11 March 2014

Women Sleuths of the Silver Screen

by Terence Faherty

In a recent post, I considered some minor mystery movie series, closing with the promise that I'd follow up someday regarding movie series featuring female detectives.  A more recent column by Leigh Lundin reminded me that March is "Women's History Month" and, more specifically, "Women in Mystery Month." So why not "Women in Mystery Movie Series Month" as well? It seems like a good fit.

I know of three such series from the 1930s, and each is worth a look.  (Each shows up on TCM from time to time.) All three series had literary antecedents, two now obscure and one still famous.  The three protagonists are surprisingly diverse, given that they were battling crime at more or less the same moment in time. 

Hildegarde Withers

A Boston school teacher turned amateur sleuth, Hildegarde Withers was the creation of Stuart Palmer, novelist, short story writer (including two Sherlock Holmes pastiches), screenwriter, and president of the Mystery Writers of America.  Withers debuted in The Penquin Pool Murder in 1931.  Withers reappeared regularly through the early fifties and even had two titles released in the sixties, with Palmer sharing credit with writing partners, including Craig Rice (Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig).  Withers, a comic take on Miss Marple,  is a busybody crime solver.  Much of the humor derives from her clashes with a tough New York police inspector, Oscar Piper.

With RKO producing, Withers made it to the big screen only a year after her literary debut, in a film version of that debut, The Penquin Pool Murder.  She was played by the great Edna May Oliver, an actress with a long face and a great way with an acerbic line.  A native of Massachusetts who specialized in independent and cranky characters, Oliver was born to play Withers.  She followed up Penquin Pool with two more, Murder on the Blackboard (1934) and Murder on a Honeymoon (1935).  All three benefit from James Gleason's performance as Piper.  After Honeymoon, Oliver left RKO for MGM, where she graced big-budget costume pictures like Romeo and Juliet and Pride and Prejudice until her untimely death in 1942, age 59.  Following Oliver's departure, RKO tried three more Withers films, staring first Helen Broderick (not good) and then Zazu Pitts (worse).  Later, there were two television Withers, Agnes Morehead in a failed 1950s pilot and  Eve Arden in a 1972 television film, A Very Missing Person.

Hildegarde Withers (Edna May Oliver) and Oscar Piper (James Gleason)

Any of the Oliver films is worth catching.  My favorite is Murder on a Honeymoon, which features location footage shot on Catalina Island, an uncommon thing in a film of that period.

Torchy Blane

One of old Hollywood's favorite stock characters was the plucky female reporter.  She could pop up in A pictures like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) in the person of a genuine star like Jean Arthur or in B pictures like Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) in the person of a contract player like Glenda Farrell.  Farrrell was a member of the Warner Bros. stock company, and as such was as likely to play a gold digger in a Busby Berkeley musical as a gun moll in a gangster picture.  The Warners films of the early thirties were known for their rapid pacing and general brassiness.  Farrell, a brassy blonde who was to wisecracking what Edna May Oliver was to superciliousness, fit right in.  Warners eventually gave Farrell her own series, in which she played a crime-solving newswoman, Torchy Blane.

The series was inspired by a story Warners had purchased from Fredrick Nebel, a pulp writer who published in Black Mask alongside Hammett and Chandler.  Nebel's original story featured a hard drinking male reporter who competed against and knocked heads with a cop named McBride.  Warners switched the reporter's gender, renamed him (or rather, her) Torchy Blane, and started cranking them out.  McBride was played by Barton MacLaine, and he became Blane's love interest as well as her professional rival.  Blane would stop at nothing to solve the crime and get the story, including exploiting her relationship with McBride. The films were light and, at around an hour each, lightning paced.  Of the nine films released between 1936 and 1939, seven starred Farrell, with Lola Lane and future Oscar winner Jane Wyman each stepping in for one.

