Marjorie Main wields a bullwhip in 1945’s Murder, He Says, and she’s oddly appealing at it. There’s something enticingly kinky about a lady with a lash, and Main doesn’t disappoint expectations. Is there a Krafft-Ebing category to cover this? I wouldn’t call Main sexy, but she exudes a peculiarly attractive energy while slinging the leather. When not thrashing it about, she carries it wound up in her hand, like a kid with a lethal jump rope. In one scene she’s knocked unconscious (“maybe she just tripped over her whip,” says another character), and as she’s carried out of the room, her whip a-trailing after her, she’s still twitching it, like a sleepy tiger a-lashing of its tail. I think you can read something into that. In fact, I think you can have a Freudian field day with this movie. A cigar may be just an old stogie, but a whip always means something.
In the film Main plays the monster matriarch of the murderous backwoods Fleagle clan, and she uses her whip on just about everything; even cracking it against a harmless fly, like Dr. Moreau savaging the hybrids on his lost isle. Although she often played irascible types, I don’t associate Main with cinematic psychos. Beneath the short-fused glares and sandpapered vocal chords you could sense a heart of gold in her characters. I love her in what’s probably her best-known role, as hillbilly Ma Kettle, clad in a beaten-against-the-rocks skirt and blouse, and topped with a knotted bun that slides off her scalp like a dying bird’s nest. I think Main was dressed this way in almost all her films; was this the official Marjorie Main costume? Maybe the studios kept it in a special closet, to be taken out and aired whenever she appeared. I’d like to think it was stored in the same place with Ned Sparks’s cigar, Lionel Atwill’s monocle, and Jack Norton’s shot glass. Some objects are sacred, and the Main topknot is one of them.
But Main, topknot and all, is pretty psycho in Murder, He Says, as a hillbilly plotting the same: she’s bumped off one character before the movie begins, is croaking another at the start, and schemes to get rid of a third and fourth once into the story. Think Ma Kettle crossed with Ma Barker. The plot concerns an urban pollster (Fred MacMurray) from an organization called the Trotter poll—“same as the Gallup poll, only we’re not in quite as much of a hurry” (gallop—trotter—get it?)—surveying conditions in isolated rural neighborhoods. You know, those places marked with shotgun-totin’ dragons on the map. MacMurray blithely heads out for dragon-puffing Fleagle territory in spite of warnings from other country folk (“They don’t cotton to strangers up at the Fleagles”). It seems them that visit the Fleagles don’t come back. Which includes Smedley, an earlier Trotter pollster who’s now disappeared. Fer good. At this point I’m thinking the Twilight Zone theme music should be twanged on a banjo. Gosh amighty, what is lurkin’ out in them thar hills?
I’m curious when I watch movies featuring hillbillies: what’s their target audience? I don’t think it’s hillbillies themselves. Hollywood films often treated rural folk as figures of fun, such as the hick-savvy Kettles, or the Dogpatch yokels of Lil’ Abner (both 1940 and 1959), or the ready-to-jamboree-anytime-anyplace Hillbillies in a Haunted House. They’re naive, awed know-nothings, no match for the wised-up city dweller taking advantage of their innocence. (Lum and Abner may have been the original Dumb and Dumber.) Heck, even a rabbit is smarter. A cotton-tailed urban hipster like Bugs Bunny has no problem putting down a couple of bearded hicksters in “Hillbilly Hare,” needing only to don Daisy Mae drag and entice his hayseed foes into a hay baler to finish them off (a similar hay-baling trick happens in Murder, He Says).
But t’ain’t always fun and games. Sometimes heading for the hills can turn into the Ozarkian Outer Limits. Flapper Betty Boop, whose smart little roadster has run out of gas, meets a tribe of barefoot, corn-cob-piped “Musical Mountaineers,” all aiming shotguns at her ringleted head (even the rooster points a gun). Only by joining the mountain folk in a hootenanny can Betty retreat and safely head back to civilization. And when robber-on-the-run Charles McGraw escapes into hill country in Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town and hides out with the 15 or so Kettle kids (Ma can never keep the number straight), he ends up—after being bound, pummeled, hung upside down, and spattered with oatmeal—begging the police to save him by arresting him. I thought nobody was tougher than Charles McGraw. Until some hillbilly spawn proved me wrong.
