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The famous 1935 Variety headline "STICKS NIX HICK PIX" certainly didn't indicate any permanent trend, because movies set among bucolic bumpkins remained firm on studio production schedules. Cornpone yodeler Judy Canova carried the flag during the war years, until Universal stumbled onto a formula with their 1947 The Egg and Eye. That hit popularized actors Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride as a hayseed team known as Ma & Pa Kettle. TCM's new double bill DVD of Murder, He Says and Feudin', Fussin' and A-Fightin' presents two "Hick Pix" variants, one an oddball comedy about haunted hillbillies and another a musical about a crazy competition between frontier towns. The common denominator is the formidable Marjorie Main in her role as the requisite overbearing backwoods woman, wearing the pants and cracking a whip.
1945's Murder, He Says has gathered a reputation as a precocious and often hilarious black comedy that transplants the daffy spirit of old James Whale horror films into the hillbilly genre. Whale's The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man also function as the kind of macabre comedies that Charles Addams would have enjoyed. Paramount found success with a pair of haunted house pictures for Bob Hope, but this show stars the versatile Fred MacMurray, who had distinguished himself in light comedies and recently proved his dramatic chops in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity. With future film noir fixture Helen Walker as a mysterious leading lady and MacMurray's Indemnity alumni Porter Hall and Jean Heather creeping through hidden passageways, Murder, He Says has plenty of familiar faces.
Pollster Hector P. Smedley has disappeared in the backwoods, and his backup Pete Marshall (MacMurray) is dispatched to find him. Even the locals stay clear of the murderous Fleagles, but Pete breezes right in to their run-down crazy house, far beyond the reach of the law. Each of the Fleagles is insane, in a different way. Twin yahoos Mert and Bert (Peter Whitney) threaten to blow Pete in two with a shotgun, while the beautiful but wild-eyed Elany (Jean Heather) wanders the halls in a trance. Eccentric Mr. Johnson (Porter Hall) has a habit of disappearing behind secret doors. Matriarch Mamie Fleagle keeps Pete alive because he might be able to convince senile Grandma (Mabel Paige) to divulge the whereabouts of the loot stolen by Bonnie Fleagle, now residing in prison. Grandma trusts Pete more than her own venal kinfolk and gives him a clue -- a song melody. The treasure hunt is interrupted by the arrival of the pistol-packing bandit Bonnie -- who is really the romantic Claire Matthews (Helen Walker), just pretending to be tough to keep the Fleagles at bay and grab the loot for herself.
Murder, He Says is an unbroken series of word games, crazy killers, slapstick chases and death threats, all of which Fred MacMurray reacts to with cheerful aplomb. MacMurray's easygoing attitude gives the film's collection of weird events a dreamlike quality that Luis Buñuel might have admired. Escaping from the shotgun-toting Mert and Bert, Pete hitches a ride in a truck, which takes him right back to the hillbilly death house. A glowing ghost in the night turns out to be one of the Fleagle's hounds, covered with a luminous toxin. A subsequent murder attempt involves a bowl of soup laced with this poison. With all the bowls spinning around the table on a lazy-Susan device, nobody knows who has sipped a lethal dose until yet another victim begins glowing like a monster from a Universal horror film.
The supporting cast has a grand time with their wacky characters. Marjorie Main's domineering Mamie and Porter Hall's conniving madman are little gems of performance, and the unheralded Peter Whitney is fine in as twin oafs, only one of which can be immobilized by a fast slam to an Achilles-like crick in his back. The special effects that show the actor playing against himself, often in the same frame, are completely convincing.
In a fetching Daisy Mae hairstyle, pretty Helen Walker comes off as a much softer presence than her icy schemer in the celebrated Nightmare Alley. She makes for a sexy Bonnie Parker type, ordering the Fleagles about at the point of a gun until the real gangster dame (feisty Barbara Pepper) shows up. Murder, He Says maintains a giddy, very non-Hollywood sense of imbalance right through the silly ending where all the villains tumble into a hay baler -- the movie winds up as we imagine Preston Sturges' imaginary rural romp "Hey Hey in the Hayloft" might. Either that, or the movie will remind modern audiences of Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, another tale of degenerate yahoos running a rural death trap. At the jolly finish of Murder, He Says, the luckless first victim of the deadly Fleagles has been entirely forgotten.
