Supposedly Fred MacMurray stepped in to this eerie tale of backwoods madness as a Bob Hope substitute over at Paramount and in the end, he delivers a hilarious performance while tangled up with Marjorie Main and her killer brood. And what would you expect Main’s haggard looking character to be named? If you said “Ma!” then you’d be right.
No stranger to comedy, George (Destry Rides Again) Marshall, directs this early template of something akin to MacMurray running into the family from Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Fred’s working for a polling company, “I’m with the Trotter Poll. We’re like the Gallop Poll but not as fast.” and sent to find the whereabouts of a missing co-worker in the backwoods of some unnamed Hillbilly county where we might expect to see Jed and Granny Clampett at the local emporium.
Following the directions of the county shop keeper, Fred’s on his way out to Marjorie’s where the previous pollster was last seen to be headed. Just what Fred is headed towards is unveiled when the film cuts to a loud and boisterous Marjorie (was there any other kind) smacking a whip and yielding a pistol at her twin sons, both played in fine fashion by character player Peter Whitney doing double duty. Back to Fred. It’s dark outside and he’s nearly fallen through the boards covering up an old well. Thankfully one of the twins has come along. Then again, maybe not. He promptly decides to finish gravity’s job and push Fred downward to his death.
Not so fast. Marjorie wants to know just who this stranger is that’s come nosing around. “Then we’ll kill him.”
No they don’t live in an old shack but rather a large run down mansion not unlike something you’d see in a gothic thriller. Secret passages included. There’s a funny bit that follows when Fred comes to realize there are two Peter Whitney’s to contend with. Both rattlesnake mean yet far from being called the sharpest knife in the drawer. There’s a mystery in this old house and Marjorie is going to force the meek Fred to help solve it before they decide on his final fate.
Turns out there’s $70,000 at stake. One of the family members, Barbara Pepper, robbed a bank to get it and has hid it somewhere on the property before being sent up river to the state pen. Only grandma knows where it is and she’s near death. Maybe Fred can pretend to be Pepper’s boyfriend and find out the location before the old girl kicks off.
Fred doesn’t know what to make of this family from hell and his night’s just getting started. He’ll meet the flighty good looking daughter, Jean Heather, Marjorie’s latest husband the mousey, Porter Hall, and very shortly Helen Walker who turns up talking tough and claiming to be the family’s lady bank robber Miss Pepper. In reality Walker is looking for the cash to clear her banker Father who was also indicted in the robbery.
Screwy? You bet and we’re still just getting started but there are plenty of belly laughs ahead in this 94 minute black and white demented gem. Some of Fred’s classic bits include sitting down for dinner with all the others and trying to avoid the plate with the poison gravy. Good thing that table spins as in a Lazy Susan. Another bit that had me in stitches is when the real Miss Pepper shows up to get her cash and mistakes Fred for one of the twins not knowing yet what her distant cousins look like. Perhaps the funniest stanza comes when Fred convinces the twins that the ghost of his long lost co-worker walks the house looking for vengeance.
Yes one of the Whitney twins hit the poor little fellah a little too hard over the head.
The spotlight is clearly on the comic timing of Fred MacMurray in this film that can be found as part of a double bill with Feudin’, Fussin and A-Fightin’ from the TCM Vault collection. Both movies star Marjorie Main. The latter with Percy Kilbride though the pair are not playing Ma and Pa Kettle. Fred would rejoin Marjorie along with Percy and Claudette Colbert in the comedy classic, The Egg and I which would kick start the Kettle franchise in 1947.
Plenty of one liners are teed up for Fred to throw away that are easy to imagine as Bob Hope quips but that isn’t fair to MacMurray who more than handles the reigns that have been handed to him including a poke at Bob ….
“Did you see the Bob Hope picture, The Ghost Breakers?”
There’s even a bit of truth intertwined into Fred’s background, “I used to play the saxophone with the home office orchestra.” Yes Fred did play the saxophone during his early years on vaudeville.
Full marks need to be awarded to not only Peter Whitney’s wonderful turn in a dual role as the quick tempered twins but also to the effects department who successfully put the two Whitney’s side by side on multiple occasions during the film. The visual effects are credited to the team of Gordon Jennings and Paul K. Lerpae. The pair had an incredibly long list of movie credits to their names. Both worked on the classic sci-fi flick War of the Worlds released in 1953 to name just one superior title.
Yes black humor rules the day. Not unlike the popular Arsenic and Old Lace and while the Grant film is fondly remembered, this one deserves a wider viewing audience as we look back to some 1940’s comedies slanted to the dark side of funny. Do yourself a favor and hunt this one down for a barrel full of laughs.