If the great McGraw can be downed by heapings of hominy, what might happen to the rest of us poor cubicle dwellers, whose knowledge of rural dangers is no more menacing than home viewings of Christmas in Connecticut? I did a Google search on “hillbilly movies,” wondering what I’d find in them fur-out cinematic woods. What came up was Motel Hell, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Backwoods, The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Wrong Turn, American Gothic—films about murderin’, maniacal country pervs preying on innocent, no-nothing city folk. The plots—wallowing in dismemberment, butchery, torture, and other enthusiastic forms of mayhem—go well beyond the soggy groats in their treatments of wrong-turn civilians. They’re basically warnings to the latte drinkers: venture one highway too far from your comfortable, safe, secure, citified existence, and yure life ain’t worth a plugged nickel. (Assumin’ anybody out there has got that much change in the purse.) It’s like Mr. Drysdale encountering the Clampetts on their home ground, unbathed and in a really bad mood. Welllllll, doggies.
My own notion is that this modern hillbelly hell harkens back to John Boorman’s 1972 shocker Deliverance. Not that it was the first. Out of the 1960s came the likes of Deranged, 2000 Maniacs, and Spider Baby, with stories of pastoral serial killers and bucolic cannibals haunting the B-backwoods of cult cinema. But Deliverance was an A-picture, with A-list stars and marketing; and its scenes of grinning, vacant-eyed mountain men perpetrating gross indecencies on four upstanding members of the bourgeoisie burned itself into the cultural consciousness. It was the return of our collectively repressed rural past; the terror skulking beneath our uneasy urbane superiority over country-bumpkin cousins; Lil’ Abner’s revenge. The film pushed hillbilly horror out of its niche audience and onto the general masses (as well as coining a new catchphrase regarding porcine vocalise). Now we knew what was prowling behind those hill-hiding eyes.
It also fixed a narrative archetype: any city sophisticate who turns off the GPS while cruising the backwoods risks meeting a goggle-eyed, snaggle-toothed, g-droppin’, duck-dynastic clan of shotgun-waving deviants and their inbred offspring. That last seems particularly nightmarish to coastal inhabitants (the four urbanites in Deliverance argue that there’s no point in reporting the murders they’ve committed to the rural police, since all the jurors will be relatives of the victims). It’s the Freudian incest taboo, the unspoken horror of the nuclear family, the dirty secret of blood ties. And it’s an attribute closely associated with hill folk (it’s also, curiously enough, an attribute of royalty). Inbreeding was a Production Code unmentionable; when John Ford said of his 1941 film version of the notorious novel Tobacco Road that he had “eliminated the horrible details and what we’ve got left is a nice dramatic story,” that was one of the details left out. Even Bosley Crowther sniffed at the Hays Office’s “process of disinfection,” turning Erskine Caldwell’s peckerwood freak show into bumptiously sentimental comedy.
Inbreeding is not mentioned in Murder, He Says (to return to the original subject of this post), but it’s leerily hinted at. Ma Fleagle’s twin sons, Mert and Bert (Peter Whitney, doubling in some excellent process shots), are cretinous psychopaths, dispatching unwanted pollsters with shotguns and two-by-fours; and her idiot daughter Elaney (Jean Heather) wafts through the film like an Appalachian Giselle who can’t find the Wilis, her empty-eyed stare accompanying her singing the same nonsense song over and over. I didn’t envy Heather, an actress as lovely as her namesake plant, her acting task. She had to find ways to vary the repetitive trilling of that annoying tune (and, yes, it’s the same banal music that introduces NPR’s show “All Things Considered”; even IMDB gets that right), while keeping us interested. However, she’s also the film’s most disturbing character, subjected to unfunny sessions of abuse by her crazed relatives hoping to discover in the song’s gibbery lyrics the clue to where a fortune is hidden. Director George Marshall generally manages to blend the film’s cornpone laffs with a grinning-skull humor as smoothly as Ma’s whipcracking; but Elaney is the one rift in the plot’s murderous mirth, the real horrific undertones beneath the blackly jokey ones.
