Attaboy, Luther!: Don Knotts in THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN (Universal 1966)

When the conversation turns to great screen comedians, Don Knotts doesn’t get a lot of respect among the cognescenti. Talk to his loyal fandom, including celebrities like Jim Carrey and John Waters, and you’ll hear a different tune. They all agree – Knotts was a talented and funny comic actor, the quintessential Everyman buffeted about by the cruelties of fate who eventually triumphs against the odds. Following his Emmy-winning five-year run as Deputy Barney Fife on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW , Knotts signed a movie contract with Universal, and his first feature for the studio was the perfect vehicle for his peculiar talents: a scare comedy titled THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN.

Knotts plays Luther Heggs, a meek typesetter for his local newspaper in the small town of Rachel, Kansas. He’s also somewhat of the town laughing-stock, bullied by the paper’s ace reporter Ollie, his rival for the affections of sweet young Alma. Luther dreams of becoming a reporter himself (after all, he has “a certificate from the Kansas City Correspondence School of Journalism”), and one day Luther, goaded on by his coworker Kelsey, writes a filler piece on Rachel’s infamous Simmons mansion, where a ghastly murder/suicide occurred twenty years ago, and the locals believe is haunted by the deceased.

Luther’s little column causes quite a stir, and the editor (also goaded by Kelsey) gets the idea to have someone spend the night in “The Murder House” and write a story – namely Luther! The cowardly Luther is reluctant at first, but after being embarrassed by Ollie in front of Alma, decides to go through with it. This sets the stage for the bug-eyed, rubber-faced Knotts to engage in his patented ‘fraidy cat’ buffoonery, as he encounters unexplained noises, secret passageways, eerie music from an organ that plays itself, and a portrait stabbed with garden shears dripping blood!

The story makes Luther the talk of the town, and the Chamber of Commerce throws a town picnic in his honor (a sign reads “Rachel, Kansas – Home Plate for Wheat and Democracy”!). But Nicholas Simmons, heir to the Simmons mansion, claims it’s a complete fabrication, and sues him for libel. The raucous trial culminates at the “Murder House”, where Luther’s story is debunked, but with a little help from his friends, Luther is vindicated and the mystery of the Simmons murders is finally solved.

For all intents and purposes, Luther Heggs is Barney Fife under an assumed name, even wearing Barney’s old salt-and-pepper Sunday-go-to-meeting suit! Rachel might as well be Mayberry transplanted to the Midwest, and that Mayberry flavor is no coincidence. Screenwriters Jim Fritzell and Everrett Greenbaum worked on some of the GRIFFITH SHOW’s classic episodes, as did director Alan Rafkin, and Mayberry citizens Hal Smith (Otis), Hope Summers (Clara), and Burt Mustin (Old Jud Fletcher) appear in small roles. Another Mayberry figure had a hand in the film – Andy Griffith himself, who was called in by Knotts to help punch up the script! The plot recalls a GRIFFITH episode entitled “The Haunted House”, those “karate skills” were on display in another, and that speech Don gives at the picnic is a riff on his old  ‘Nervous Man’ persona. Yet THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN isn’t just a rehash of Don’s greatest hits; it’s a showcase for his incredible comic timing, and became a box office hit.

Producer Edward Montagne (who’d created another successful 60’s sitcom, MCHALE’S NAVY, featuring Don’s future comedy partner Tim Conway) filled his cast with dependable Familiar Faces from the worlds of film and TV. Pretty former Playmate Joan Staley (BROADSIDE, ROUSTABOUT) plays Alma, mean Skip Homeier is mean Ollie, and George Chandler, Ellen Corby, Robert Cornthwaite , Herbie Faye, Sandra Gould, Florence Lake, sourpuss Charles Lane , Cliff Norton, Phillip Ober, Eddie Quillan, Liam Redmond, Dick Sargent (as Luther’s editor/boss), Reta Shaw (funny as leader of Rachel’s ‘Psychic Occult Society’), Lurene Tuttle, Nydia Westman, and Dick “Please Don’t Squeeze The Charmin” Wilson all engage in the frenetic madness (and that’s screenwriter Greenbaum’s voice doing the “Attaboy, Luther” shouts offscreen).

You can call THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN, or Don’s other films, just silly family comedies geared to the kiddie matinée crowd if you want. But for me, and millions of other Don Knotts fans, he was an inventive comic actor who made some hysterically funny films. He may not have reached the lofty heights of a Chaplin or Keaton, but he definitely followed in their tradition. Scoff if you wish, but he still manages to make me (and many others) laugh out loud, and that’s what matters most!

