Hillbilly Deluxe: MURDER, HE SAYS (Paramount 1945)

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George Marshall has long been a favorite director of mine. Though he excelled in all genres (particularly Westerns), it’s his comedies that first caught my attention. Marshall guided W.C. Fields through his first for Universal, YOU CAN’T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN (with radio foils Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy), did some of Bob Hope’s best films (THE GHOST BREAKERS, MONSIER BEAUCAIRE, FANCY PANTS), and directed MY FRIEND IRMA, the debut of Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, later teaming with the pair for SCARED STIFF. He’s also responsible for the classic comic Western DESTRY RIDES AGAIN with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, and the remake with Audie Murphy. But his wackiest comedy is undoubtably the off-the-wall MURDER, HE SAYS.

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This black comedy gem stars the underrated Fred MacMurray as Pete Marshall, pollster for the Trotter company (“Like the Gallup Poll, but not as fast”), sent to tiny rural Potowanamie to find missing coworker Hector P. Smedley. He rides his bicycle to the home of the Fleagle family, a murderous gang of hillbilly outlaws led by the whip-cracking Maw Fleagle Smithers Johnson. Falling into a hole, he’s taken to the dilapidated old house, meeting Maw’s homicidal twin dimwits Mert and Bert, Maw’s latest husband Mr.  Johnson, and crazy daughter Elany. Gun-toting Grandmaw Fleagle is dying (the brood has poisoned her, causing her to glow in the dark!), and she’s harboring a secret- bank robber son Ollie Fleagle stashed $70 Grand somewhere, and the only clue is a nonsense song that only his daughter Bonnie will recognize.

Grandmaw kicks off, leaving the lyrics to the tune on a sampler she gives to Pete. Then brazen Bonnie shows up, having escaped from prison, clutching a cigar in her teeth and gun in her hand. Only it’s not Bonnie, it’s Claire Matthews, whose father was falsely imprisoned in the robbery and wants to find the loot to clear him. The Fleagle brood attempt to kill Bonnie/Claire with poisoned gravy on her grits, winding up with Mr. Johnson’s untimely demise instead. Soon the REAL Bonnie shows up and the game’s afoot…

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This premise sets up a heapin’ helping of slapstick gags and goofiness, with MacMurray showing off his comic skills to good advantage. He mugs, double-takes, pratfalls, and tosses off one-liners with the best of them (there’s even a quick quip referencing his noted saxophone playing!). The scene where he tricks the doltish twins by pretending to converse with the ghost of Hector Smedley is a comic highlight, as is the riotous ending in the hay barn. If you’re only familiar with Fred MacMurray for his dramatic roles, gentle Disney comedies, or the long-running MY THREE SONS, watch him put his clowning hat on, he’s a delight!

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Equally delightful is Marjorie Main as Maw, a warm-up for her Ma Kettle role, only this hillbilly matriarch is deadlier than a rattlesnake. Whether killing a fly on the wall with her whip or slyly commenting on her home décor (cattle skulls, quipping to MacMurray, “Pretty, ain’t they?”), Main broadly plays this grotesque caricature of motherhood to the hilt. Peter Whitney  in a dual role as twins Mert and Bert made a living off playing no-account white trash types. Helen Walker (NIGHTMARE ALLEY ) acts tough impersonating killer Bonnie, vulnerable as Claire, and is more than a match for MacMurray. That perennial slimeball Porter Hall shines as Mr. Johnson, Jean Heather (who costarred with MacMurray in DOUBLE INDEMNITY) is loony Elany, and Barbara Pepper (who’d later play Arnold’s “mom” Mrs. Ziffel on GREEN ACRES) is the real escaped con Bonnie.

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MURDER, HE SAYS benefits from Marshall’s fast-paced direction, it’s 91 minutes flying by faster than the train to Potowanamie. It’s full of physical schtick, in-jokes, and demented black comedy that classic film lover’s will eat up like Maw’s grits… just make sure you pass on the gravy!

 

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