Indeed, the corn (straight off the cob) and hilarity barely hide the film’s gothic-style horror; this is not an innocent comedy. The hillbillies approach killing as a family occupation. Ma’s husband Mr. Johnson (Porter Hall) builds coffins for victims and Mert and Bert squabble over who was more responsible for murdering Smedley: the one who wielded the weapon or the one who held him down. I found this sibling bickering the funniest parts of the film; it’s ghastly but it rings psychologically true. Who hasn’t argued with a brother or sister over who did what? The film skitters over some pretty swampy ground here, though. Mert and Bert resolve their argument with a subversively logical conclusion, by agreeing to blame Ma for their excesses. Norman Bates would probably understand.
I also give a lot of credit to MacMurray for balancing the merry with the macabre. He doesn’t overplay the frights with Bob-Hopeish eye-pops and whinneys. He’s an average man trying to survive; realizing he’s trapped in a den of monsters, he goes along with the lunacy of each situation until he can think of a way out. So much is made of MacMurray’s “against-type” work in hard-bitten films like Double Indemnity that his lengthy career in light comedy is overlooked. He takes that gallop-trotter pun, for instance, and slides it past us without too much pain (we always notice the actors who flaunt the good lines, but the real talent is to take the lame ones and make them sound as if they issue from a human being). His scene in which he ‘converses’ with the dead Smedley, to the open-mouthed amazement of Mert and Bert, is a small gem of physical comedy. He starts out quietly, sympathizing with his late (and invisible) colleague, then ends up hurling his body through doors and furniture to simulate ghostly rampage. Not only was MacMurray terrific in comedy (the rhythm he gets going in his Double Indemnity dialogue arises from such skills), but, like James Stewart, he had a gift for playing decent, sweet, honest, and square-as-a-pizza-box characters and making them unironic heroes. No matter how dark or surreal the gags this movie throws at him, MacMurray grounds them in a human believability. He gives us someone to root for.
Survival Improv: MacMurray borrows the foreshortened legs of Bert (or is it Mert?) when faced with a dragon-puffin’ Fleagle:
Still, you might wonder why you laugh at the murders in Murder, He Says (leastaways, I did). Given all the killings, torture, depravity, the mad girl, the rotting-house setting with cow skulls scattered throughout (when MacMurray innocently asks if the Fleagles are in the “slaughtering business,” Main responds with a whip crack), the famous glowing-grits dinner scene (poison being ladled out with the gravy), and the saw-fondling Mr. Johnson gently inquiring if a new coffin is needed—how far is this from the country house of horrors in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Did only the Production Code stand between us and Leatherface? I don’t know what changes were made before filming, but considering all the nasty hints that romp through the final product, I wonder how much the Breen Office was paying attention.
I have a more unnerving thought. Maybe the Breeners left the horror humor in not because of negligence, or even from an unwonted sense of fun. It could be akin to why I found the feuding Fleagles funny: the acceptance, conscious or not, of the underlying comic horror of the concept of family—a group bound together by blood and custom, but bound to get on each other’s nerves. It’s so bred in the bone we may never even think about how it affects us. But affect it does. Mightn’t such tribal closeness give way to murderous thoughts? Or worse? Intensify that by an island-in-the-hills isolation, with nobody watching, and you could end up with more than a nosy pollster or two dumped in the cellar.
If them hills are alive, we may not want to know what with.
BONUS CLIP: Theme and Variations on the NPR “All Things Considered” theme: