Penguin Pool Murder (1932) – 5.5/10
This is the first film in a series of six that were based on the novels of
Stuart Palmer in which the spinster amateur detective school teacher Hildegard
Withers works alongside Police Inspector Oscar Piper to solve murders. The
first Hildegard Withers novel from Palmer was in fact this one written in
1931 and there were to be fourteen in total as well as a number of short
stories. Though largely forgotten these days (though some are available on
Amazon in Kindle format) they were very popular at the time - as were the
films. Palmer was also a film scriptwriter who was behind a few of The Falcon
and Bulldog Drummond films. Withers along with the Miss Silver mysteries
by Patricia Wentworth and Miss Marple from Agatha Christie was one of the
very few female detectives at this time and like the other two is unmarried.
The film only runs a bit over an hour but certainly has a decent pedigree
in that it was produced by David Selznick during his stint at RKO and the
acting skills of veterans Edna May Oliver, James Gleason, Mae Clark (Frankenstein
and Public Enemy) and Robert Armstrong, who was to gain some fame a year
later as the showman in King Kong.
The mystery itself is nothing to write home about as most viewers will see
it coming like a giant meteor miles away, but rather the pleasure of these
films - especially the first three in which Oliver plays Withers - is the
developing friendly/antagonistic relationship and banter between Withers
and Inspector Piper (Gleason). Played by these two older actors who had both
been on stage before moving into films in the early 1920's, they are a joy
to watch. Both moved from the silent era into talkies with no problem. Gleason
was to be Piper in all six films but Oliver left for MGM after the first
Hildegard Withers is supervising her unruly class at an aquarium where she
first trips up a pickpocket with her umbrella and then witnesses a dead body
falling into the penguin pool. When Inspector Piper arrives Withers becomes
the witness who will not go away. She discovers that she enjoys this detecting
thing and between the two of them they arrive at the solution (though as
is typical of all these amateur detective films it is the amateur who does
most of the brain work). The book and film take place right after the collapse
of the stock market in New York City and that plays a part in the film. The
formula is basically set in this first film and continues throiugh the series.
Murder on the Blackboard (1934) – 6/10
Murder is much closer to home for Hildegard Withers in this second
film in the series. At her school she discovers the body of the female music
teacher in the cloak room that has disappeared by the time her policeman
friend Inspector Oscar Piper arrives. The chemistry between the two of them
is snappier in this film and there are some moments of sly sarcastic humor
from both that hits home. At the end of the previous film - The Penguin Pool
Murder - the two of them were seen rushing out the door to tie the knot at
City Hall but it was never consummated apparently as they are once again
foils and friends to one another. In the books from Stuart Palmer there is
an explanation for this - that on the way to sign their lives over Piper
got a police call and had to leave and while gone Withers came to her senses
and called it off.
One of the reasons I enjoy these B films is that actors who generally fall
into the category of character actors get larger roles and on occasion even
get to be the headliners. That is certainly the case here. Both Edna May
Oliver as Withers and James Gleason as Piper were often to be found in A
films but with smaller roles. Gleason - who fought in the Spanish-American
War! - had over 150 acting credits while Oliver had fewer but was a very
well known figure appearing in such classics as Little Women, David Copperfield,
A Tale of Two Cities, Drums Along the Mohawk and Pride and Prejudice.
The mystery in this one is better than in the first as I had no idea who
the guilty party was going to be and the murder and solution are a little
bit more complicated. Part of the solution is based on musical notes written
by the victim on the blackboard. The school Hildegard teaches at is a Peyton
Place - the old leering principle makes passes at the young women, the janitor
is a drunk and blackmailer, one of the male teachers switches romantic interests
in mid-stream and Withers makes students write "gossip" 100 times.
Withers dominates this film and even has a hatchet thrown at her. One of
the possible suspects is also a teacher at the school - this being a low
budget film we only see a few teachers and a handful of students - who is
Gertrude Michael who went on to do the Sophie Lang films.
Murder on a Honeymoon (1935) – 6.5
Hildegard Withers (Edna May Oliver) leaves the environs of New York City
for a holiday in Catalina but murder follows her like an obsessed stalker.
On the plane a passenger dies of a seeming heart attack and she immediately
suspects that he died of foul play. Why? No reason. She just likes sticking
her nose into murder. What's a vacation without indulging in your favorite
This is the third in the 6-film series and the best so far with snappy dialogue
and a few bodies dropping dead from lead poisoning. Turns out that the man
on the plane was a witness against a mobster and a contract may be out on
him. Of course, she is joined by Inspector Piper (James Gleason) who pretty
much arrests everyone at one time or another before Hildegard sets him on
the right path.
Included in the cast is Lola Lane (the inspiration for Lois Lane's name)
as a wannabee actress and Leo G Carroll (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) as a director.
Also on hand unfortunately is Willie Best doing his "Yes suuuh" degrading
dimwitted black routine that he always gets stuck doing. Hard to imagine
people found this amusing once but then we have a woman running for Senator
in Mississippi who would like to attend a lynching.
