tribunals. Though overwrought and openly nostalgic, the juxtaposition of the colloquial and contemporary are never insincere, mining laughs from the ostentatious without stumbling into late-century cynicism.
Costuming and characterization reflect these innocuous eccentricities as well, utilizing the floral prints and extravagant Gainsborough hats of the “Psychic Occult Society of Rachel” as an external manifestation of their religious peculiarities. Thankfully, their caprice and devotion to Luther are never more than an amusing idiosyncrasy, resulting in an unexpectedly progressive and ethical representation of Spiritualism.
Acting as shaman for this band of armchair mediums, Don Knotts’ benevolent daydreamer functions as an optimistic response to Budd Schulberg’s A Face in the Crowd, fluttering like a light-drunk moth before the iniquity of fame and malice that so enchants the disingenuous Lonesome Rhodes. By employing his rubber-band physicality as a reflection of mortality and modesty, Knotts manages to conjure a wellspring of sentiment and humor from our childish fears and pipe dreams, transforming cowardice and aspiration into unifying qualities.
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (Universal Pictures, 1966)
Directed by Alan Rafkin
Written by James Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum
Photographed by William Margulies