Always a popular performer, ace dancer Donald O'Connor achieved immortality as Gene Kelly's hoofing sidekick in Singin' in the Rain but earned his bread and butter in a series of less prestigious but always entertaining musical vehicles. One of these is 1948's Feudin', Fussin' and A-Fightin', a budget minded Universal effort that affords O'Connor three pleasant song 'n' dance numbers, and leaves the rest of the movie to whatever resources are available on the Universal lot. Although technically taking place in the Old West, the show earns its Hick Pix credentials with the presence of Marjorie Main as yet another sentimental rural battleaxe. She is paired with Percy Kilbride for the first time since The Egg and I: their official Ma and Pa Kettle series was still in the planning stages.
The story makes use of Universal's western back lot, minimizing the need for budget items like horses and guns. Salesman Wilbur McMurty (O'Connor) breezes into Rimrock, a tiny town engaged in a bitter competition with neighboring Big Bend. Rimrock needs a champion runner to go up against Big Bend's burly blacksmith. With Rimrock mortgaged to the hilt, mayor Maribel Mathews (Marjorie Main) has bet most of the town's money on the race and must somehow come up with a winning candidate. Seeing Wilbur sprint after a departing stagecoach, she has sheriff Sharkey (sometime Stooge Joe Besser) lock the salesman in the livery stable, where his only company until he agrees to race will be his own shadow. This cues a clever dance number set to Al Jolson, Billy Rose and Dave Dreyer's "Me and My Shadow"; O'Connor does his patented dance move in which he runs up a wall and flips backwards onto his feet. When Wilbur gets a look at Maribel's beautiful daughter Libby (Penny Edwards), he finds the motivation to compete in good faith. That is, if he gets a chance: the heavy wagers between Rimrock and Big Bend have upped the incentive to cheat.
Feudin', Fussin' and A-Fightin' is a middling star vehicle that barely does service to the talented Donald O'Connor, who would nevertheless keep making similar movies for the next ten years. Screenwriter D.D. Beauchamp does his best to enliven the generic proceedings that climax in a slapstick footrace through Universal's back lot acreage. Wilbur has been tricked into staying up all night walking a sick horse and can barely stay awake for the race. The humor is on the silly side, as when Wilbur repeatedly falls in a brook and is washed downstream, each time emerging from the water with a larger fish in his hands. Earlier on, the screenwriter squeezes some mileage from the idea that Wilbur is being treated and trained like a racehorse. Maribel and her beau, the somewhat passive Billy Caswell (Percy Kilbride) make Wilbur trot in a circle, and the veterinarian checks his fitness by examining his teeth.
In time-honored comedy fashion, Wilbur is too bashful to declare his love to Penny and instead directs his words through a friendly horse. For viewers familiar with O'Connor's Francis the Talking Mule comedy series, these scenes almost seem prophetic. Watch out Donald, when the animals start talking back you'll be sharing marquee space with a long-eared co-star.
Cute Penny Edwards has plenty of dancing talent but was soon working in low profile westerns. The film directs more of its attention at the Marjorie Main / Percy Kilbride relationship. The outspoken Maribel uses the quiet Billy as a floor mat and claims that she won't remarry until she finds a man strong enough to order her about. In keeping with postwar gender politics, Billy Caswell wins his mate by showing her who's boss -- and depriving her of her job as mayor.
The TCM Vault Collection's Double Bill DVD of Murder, He Says and Feudin', Fussin' and A-Fightin' is an interesting comedy pairing. The rich transfer of Murder, He Says, originally a Paramount release flatters Theodor Sparkuhl's deep blacks - almost all of the movie takes place at night. The Universal-International programmer Feudin', Fussin' and A-Fightin' doesn't fare as well. The source appears light and soft, and is probably from a surviving 16mm element. A few scratches also intrude, but the film is intact and the audio clear.
The features come on separate discs. TCM has augmented them with galleries of stills & artwork, and informative essays culled from the research database of the TCM website.
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T'was Ever Thus.