After this film Oliver signed a contract with MGM where she spent the remainder
of her career - she died in 1942 at the age of 59 from an intestinal problem.
After Oliver left, the role of Hildegard passed on to Helen Broderick for
one films and Zasu Pitts for two before the series ended. Once Oliver left
the films were never as popular. This film is based on Palmer's The Puzzle
of the Pepper Tree and had the script pumped up a bit by humorist Robert
Murder on a Bridle
Path (1936) - 5.5
This is the fourth film in the Hildegard Withers murder mysteries and it
is not bad at all. Not great either. Replacing Edna May Oliver, who had taken
on the role of Hildegard for the first three films before moving over from
RKO to MGM, is Helen Broderick. Just for this one film as Zazu Pitts takes
over for the final two films. Broderick gives Hildegard a very different
slant than did Oliver - more energetic and even more sharp tongued but I
admit to missing Oliver whose arched expressions of dismay at the police
stupidity always cracked me up. But Broderick was a very accomplished actress
primarily known for her comedic acerbic performances as a character actor.
She was also the mother to Broderick Crawford!
James Gleason though returns again as Inspector Piper and he and Hildegard
work together to solve another murder. It takes place in Central Park where
a not very liked woman is thrown from her horse and then killed. Murderer
unknown. Hildegarde just happens to be walking her dog nearby. The plot moves
along quickly from suspect to suspect and is over in about 24 hours - or
66 minutes if you prefer. The solution is a bit of a cheat as I was as clueless
as Inspector Piper as to the killer and it sort of comes at you from left
field. Not really fair if you are trying to figure it out. Based on the books
of Stuart Palmer.
The Plot Thickens (1936) - 6.0
Hildegarde Withers is back for the fifth film in this mystery series based
on the books of Stuart Palmer, but for the third time they switch Hildegarde
on us by replacing Helen Broderick who had replaced Edna May Oliver with
Zasu (pronounced Say Zoo) Pitts. Pitts was a well-known character actress
at the time with her mournful face, fractured speech, addled expressions
and peculiar high pitched voice. She was primarily cast in comedies such
as Ruggles of Red Gap along with many comic shorts but back in the silent
days she had starred in Von Stroheim's epic 9 hour film Greed - that was
of course edited down to two and half hours by MGM and the unused reels have
Her Hildegarde is quite different from Oliver's better known portrayal of
the character - making Hildegarde seem less haughty and not quite as sharp.
In fact, Hildegarde's foil in all the films in the series Inspector Piper
(James Gleason in all six films) at times seems ahead of her in solving the
crime. It is a decent enough 65 minute B film that throws a lot of suspects
at the viewer, false leads, the old rubber face gimmick, femme fatales and
a twist or two or three. And some amusing comedy as well - sort of a perfect
B film filler in those days.
Girls (1937) - 5.0
This is the final film in the RKO Hildegarde Withers series of six films.
Don't get your hopes up regarding the forty naughty girls. I doubt that there
were forty of them and they were nothing close to naughty. It is the name
of a Broadway show where our two heroes Inspector Piper (James Gleason) and
Hildegarde Withers (Zasu Pitts) decide to attend. For the encore there are
of course a couple of murders. Perhaps tailoring this one to Zasu Pitts the
film is more screwball comedy than mystery - some of it works, some of it
doesn't. There is an entire segment of about 10 minutes in which Zasu, Gleason
with the added element of Tom Kennedy wander around a dark basement mistaking
each other for the killer. Clearly filler to get up to the 60 minute mark
but kind of funny when Hildegarde is accidentally lifted up to the stage
to join in a dance.
For me Kennedy is always a welcome addition to these low budget B films.
Here he plays essentially the same character as he did in nine Torchy Blane
films beginning the same year as this one - as a big dimwitted good hearted
cop. Kennedy made a career - over 300 appearances - basically doing the same
schtick and it always cracks me up. These specialized character actors that
populated films from the 1920's through the 1940's are a thing of the past.
The end of the studio system and B films put an end to them for the most
part and there are just not enough films being made today for character actors
to make a living any longer - and I don't think today's audiences would
take to it. Like all those vaudeville acts on Ed Sullivan, they just disappeared.
In many of the old B films, they were the best thing in it.
It takes about five minutes to figure out who is going to be the victim in
this one - everyone in the play has a reason to kill him and someone does.
They pull Piper out of the audience to investigate and Hildegarde soon follows
as she tends to do when she smells murder in the air. The entire investigation
from beginning to end takes place right along with the play still going on
- even when another character is killed on stage. Which is a bit weird but
creates some chaotic comedy as every time the Inspector tries to question
someone, they have to rush back on stage. Not a great ending to the series
and perhaps the reason for it - I like Zasu but she doesn't really make a
great Hildegarde as she kind of bumbles along - Edna May Oliver created a
distinct character in the first three films that is hard to deviate from.