March 30, 2020
Street Date 4/7/20;
Stars Fred MacMurray, Helen Walker, Marjorie Main, Jean Heather, Porter Hall.
Other than 1948’s Miss Tatlock’s Millions, which falls just short of being a brother-sister incest farce while getting all jocular about mental illness, Murder, He Says is the most twisted Hollywood comedy I know from the 1940s. This raises an interesting question of why almost all the funniest ’40s comedies I know — both of the above, the Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder libraries, the “Roads” to Morocco, Utopia and Rio — were all from Paramount, but that’s a question for another day. (The Lubitsch’s at other studios would be an exception, though they’re less gut-busting than charming on historical levels.)
Very little about 1945’s Murder, or at least its characters, has been to charm school — starting with the murder of an innocent party that’s played for laughs when it’s not being simply shoved under the narrative rug. There’s also a near-psychopath matriarch who frequently and brutally takes a whip to her imbecilic twin sons; the promiscuous use of firearms in an indoor setting by half the cast; and the played-for-laughs radioactive poisoning that makes as many of them glow, developed by the latest husband of the whip-wielding mom. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t all take place on an Ivy League campus but in backwoods Arkansas, where a rep from a national poll studying rural living makes the mistake of riding his bike onto the property of this inbred-acting array.
Fred MacMurray plays this poor sap in what I’d rate as the top comic performance of his long and still underrated career (The Apartment is, of course, a masterpiece, but he’s mostly a no-joke total heel in that one). His timing is flawless when he has to react about once a second to the mayhem going on around him. The supporting cast, which includes Marjorie Main as “Ma,” is in the same class, including one major acting surprise. And voiceover bonus commentary by producer/writer Michael Schlesinger and film archivist Stan Taffel speculate that Main’s work here might have encouraged MacMurray to get her cast a couple years later in The Egg and I, a huge hit for Universal-International and the movie that launched the Ma & Pa Kettle series (I remember when it was theatrically issued in the summer of 1954, which only the biggest box office wave-makers were in those days).
Getting back to Murder, which gets a 4K spiff-up here, MacMurray shows up at the sub-ramshackle house as part of his job — and to see if he can figure out what happened to the work colleague who preceded him and was not heard from again (good luck on that one). Instead, he’s accosted on the way by one of the twins; they’re Mert and Bert, and Peter Whitney nails both roles, abetted by some of the best matte work of the era. All the blood relations here seem to be products of Ma Barker’s gene pool, and the source of constant conflict here is the whereabouts of 70 grand from some long-ago family crime spree that’s supposedly hidden somewhere in the house. Grandma (Mabel Paige) knows the elusive location, but she’s on her death bed — and even in her better days was always “tetched.” The only hint is a few musical notes that result in nothing when they’re hummed and a few accompanying lyrics of gibberish that make about as much sense.
Nobody in the family trusts any other member, and this extends to poor MacMurray, who would have been better off lobbying his superiors to handle the Death Valley polling territory. Matters get more complicated when the family member who pulled off the robbery escapes from jail and shows up to mount her own money search. The tragic Helen Walker has this role, and it’s obvious before very long that she’s an imposter with her own agenda, and like very few other people here, is “normal.
Two Hollywood hopefuls in the cast all but had their careers ended by auto mishaps. Jean Heather, who, despite noteworthy appearances in both Going My Way and Double Indemnity, basically came out of career nowhere here to go all the way thoroughly “nailing” the family’s one likable character, who, alas, may be even more tetched than grandma. In real life, beautiful Heather got thrown from a car and disfigured, and made her final screen appearance in a 1949 ‘B’ Western.
The decline of Walker, who’d scored in a high-profile co-lead in her first picture, was more protracted but possibly more of a nightmare. She picked up three soldier hitchhikers on New Year’s Eve of 1946, and when she flipped the car, one of them was killed and the other two badly injured. The survivors charged drunkenness, and the messy trial that resulted cleared her criminally but resulted in career-wrecking publicity. She worked intermittently after that, but after good supporting roles in a couple well-regarded 20th Century-Fox noirs, it was a steep toboggan ride for her. Commentators Schlesinger and Taffel may be too gentlemanly to mention it, but at least at some point, alcohol was indeed a debilitating problem with her. In her final big-screen appearance (The Big Combo), it clearly shows on her face.
The director here was George Marshall, who spent a 56-year career mixing bombs, god-awfuls, nonentities and several indisputably enjoyable “entertainments” without ever making a really great movie or major factor in any title’s applicable movie year, other than Destry Rides Again (coming soon from Criterion). Schlesinger and Taffel are quite enamored of him in their appropriately breezy mix of the jocular and informative, though one of them claims that Marshall directed three of the five episodes in “How the West Was Won” when it was Henry Hathaway who did (Marshall only directed “The Railroads,” which is the weakest of the quintet). The actors’ dexterity here is so keen throughout that one has to assume that Marshall definitely deserves his share of the praise, especially with the younger players. But even at 94 minutes, the action gets a little labored in the final going before it’s yanked with vigor back into the plus side by a terrifically clever barn-set finale. The script, but the way, is co-written by Lou Breslow, who also penned a comedy that I’ve coincidentally been watching as we speak, It was 1950’s Never a Dull Moment, in which MacMurray weds and drags the incomparable Irene Dunne to his struggling farm, and this city-dweller begins living a kind of Green Acres existence,
Ultimately, the standout takeaway is that I can’t immediately think of another comedy that’s anything like it — and certainly not from the 1940s — though the commentary notes its warped link with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I suspect Paramount is the only studio that would have attempted it at the time because they really had a flair for off-center farces. I can just see a horrified Louis B. Mayer seeing it at an industry screening and immediately putting out a directive for MGM to speed up development on Love Laughs at Andy Hardy.