Lonely As The Night: Randolph Scott in COMANCHE STATION (Columbia 1960)

COMANCHE STATION was the final entry in the Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher/Burt Kennedy series of Westerns, and in many ways a fitting ending. The loneliness of the Westerner is again a key theme as the film begins with the solitary figure of Scott as Jefferson Cody, riding across that rocky, barren, now mighty familiar Lone Pine terrain. He bargains with hostile Comanches for a captive white woman named Nancy Lowe, wife of a wealthy rancher. Stopping at Comanche Station, Cody and Mrs. Lowe encounter three men being chased by the tribe.

We learn one of these men is Ben Lane, a bounty hunter who shares a dark past with Cody. The two were formerly in the Army together, where then-Major Cody busted Lane out of the service for the slaughter of a village of friendly Indians. We also learn Mrs. Lowe’s husband is offering a five thousand dollar reward for her return – dead or alive. The station manager returns, an arrow in his chest, telling Cody and company the stagecoach was turned back by renegade scalphunters before he dies, and now the four men and Mrs. Lowe must ride to Lordsburg on their own, with those scalphunters close behind. There’s plenty of action, danger, and drama along the way, as the renegades aren’t the only threat, and a surprise twist at the end.

Scott is stoic as Cody, a man whose wife was captured by Comanches ten years earlier, and has been searching for her ever since. His singlemindedness of purpose has led him to a life of bartering for the release of captive white women in hopes of finding her. He’s the eternal Wandering Cowboy, cursed by fate to search for his love, a search that has so far been in vain. Claude Akins as Lane is a smiling menace with an evil laugh who has ideas of his own about what to do with Mrs. Lane. Nancy Gates (SUDDENLY ) does good work here as Mrs. Lane, and the small cast also features Skip Homeier and Richard Rust as Lane’s accomplices.

There is some truly majestic camerawork here by Boetticher and his DP Charles Lawton Jr., the outdoor scenery becoming a character itself, filled with both beauty and terror. Boetticher went from here to direct the gangster drama THE RISE AND FALL OF LEGS DIAMOND and some TV work (ZANE GREY THEATER, DEATH VALLEY DAYS, THE RIFLEMAN), but spent much of the decade working on a documentary about Mexican bullfighting legend Carlos Arruza , an obsession which consumed him and created much hardship for the director. It was finally released in 1972 to no great acclaim. Boetticher directed one other film, 1969’s A TIME FOR DYING (Audie Murphy’s swan song), wrote the story for TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA, and made an appearance in the 1988 film TEQUILA SUNRISE before his death in 2008.

As for Randolph Scott, after a thirty-plus year career in films, the actor had one more film in him before settling into a comfortable retirement at the age of 64. It was another Western, by a new young director, delineating the contrast between the Old West and the New. The film was 1962’s RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY. The director? Sam Peckinpah.

Well of Loneliness: Randolph Scott in THE TALL T (Columbia 1957)

I’ve told you Dear Readers before that Randolph Scott stands behind only John Wayne in my personal pantheon of great Western stars. Scott cut his cowboy teeth in a series of Zane Grey oaters at Paramount during the 1930’s, and rode tall in the saddle throughout the 40’s. By the mid-50’s, Scott and his  producing partner Harry Joe Brown teamed with director Budd Boetticher and writer Burt Kennedy for seven outdoor sagas that were a notch above the average Westerns, beginning with SEVEN MEN FROM NOW. The second of these, THE TALL T, remains the best, featuring an outstanding supporting cast and breathtaking location cinematography by Charles Lang, Jr.

Scott plays Pat Brennen, a friendly sort trying to make a go of his own ranch. Pat, who comically lost his horse to his old boss in a wager over riding a bucking bull, hitches a ride with his pal Rintoon’s oncoming stagecoach. Rintoon’s passengers are newlywed spinster Doretta Mims, whose father owns the richest copper mine in the territory, and her spouse Willard, a worm who obviously married Doretta for her money. The coach pulls into the switching station run by Pat’s friend and his young boy. But neither are to be found… instead three bad hombres greet them, thinking the stage is carrying a payroll they intend to rob. Rintoon is gunned down, and Pat, Doretta, and Willard are doomed to be next, until the spineless Willard strikes a deal with the outlaws to have Doretta’s father pay a ransom….

There’s an undeniable theme of loneliness threaded throughout the film, beginning with Scott’s Pat Brennen. Though outwardly an affable man, Pat has a hard edge to him that begins to boil to the surface after he and Doretta are held hostage. He’s always been an independent loner, though more than once people tell him, “Ain’t right for a man to be alone”. Doretta too, not the most attractive woman, suffers from being alone, which is the reason she married the cowardly Willard Mims. Even outlaw leader Frank Usher feels isolated, and finds more of a bond with Pat than his younger, uneducated companeros. Boetticher’s direction emphasizes this loneliness under a vast blanket of blue Western sky and the beautiful but empty scenic location of California’s Pine Valley mountains and desert.

