Sunday, February 4, 2024

Hildegarde Withers (Part I)

Hildegarde Withers was a fictional detective/schoolteacher in a series of books by Stuart Palmer in the early 30s, popular enough to be the basis of a movie series of light mysteries. I'll be covering the series in the next two weeks, starting with the first three starring Edna May Oliver.*

Penguin Pool Murder

The Penguin Pool Murder
Directed by George Archainbaud, Ray Lissner
Written by Lowell Brentano (story), Willis Goldbeck (screenplay), based on a novel by Stuart Palmer
Starring Edna May Oliver, James Gleason, Donald Cook, Mae Clarke, Robert Armstrong, Edgar Kennedy
IMDB Entry

Hildegarde Withers (Edna May Oliver) is taking her elementary school class to the aquarium, when they find a body in the Penguin Pool. Detective Oscar Piper (James Gleason) is called in and Hildegarde is there to assist. The body belongs to Parker (Guy Usher), who has caught his wife Gwen (May Clarke) thinking of leaving him for Barry Costello (Robert Armstrong). Piper resents Hildegarde's meddling, but as she is always pointing out clues he missed, he tolerates her.

The joy of the movie (and the series) is the interplay between Hildegarde and Piper. Oliver plays her as  sarcastic and somewhat cynical, with a sharp tongue, always ready for an insult. Gleason is a perfect foil, trying to run an investigation, but finding his conclusions being objected to by Hildegarde. He gives the appearance of wanting her to leave him alone, but, despite his antipathy, he doesn't dismiss her words out of hand and, in the end, shows affection to her, and proposes marriage.

One interesting note is that Hildegarde's class is integrated and a Black child is shown to be smart and conscientious. It was a rare type of portrayal of the era.

You can also spot Edgar Kenney -- the master of the slow burn -- and Mae Clarke, best known for getting a grapefruit in the face in The Public Enemy. Robert Armstrong was prominent in King Kong, as Carl Denham, who leads the expedition to find Kong.

Murder on the Blackboard

Murder on the Blackboard
Directed by George Archainbaud
Written by Willis Goldbeck from a novel by Stuart Palmer
Starring Edna May Oliver, James Gleason, Bruce Cabot, Regis Toomey, Edgar Kennedy
IMDB Entry

The movie succeeded well enough that RKO did a sequel the next year.  Hildegarde is teaching at her school when she finds a body of Louise Halloran. Piper is called, but the body disappears.** Various suspects show up, all with reason to kill the woman. 

Once again, the movie focuses on the sharp-tongued Hildegarde and her exasperated cop friend. She is still a memorable character, even if the mystery is also somewhat routine.

Edgar Kennedy repeats his role of Sgt. Donohue, and is shown giving his famous "slow burn" expression. He had a long career in films, starring in a series of short films and most prominent to modern fans at the lemonade vendor in Duck Soup. Bruce Cabot was also in King Kong as the boyfriend of Fay Wray.

I did note that the schoolchildren no longer showed an integrated classroom.

Murder on a Honeymoon

Murder on a Honeymoon

Directed by Lloyd Corrigan
Written by Seton I. Miller, Robert Benchley from a novel by Seaton Palmer
Starring  Edna May Oliver, James Gleason, Lola Lane, George Meeker, Leo G. Carrol, Willie Best
IMDB Entry

This time, Hildegarde is traveling to Catalina Island. On the short flight from the mainland, one of the passengers gets sick and dies. The local police are uninterested, but Hildegarde calls Piper, who shows up because the murdered man was a key witness against a crime lord. There are multiple suspects, including Hildegarde herself, plus a Honeymooning couple Kay (Dorothy Libaire) and Marvin Deving (Harry Ellerby), film director Joseph B. Tate (Leo G. Carroll). With the help of a hotel porter Willie (Willie Best), Hildegarde dives into the mystery in her usual snarky way, while Piper tolerates her because she is interested in the truth.

The plot here is slightly better, and the dialog is stronger, probably because Robert Benchley contributed. Hildegard's tongue is sharper and the dialog was more witty.

The movie also featured Willie Best, one of the few Black actors who was successful in Hollywood at the time. Unfortunately, his character had to hew to the stereotype of being slow and childlike. Quite a change from the performance of the young man in the first movie. But at least Hildegarde accepts him and asks for his help.

Modern viewers probably spot Leo G. Carroll. Carroll was a favorite of Alfred Hitchcock, and had TV success as Topper and The Man From U.N.C.L.E

After this film, Edna May Oliver left the series. But it did well enough for RKO that they brought it back with different actresses playing Hildegarde.***  I'll talk about them next week.

*In the early days of sound, it was possible for women who were not Hollywood beauties to star in films. Nowadays, Oliver would be shunted into supporting roles.

**Despite the fact they were going to get married at the end of the first film, that is completely ignored in this one and is never mentioned in the series.

***Gleason kept playing Oscar Piper.

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