If he’s thought of at all these days (which seems increasingly unlikely), Fred MacMurray is probably only remembered for his 1960s sitcom, My Three Sons, his Disney movies (if you were around in the 60s, even the stoutest effort will banish neither from your mind) and possibly for his reputation as the cheapest skate in Hollywood. But for over 20 years he’d been known as a solid but light leading man, occasional dramatic actor and fairly accomplished comedian. George Marshall’s darkly funny — yet slapsticky — Murder, He Says (1945) is a perfect example of MacMurray’s comedic skills. The film frankly looks and plays like it was intended for Bob Hope (it even throws in an outright dialogue reference to George Marshall’s 1940 Hope comedy, The Ghost Breakers). Hope was off the screen in 1945 (presumably doing USO tours), so it would make sense that something intended for him might find its way to MacMurray. This is all speculation, though, and MacMurray is just fine in the role.
MacMurray plays Pete Marshall, a pollster representing the Trotter Poll (they’re not in as much of a hurry as the Gallup Poll), who’s been sent to the backwoods to find out what became of his missing predecessor. Well, what happened to him is that he ran afoul of the Fleagle clan — as pretty a gang of homicidal hillbillies as you’ll find this side of Tobe Hooper. (Perhaps they were the inspiration for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.) They’re lorded over by whip-brandishing Mamie Fleagle Smithers Johnson (Marjorie Main), who spends her time mercilessly lashing anyone who crosses her. She has two hulking, moronic, murderous sons — Mert and Bert (Peter Whitney) — and a simple-minded daughter named Elany (Jean Heather), a kind of backwoods Ophelia who constantly sings a nonsense song. (The song is note-for-note the old All Things Considered theme.) There’s also Mamie’s latest husband, the seemingly innocuous Mr. Johnson (Porter Hall) and Grandma Fleagle (Mabel Paige), who is about to take to the grave the secret of where she hid the money entrusted to her by jailed gangster Bonnie Fleagle (Barbara Pepper). When Pete falls into their clutches, they hatch a plan to get him to worm the secret out of the dying old lady (she’s so poisoned that she glows in the dark) by pretending to be Bonnie’s boyfriend. Neither this, nor anything else goes to plan.
This is one of those movies that never becomes one of the “great” comedies, but it’s sufficiently entertaining and funny that it ought to be better known. Every film book that mentions it tends to rave over it — perhaps too much — but it’s rarely revived. (Certainly Gene Wilder knows it since he copied one of its best physical gags in his 1986 old dark-house comedy Haunted Honeymoon.) The film is fast, MacMurray is an engaging lead and Marjorie Main is sheer perfection as the stinging matriarch. There’s a terrific gag with a plate of poisoned (glow-in-dark) food on a revolving table that would just about make the movie worth a look on its own. The only downside is that sure-to-stick-in-your-head song, but it’s worth it.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Murder, He Says Tuesday, Aug. 13, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.