The supporting cast is small, again underscoring that feeling of isolation. Maureen O’Sullivan , best known as Jane to Johnny Weismuller’s Tarzan, was semi-retired when she took the role of Doretta Mims. Miss O’Sullivan, a striking beauty, was glammed down for the part of the homely spinster, later blossoming toward film’s end. Richard Boone shows subtle depth of character as gang leader Usher while still conveying a menacing presence as a man not to be trifled with. His underlings are a pair of movie “bad hombres” indeed – Henry Silva and Skip Homeier . Arthur Hunnicut’s Rintoon seems a comic sidekick, which makes his death early on all the more shocking. John Hubbard as the craven Mims, who throws his own wife under the bus to save his miserable hide, elicits no sympathy when he gets what’s coming to him.

The Scott/Boetticher Westerns don’t have the flamboyance of, say, the Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone trilogy , or the historical importance of the John Wayne/John Ford collaborations . Instead, they’re all compact, well-made productions that have plenty to say about the human condition under the guise of the Western genre. THE TALL T stands tallest among them, and makes a good introduction to those who haven’t seen any of these classic Westerns before. Once you watch, you’ll be hungry for more.

 

 

Celebrity Hound: Gregory Peck in THE GUNFIGHTER (20th Century-Fox 1950)

By the late 1940’s, the Western was beginning to grow up. Films like Robert Wise’s BLOOD ON THE MOON (1948), Mark Robson’s ROUGHSHOD (1949), and William Wellman’s YELLOW SKY (1949) incorporated darker, more adult themes than the run-of-the-mill shoot ’em up. Henry King’s THE GUNFIGHTER tackles the still-relevant issues of celebrity culture and the price of fame, personified by Gregory Peck as Jimmy Ringo, a notorious fast gun whose reputation brings him the adulation of the masses but little peace.

Jimmy Ringo is weary of being challenged everywhere he goes by young punks eager to make a name for themselves. When one such punk (played by a young Richard Jaeckel) draws on him at in a saloon, he quickly learns how Jimmy earned his fast-draw rep. Problem is the punk has three brothers who “ain’t gonna care who drew first”. Ringo once again hits the trail, heading for the town of Cayenne, New Mexico, this time with a purpose in mind. His estranged wife Peggy is living there, along with the child he’s never met, having been on the run eight long years.

Cayenne is all a-buzz about the presence of the infamous gunfighter in their humble town. Saloonkeeper Mac (Karl Malden ) treats him like royalty. The local schoolkids, including Jimmy’s own, skip class and line the streets to get a glimpse of the famous Jimmy Ringo. But not all are so welcoming. Jimmy’s former outlaw pal Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell ) is now town marshal, and wants his old pardner out-of-town ASAP. Peggy (Helen Westcott) refuses to see him. Yet another young punk, Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier ), wants to test his mettle against Ringo. The ladies auxiliary (led by Verna Felton and Ellen Corby ) demand he leave town. And those three brothers keep riding, hot on Jimmy’s trail and hellbent on revenge…

Peck cuts a menacing figure as Jimmy Ringo, with his perpetual scowl and dark moustache. By this time, he had become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, with credits like THE KEYS OF THE KINGDOM, SPELLBOUND, THE YEARLING, DUEL IN THE SUN, and GENTLEMEN’S AGREEMENT. More hits would follow, including his Oscar-winning performance in 1962’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Jimmy Ringo is tired of being hounded at every turn, whether by celebrity seekers or the next two-bit punk. Ringo’s an outlaw and a killer, to be sure,  yet Peck manages to elicit sympathy as a man who only wants to live out the rest of his life in peace and anonymity.

All the supporting cast are good, but I wanted to make special mention of Jean Parker in the role of Molly, a saloon girl once married to one of Ringo’s gang. Miss Parker, a promising starlet in the early 30’s, had been relegated to starring in low-budget films for Universal, Monogram, and PRC for a decade. THE GUNFIGHTER was her first movie role in four years, after replacing Judy Holliday on Broadway in BORN YESTERDAY, and she makes the most of her limited screen time. Some of my favorites with her are Laurel & Hardy’s THE FLYING DEUCES, Lon Chaney Jr’s “Inner Sanctum” mystery DEAD MAN’S EYES, and Edgar G. Ulmer’s BLUEBEARD (with John Carradine). It’s a pleasure to see Jean Parker in anything, and her presence adds to this film’s success.

Director Henry King made his first film in 1915, and was responsible for classics like IN OLD CHICAGO, THE SONG OF BERNADETTE, WILSON , TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH (with Peck), and LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING, among many others. King keeps his focus on Ringo and the world he lives in, hunted and haunted by his notoriety. THE GUNFIGHTER is a genre classic, and helped the Western movie mature and move with the times. As relevant today as it was in 1950, in my opinion this is a must-see film.

 

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