Posted by Susan Doll on September 23, 2013
Though they rarely win awards or accolades, genre films have always driven Hollywood filmmaking. Formulaic and repetitive by nature, genres work by meeting audience expectations, because viewers find comfort, entertainment, and satisfaction in the familiar. The trick to good genre filmmaking is to balance between the old and the new, the familiar and the unexpected. Keeping genres interesting to viewers requires tweaking, updating, adjusting, or even subverting a genre’s formula or conventions. Efforts to completely re-invent a genre will likely result in box office failure, while refusing to tweak, adjust, or update can make a genre seem dull or worn out (see fellow Morlock Greg Ferrara’s recent post). One way to enliven a genre is to combine it with another genre or story trend. Sometimes that proves innovative (film noir and sci fi in Blade Runner); sometimes it seems cobbled together like Frankenstein’s monster (western and sci fi in Cowboys & Aliens).
I recently re-watched the 1945 comedy Murder, He Says, a childhood favorite that I have always found peculiar. Watching it again made me realize that it is the movie’s odd mix of genres and story trends that is appealing and, ultimately, amusing. Much of the success of Murder, He Says is dependent on star Fred MacMurray, whose everyman persona and exquisite timing are assets to any genre. MacMurray plays Pete Marshall, an employee of the Trotter Poll (like the Gallup Poll) whose job entails interviewing rural folks about their lifestyles. Do you have electricity, running water, radio, a refrigerator, he asks one resident at the local general store. “What do you think we are, hicks?,” replies the bewhiskered man in his slouch hat and overalls.
Pete Marshall is also searching for fellow Trotter pollster Hector P. Smedley, who disappeared near the Fleagle farm located deep in the backwoods. Pete manages to find the isolated Fleagle farm, but his arrival just after dark sparks suspicions among the family, who don’t cotton to strangers under any circumstances. Ma Fleagle, who prefers to go by Mrs. Fleagle Smithers Johnson because she has been married three times, keeps order among her brood by cracking a bullwhip. Ma Fleagle is played by Marjorie Main, who would introduce her most well-known character, Ma Kettle, in The Egg and I two years later. Wearing a similar cotton dress with her hair an untidy nest on her head, Ma Fleagle is the dark doppelganger of Ma Kettle. Despite his efforts, Pete can’t seem to escape the dilapidated Fleagle house and finds himself entangled in a family secret, attracted to a pretty girl in disguise, and menaced by an escaped convict on the lam.
Murder, He Says blends the old dark house subgenre with a backwoods comedy—an unlikely but winning combination. The Fleagles are as peculiar as the Femms in James Whale’s 1932 gothic classic The Old Dark House and harbor just as many secrets. Ma’s oversized twin sons, Mert and Bert Fleagle, are simultaneously dimwitted and menacing. The only way to tell them apart is to whomp one of them in the back. Bert has a crick in his lower back: So, if he keels over, it’s Burt; if he only gets mad, it’s Mert. Bert and Mert were played by Peter Whitney, a character actor whose career thrived in the 1940s and 1950s. The special effects that allowed Whitney to simultaneously appear as both brothers in the same frame are so convincing that I thought they were played by a pair of real-life siblings. Jean Heather costars as Elany Fleagle, a child-woman who is obviously “touched,” as they say in the South. Elany is the creepiest character in the film, whether she is pouting like a little girl because she can’t run her hands through Pete’s curly hair, or singing her haunting nonsense song, “Flizon horzis, Beezin komzis, Onches nobis, Inob keezis.” The latter is a clue to a hidden fortune on the Fleagle farm. The connection to the old-dark-house subgenre becomes readily apparent when Ma’s third husband, Mr. Johnson, pops up from a trap door in the floor of the living room. Everyone (even Ma) refers to the little man as Mr. Johnson, who has an M.A., a Ph.D., and a medical degree and likes to experiment with radioactive substances. In other words, he is the equivalent of the “mad scientist” concocting unusual creations in the cellar. The Fleagles and Mr. Johnson are trying to finagle Grandma Fleagle out of the family fortune before dispatching her with some of Mr. Johnson’s radioactive poison. Grandma glows in the dark like a Christmas tree, just like the dog that Pete saw in the woods on the way to the Fleagle farm.
Rustic rural characters and storylines became a trend in Hollywood during World War II and continued throughout the decade. Examples of this story trend or subgenre included everything from John Ford’s Tobacco Road (1941) to comedies like The Egg and I (1947) to musicals such as Feudin’ Rhythm. Fueling the trend were b-movies featuring comedienne Judy Canova, who brought her hayseed persona from vaudeville and radio to the big screen in such comedies as Joan of Ozark (1942), Sleepy Lagoon (1943), and Louisiana Hayride (1944). The characters Ma and Pa Kettle stole the movie The Egg and I from stars Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert, so Kettle actors Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride received their own b-movie series beginning in 1949. Combining a rustic comedy with the old dark house formula doesn’t seem so odd considering the context.
Unfortunately, most of the films exploit the negative stereotypes of rural Southerners. The Fleagles are “real hillbillies” as one of the characters notes, a word that makes my skin crawl when it is used outside the rural South. The Fleagles live in a dilapidated frame house in the backwoods, with cow skulls decorating the walls. When Pete notices the unusual décor, Ma pipes up, “Purty, ain’t it.” None of the Fleagle offspring are normal: Mert and Bert are easily outsmarted, while Elaney is the comic version of the banjo-playing kid in Deliverance. I was relieved to discover that the most immoral character in the film is the Yankee outsider, the over-educated Mr. Johnson.
Like most old dark house movies, the action takes place almost entirely in one location, and the frightening Fleagle farm becomes a carnival fun house of secret passageways, dark cellars, and rickety rooms. This rural version of the old dark house offers ample opportunity for the two “normal” characters, Pete Marshall and Claire Mathews (played by Helen Walker), to stumble into trouble around every corner. The peculiarities of each room make for a unique setting for various comic situations. During a dinner scene at a round table that is a really a big lazy Susan, the characters play a game of hot potato as they try to avoid eating grits that have been covered in radioactive gravy. Each finds an excuse to spin the table so as to move the offending gravy out of their way, until no one can remember which plate is the “hot” one. In the cellar, Pete subdues Bert or Mert in the potato bin, with the twin’s feet sticking out over the edge. When someone catches him, he plops down on the twin in a position that makes it look like it is his feet sticking out of the bin. Every time the twin moans or kicks, Pete pretends as though it is his legs twitching. The sequence is MacMurray’s best comic scene.
Murder, He Says is not currently on the TCM schedule, but it is paired with another “hicks pic,” Feudin’, Fussin’ and a-Fightin’ on DVD.
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