Torchy Blane (Glenda Farrell) and Steve McBride (Barton MacLaine)

Farrell's take on the wisecracking blonde went out of style when the thirties went west, but she kept acting, sometimes in smaller movie roles, sometimes on the stage or on television.  She died in harness in 1972, age 66, and was buried at West Point beside her second husband, an army doctor who had served on Eisenhower's staff.

Leonard Maltin calls Smart Blonde (1936) the best of the Torchy Blane films, and I'll bow to his expertize.

Nancy Drew

Carson Drew's only child debuted in book form in 1930 and has been solving crimes (and lying about her age) ever since.  The brainchild of the genius book packager Edward Stratemeyer, the books, written under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene (originally by Mildred Wirt Benson) were an immediate success.

In 1938, Nancy Drew made it to the big screen courtesy of Torchy Blane's studio, Warner Bros. She was played by a young actress with a name that always sounded to me like it should have belonged to an old actress:  Bonita Granville.  Granville was a movie veteran in 1938, having made her debut in 1933 at age nine. (Her most famous child role was an Oscar-nominated turn in These Three, the original film version of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour.)  Granville first played the girl sleuth in Nancy Drew, Detective, based on The Password to Larkspur Lane.  Three more films followed in 1939, the last being Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase.  Carson Drew was played by Warners regular John Litel, and Frankie Thomas played Nancy's boyfriend (with his book name, Ned Nickerson, changed to Ted Nickerson for reasons best known to Warners).

The films were short, fast-paced, and Nancy was both the brains and heart of the outfit (though some critics found Granville insufficiently intrepid).  I'd recommend the last one, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase.  (And not just because it has a title I remember fondly.)

Ted Nickerson (Frankie Thomas) and Nancy Drew (Bonita Granville)

Though she remains a publishing franchise and has spun off into new areas like video games, Nancy Drew's screen afterlife hasn't been much more impressive than Hildegarde Withers'.  There would be only one more big screen attempt, Nancy Drew, a 2007 film released by her old studio, Warner Bros., starring Emma Roberts.  There also was a television show, which premiered in 1977, with Pamela Sue Martin in the role.  (Drew was eventually squeezed out of that by her co-detectives, the Hardy Boys.)  A 2002 made-for-television movie, also simply called Nancy Drew, starred Maggie Lawson of Psych fame.      

Granville would remain with Warner Bros. long enough to appear in support of Betty Davis in Now Voyager.  When her acting career wound down, Granville became a television producer. She died (just when she was getting old enough for her name) in 1988, age 65, of lung cancer, like fellow Warners alumnus Glenda Farrell.    

5 comments:

Janice Law said...

A good piece and idea for the month- these are all new films and actors to me.

David Edgerley Gates said...

One thinks also of Margaret Rutherfod, who played Miss Marple in a series of comic Brit mysteries in the early 1960's. They wre sort of travesties, in all honesty, for fans of Christie, but very entertaining.

Eve Fisher said...

I love Edna May Oliver; she's one of those great character actors that steal almost every scene they're in. I'll keep an eye out for these on TCM - Netflix doesn't have them.

Leigh Lundin said...

I love it when an article prompts me to add titles to my DVD to-get list. The other day I recommended a movie to a 14-year-old acquaintance and expressed his horror: “It’s… It’s in B&W!”

“Yeah,” I said. “Didn’t you know all the best movies are in black and white?”

I think I may remember a Torchy Blane movie or two. I’m not sure, because I do enjoy the feisty reporter genre and have watched many.

I know I’ve seen at least one Nancy Drew. Mostly I recall admiring the roadster she drove.

As a kid, I enjoyed the Disney episodes of The Hardy Boys. I’m not certain if I read the original or revised versions, but I found I liked some but not others. The Nancy Drew series seemed consistently good.

Leigh Lundin said...

As I hit Enter on my last comment, I spotted David's comment about Margaret Rutherford. Joan Hickson's Miss Marple hooked me. I don't recall who came after her in the British television series, but I couldn't connect with her or the 1970s styling of the show. In contrast, Hickson appeared very much of the period and I easily pictured as 'the real' Christie character (and not unlike my own grandmother).