Guys & Dolls & Stiffs in ‘Stop, You’re Killing Me’

A slight case of murder gets even slighter in this '50s remake.

Remy Marko (Broderick Crawford) was a successful businessman: he sold bootleg hooch during the Prohibition. The legalization of alcohol was catastrophic to his affairs, but his wife (Claire Trevor) convinces Marko to go legit despite the fact that his beer is basically undrinkable and no longer sought after. Sliding into debt and repossession by the bank, Marko finds that good honest work is not for the faint of heart.

Winking and nodding somewhere in the background of Stop, You’re Killing Me is a satire of capitalism and the cut-throat world of debt and consumption. It all comes to a head one weekend at Marko’s Saratoga mansion when he throws a big party just as his barely reformed goombahs (Charles Cantor, Sheldon Leonard, Joe Vitale) discover the bodies of four murdered robbers in an upstairs bedroom.

Earlier in the film, just to keep him sympathetic to the audience, Marko confesses with some shame that he’s never actually rubbed anyone out. The real killer (Harry Morgan) in this instance is carrying a bag full of dough, and he meets his match in a bratty orphan boy (Louis Lettieri). An additional complication is that Marko’s daughter (Virginia Gibson) wants to marry a highway patrolman (Bill Hayes), and they’ve never had law enforcement in the family.

Stop, You’re Killing Me is a close remake of the 1938 classic A Slight Case of Murder, based on the hit play of the same name by Damon Runyon and Howard Lindsay. Apart from cosmetic decisions like using color, the differences between films are slight in James O’Hanlon’s script. Instead of dealing with a snooty father-in-law, Marko now deals with a snooty mother-in-law played by Marx Brothers staple Margaret Dumont, still purveying all her classic reactions. We no longer get an appearance by the woman who runs the brat’s orphanage (played to perfection in 1938 by Margaret Hamilton).

Although it seems at first that this might be a musical remake, that’s not so. There’s one scene where the Markos sing a duet to music coming over the radio, and they do it with the relative naturalism of non-singers. Later, some songs are performed at the party, again within a naturalistic context. In fact, the 1938 version also had plenty of party songs, with Robinson himself contributing to “It Had to Be You”, so this isn’t a new enhancement.

Stop, You’re Killing Me is clever, colorful and sprightly, yet it must inevitably suffer from not being A Slight Case of Murder, just as Crawford — as fine an actor as he is within his gruff range of typecasting, even winning an Oscar for his pathos in All the King’s Men (1949) — must suffer in comparison with Robinson, who was simply one of the greatest and most versatile actors produced by Hollywood. Both actors have a line that roughly goes “I’m for law and order, but that doesn’t mean I want it in my own house!” Robinson delivers this with brilliant snap, while Crawford can only shout it belligerently before slipping on a rolling skate.

Director Roy Del Ruth, a veteran at keeping things moving with a light touch, was responsible for at least one masterpiece in this decade: the Doris Day vehicle On Moonlight Bay (1951). With Stop, You’re Killing Me, driven by a strong story of macabre mix-ups and a cast of comic pros, Del Ruth fashions an amusement that never rises to the level of the original. The difference between a story that fires on all cylinders (in 1938) and one that goes through amiable motions (in 1952) is lengthened by the difference between the ‘30s and the ‘50s, which makes this later “period” version more dated than the earlier “contemporary” version. It becomes that much fluffier and more forgettable, its commentaries less sharp, and its routines more routine.

Now available on demand from Warner Archive, the film has a few instances of visible damage but the WarnerColor generally looks fresh and shiny. There’s no trailer or any other extras.

RATING 5 / 10