Saturday, December 17, 2022

Classic Films in Focus: MURDER, HE SAYS (1945)

Fred MacMurray and Marjorie Main most famously appear together in the 1947 comedy classic, The Egg and I, but Murder, He Says (1945) offers an earlier pairing that pits the two against one another as hapless city slicker and unscrupulous backwoods crook. This comic mystery from director George Marshall bursts with physical comedy, sight gags, and cartoon peril that even the youngest viewers can appreciate; I first saw Murder, He Says many decades ago, and the memory of its loony fun has stayed with me ever since. MacMurray and Main are the chief attractions in this homicidal hoot, but the supporting cast features entertaining, offbeat performances from Porter Hall, Jean Heather, Peter Whitney, Barbara Pepper, and Helen Walker as MacMurray's attractive ally.

The story opens with locals concerned about the lawless Fleagle gang just as professional pollster Pete Marshall (MacMurray) arrives in town looking for his missing coworker. Pete soon discovers that his predecessor had a fateful encounter with the Fleagles, who also take Pete prisoner with the intention of murdering him. The Fleagle matriarch, Mamie (Marjorie Main), spares Pete so she can use him to get dying Grandma Fleagle (Mabel Paige) to reveal the location of a fortune in stolen cash, but Pete only acquires a confusing clue before the old lady expires. Everyone in the house rushes to find the loot while thwarting or betraying the others, but the confusion increases when two different women claiming to be Bonnie Fleagle turn up and demand the money.

The Fleagles are as nutty and sinister a gang as any madcap comedy could invent, but their wackiness overpowers their ability to terrorize. Main leads the pack as bad-tempered but duplicitous Mamie, alternating between imitations of human tenderness and cracks of her much-used whip. The role lets Main cut loose with an extreme version of her usual character type; Mamie is a rough matriarch with no heart of gold to redeem her brusque manner. Mamie's current husband, a mild-looking little man named Mr. Johnson, is played by comedy stalwart Porter Hall with sly amiability and amoral intentions. Peter Whitney does double duty as identical twins Bert and Mert, a hilarious gag that the picture fully commits to in repeated scenes that frequently have Whitney acting against himself. Of the other family members, Grandma and the real Bonnie (Barbara Pepper) make brief but memorable appearances, while Jean Heather gets a sympathetic but rather tragic role as Mamie's daughter, Elany, a pretty sort of Ophelia figure whose main job is to sing the nonsense song wherein the clue to the stolen cash is hidden. Together they're a lot to keep track of as the rapid action unfolds, especially in a house full of trap doors, secret passages, and even radioactive poison. Each character, though, is played with enough energy and comedy to be memorable, even if nobody can tell Bert and Mert apart.

MacMurray and Helen Walker play the sane characters in the midst of this mayhem, but their roles also have great comedy moments. Walker's tough act in her first scene gives way to her development as the hero's love interest and partner against the Fleagles, but she gamely keeps up the deception for much of the movie. While he starred in dramas and serious films like Double Indemnity (1944), MacMurray is also widely celebrated as a comedy lead in pictures like The Egg and I (1947), The Shaggy Dog (1959), and The Absent-Minded Professor (1961). Murder, He Says belongs very much to the second set, despite its title, which recalls a song written for the 1943 film, Happy Go Lucky, and predates the arrival of the Miss Marple comedy, Murder She Said, in 1961. As the unlucky but quick-thinking Pete, MacMurray is constantly on the move, falling into traps, climbing out windows, and always trying to stay one step ahead of the violent but incompetent Mert and Bert. His scenes with the imaginary ghost are especially fun and will remind viewers of Harvey (1950), which might well be intentional as the original stage version had appeared in 1944.

For more of Marjorie Main's comic roles, see The Women (1939), Heaven Can Wait (1943), and The Harvey Girls (1946). George Marshall's other comedy films include The Ghost Breakers (1940), Hold That Blonde! (1945), and Scared Stiff (1953). Look for Helen Walker in Brewster's Millions (1945), Cluny Brown (1946), and Call Northside 777 (1948). Jean Heather appears in supporting roles in Double Indemnity and Going My Way (1944), but her film career was cut short by a 1947 car accident that damaged her face. If the clue tune in Murder, He Says sounds weirdly familiar, you probably listen to NPR's All Things Considered, which features an identical song as its theme music.

