Showing posts with label mystery movie series. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mystery movie series. Show all posts

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.    

11 February 2014

Minor Movie Series vs. the Thin Man Effect

by Terence Faherty

Some time back I wrote about the big three of the old-time mystery movie series, the Thin Man, Sherlock Holmes, and Charlie Chan series.  In that column, I noted how popular mystery series were with audiences of the thirties and forties, just as popular, in fact, as mystery television series are today. I also mentioned then that I might return to the subject from time to time to consider "minor" series.  Here is just such a return visit, though with a twist, as I'd also like to consider the balance between comedy and detection in the mystery.  A discussion of B-movies series is a great place to discuss this balance, because, in your humble correspondent's humble opinion, more than one series tumbled into obscurity when the balance was lost.  

The Balancing Act

Anyone who decides to use humor in a mystery story, and that's a fair number of writers these days, faces a balancing act:  how much humor to how much mystery element.  The recipe varies from writer to writer, just as a taste for humor in the mystery varies from reader to reader.  The men and women who wrote B-movie mystery series in the thirties tended to err on the side of humor, since these films were light entertainment meant to fill out a film program.  For my money, what gave humor the upper hand was the amazing success of The Thin Man, staring William Powell and Myrna Loy and released in 1934.  Prior to that money making machine, mysteries tended to be a  little more serious, afterward, less so.  Unfortunately, nobody could match Powell and Loy's comic technique (or the crisp direction of W.S. Van Dyke), and few even came close, so what I'll call the "Thin Man Effect" wasn't always a positive thing.  For an example, compare the original Maltese Falcon of 1930, pre-Thin Man, with its first (loose) remake, Satan Met a Lady from 1936, post-Thin Man.  The first is straight and memorable, the second silly and forgettable, despite the presence in the cast of a young Betty Davis.

Here's my personal position, nailed to the cathedral door:  Though I enjoy reading P.G. Wodehouse as much as I do Raymond Chandler, when it comes to a mystery story, I want the mystery elements to hold the upper hand.  (And not just against humor; I want mystery to win out over romantic elements in romantic mysteries, over small-town interactions in cozy mysteries, and against existential angst in noir mysteries.  Even against literary flourishes in literary mysteries.)  The following film series demonstrate the pitfalls of tilting the balance the other way. 

Perry Mason

Warren Willams
No series was more adversely affected by the Thin Man Effect than the Perry Mason films made by Warner Bros.  In the first entry, 1934's The Case of the Howling Dog, Mason (played by Warren Williams) was a serious investigator, not unlike the later television incarnation created by Raymond Burr.  But by the second entry, released on the heels of The Thin Man, Mason, still played by Williams, was transformed into a hard-drinking gourmet who can barely be bothered with the crime.  By the time Williams left the series two films later, Mason was almost a lush, a la early Nick Charles.  There were two more films post Williams, and they came somewhat back to earth, but the damage had been done.  It would be years before an authentic Mason returned to the (small) screen.

Ellery Queen

Ralph Bellamy
For this mystery fan, one of the great lost opportunities of the 1940s was the Ellery Queen series made by Columbia, starting in 1940.  Ellery Queen was at or near the height of his considerable popularity back then, thanks to a string of successful books, none of which portrayed him as a bumbling idiot.  But that was exactly the way he was played first by Ralph Belamy (four films) and then by William Gargan (three films).  Neither actor was young enough or cerebral enough to play Ellery, who comes across in these programmers as too dumb to read books, never mind write them.  It was an inexplicable decision, all the more so because a successful radio show, The Adventures of Ellery Queen had debuted in 1939.  Its Ellery, played by Hugh Marlowe, was much more faithful to the books.  Why ignore that successful model?  I blame the Thin Man Effect.         

Boston Blackie

Chester Morris
Hollywood never met a gentleman jewel thief it didn't love, from the venerable Raffles to Michael Lanyard (the Lone Wolf) to John Robie (the Cat).  Boston Blackie's literary roots went back as far as those of Raffles, and there were even Blackie films in the silent era.  But he didn't get a series until Chester Morris took on the part in 1940.  Morris was a square-jawed actor who would have made a great Dick Tracy, if he could have kept himself from smiling.  As Blackie, he didn't have to try, as the films made by Columbia between 1940 and 1948 were lighter than air.  The plots were very similar.  Blackie, a reformed thief, would be in the wrong place at the wrong time, often because he was trying to help some poor soul, often a beautiful Columbia starlet.  He would then spend the rest of the movie's very brief running time clearing his name.

I don't mean to suggest that this series was a failure.  Far from it.  They were popular enough to run to fourteen installments, two more than Universal's Sherlock Holmes series.  But Blackie was a much tougher character in print and might have been on the big screen, even with the debonair Morris in the part.  That he wasn't is another example of the Thin Man Effect.  

Nick Carter

Walter Pidgeon
MGM, the same studio that had struck gold with Nick Charles, tried again in 1939 with a Nick who had appeared in print before Sherlock Holmes:  Nick Carter.  The brief movie series had little in common with the Nick Carter dime-novels that began appearing in 1886, except for the hero's name and some "outlandish" plotting, to quote film critic Leonard Maltin.  The three-picture run starred Walter Pidgeon, before that actor hitched his wagon to Greer Garson's star.  It aimed for a light and breezy tone, but was often only silly.  This silliness was embodied by Carter's self-appointed sidekick, the Bee-Man.  Played by Donald Meek, the Bee-Man kept live bees in his pocket for timely use against bad guys.  (I am not making this up.)  It gave a whole new meaning to B-movie.

In my next installment, if I have one, I'll look at series featuring female sleuths.