You can find Murder, He Says on DVD or stream it on The Criterion Channel (as part of the December 2022 Screwball Comedy lineup).

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Classic Films in Focus: YOU NEVER CAN TELL (1951)

I've seen a lot of unusual classic movies, but You Never Can Tell (1951) might be in a class all by itself when it comes to animal themed reincarnation private detective mystery comedies. Directed by film writer Lou Breslow, this offbeat picture stars Dick Powell as a murdered German Shepherd who comes back to earth as a human private detective in order to reveal the identity of his killer. If that sounds like a lot to process, there's also a reincarnated racehorse (Joyce Holden) along for the trip to serve as his assistant! Imagine Angel on My Shoulder (1946) mixed with The Shaggy Dog (1959) and Murder, My Sweet (1944) and you begin to get an idea of You Never Can Tell. As bizarre as that sounds, the whole thing comes together to create a delightful romp with some hilarious performances from Powell and Holden as the animals in human form. Those who enjoy oddball comedies will find plenty of laughs in this wacky gem, and it's definitely zany enough to hold the attention of younger viewers who are used to cartoon antics.

Powell plays private detective Rex Shepherd, who was previously known as King before his untimely demise thanks to a killer who slipped the dog a fatal dose of poison. King was murdered because he inherited the immense fortune of his misanthropic owner, and public opinion says his caretaker, the lovely young Ellen Hathaway (Peggy Dow), is the most likely culprit, since she inherited the money after King's death. Determined to expose the real murderer, King asks to return to Earth as a human being, where he presents himself to Ellen as a private eye who can clear her name and get justice for King. The racehorse Golden Harvest comes with him to be his sidekick, Goldie (Holden), but the two have a limited amount of time before they must either return to animal heaven or be stuck living out second lives as human beings.

There's not really much mystery about the killer's identity here, since King/Rex knows who poisoned him, but the noir angle lets Powell play the hard-boiled detective type again after his 1944 outing as Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet and subsequent noir roles. Rex looks and talks like a detective but also enjoys snacking on dog food, chasing balls, and sitting on previously forbidden chairs. His biggest problem is convincing the cops that he's not insane, a criminal, or both, since he can't exactly explain his situation to them. Powell is having fun here, but Joyce Holden proves a scene-stealer as Goldie, and she gallops off with the picture at every opportunity. Her costume, complete with ponytail, straw hat, stirrups belt, and horseshoes under the soles of her pumps, is funny on its own, but Holden's performance goes all in on the Kentucky Thoroughbred persona. The regular human characters are pretty tame in comparison: Peggy Dow has ample charm and warmth as Ellen, but Charles Drake is a bit bland as dog trainer turned suitor Perry Collins. We don't see him for long, but it's also worth mentioning that King is played by animal star Flame the Wonder Dog, here nearing the end of his acting career after starring as Shep, Rusty, and Pal in a string of features and shorts.

Rex watches as Goldie surveys the latest racing news.

The scenes on Earth feature constant gags and comic takes on the private detective plot, but the weirdest moments of You Never Can Tell take place in the afterlife, where King joins other dead animals to appear before their ruler/god, who is, of course, a lion. The cinematography for this segment makes the setting even stranger, and the scene goes on longer than you might want or expect, especially if you're showing this movie to kids who will immediately ask if animals have souls or go to heaven. The picture's commitment to this sequence is impressive, though, and it does show us why King wants to return to Earth and what he's giving up to do that. It also sets up the idea that other animals have become humans before (the movie even has an unwieldy portmanteau name for them - "humanimals"), so we aren't too surprised when Goldie identifies some of these animal people later in the picture. 

If You Never Can Tell sounds like a treat, check out other animal themed comedies like Francis (1950), Rhubarb (1951), and The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964). Lou Breslow was primarily a film writer; in addition to the story for You Never Can Tell, he also worked on A-Haunting We Will Go (1942), Murder, He Says (1945), and Bedtime for Bonzo (1951). Dick Powell rose to fame in musicals like 42nd Street (1933) and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), while Peggy Dow also appears in Harvey (1950) and Bright Victory (1951). Look for Joyce Holden in The Milkman (1950), Iron Man (1951), and Private Eyes (1953).