Sunday, February 11, 2024

Hildegarde Withers (Part II)

 Edna May Oliver left the series after Murder on a Honeymoon, but RKO decided to continue the series. They were cheap to make and could fill out a double feature bill. So they cast other actresses and forged on.

Murder on a Bridal Path

Murder on a Bridal Path
Directed by
William Hamilton, Edward Killy
Written by Dorothy Yost, Thomas L.  Lennon, Edmudh H. North
Starring Helen Broderick, James Gleason, Sheila Terra, Willie Best
IMDB Entry

The choice for Hildegarde in the next film was Helen Broderick. It was decent casting.  Broderick*was most prominent at the time for her role in the classic Astaire and Rodgers musical Top Hat, where she played Ginger Rogers's best friend and confidante and the inadvertent cause of the central misunderstanding. 

The movie announces its plot in its title.  A woman dies in a horse riding accident, but Hildegarde realizes it's murder and Inspector Piper (James Gleason) is forced to admit she is right. It goes to an estate on Long Island, where the various suspects are gathered for a weekend and Hildegarde has to unravel the mystery

Hildegarde fits Broderick well. She was already known for her sardonic and dry sense of humor, and they used it to good effect. She is less bristly than Oliver's portrayal, but still keeps the character interesting.

The movie also features Willie Best as a horse's groom. As usual for the time, he's portrayed as slow and simple, and does the best he can with the part. Hildegarde treats him straightforwardly and accepts his answers to her question.

The movie never is more than the routine, though. Very little stick in the mind.

The Plot Thickens

The Plot Thickens

Directed by Ben Holmes
Written by Jack Townley
Starring James Gleason, Zasu Pitts
IMDB Entry

Broderick did only the single film before moving on, so RKO looked elsewhere, settling on Zasu Pitts.

The plot involves a murder in the park when a man tries to keep his girlfriend (a witness) out of it, muddying the waters by moving the body and confusing Piper (James Gleason). At the same time, a priceless silver cup is stolen.  Hildegarde sees through the ploy and unveils the killer.

I will say that The Plot Thickens is the weakest entry in the series. It's just a forgettable mystery and I have a hard time remembered a single scene.

I've been a fan of Zasu Pitts for years, ever since I saw her in reruns of The Gale Storm Show. She is miscast as Hildegarde. Her persona is usually described as "fluttery"** and is at odds with Hildegarde's more sarcastic mein. The lines just don't have the bite they should and her mannerisms changed from formidable to a bit ditzy. It is clear from the staging of her entrance that they were trying to build her up.

Still the interactions between Hildegarde and Piper are nice to watch.

Forty Naughty Girls

Forty Naughty Girls

Directed by Edward F. Cline
Written by John Grey, Harold Kusell
Starring James Gleason, Zasu Pitts, Marjorie Lord
IMDB Entry

The final entry in the series was an improvement overall. Zasu Pitts wasn't trying as hard to emulate the actresses who had originated the role, and found her own style, and it looks like it had a bigger budget.

The movie, like so many in the thirties, is set in a theater. A press agent -- something of a letch -- is murdered just before the performance of the musical that gives the movie its name. Hildegarde and Piper are in the audience and start to investigate, and when someone is murdered on stage, things get even more serious.

At this point, they altered the character to fit more closely into Zasu Pitts's talents. Hildergarde is less snarky and a bit more ditzy, but still manages to solve the case. 

There must have been a bigger budget, since they do show a Broadway show with a chorus line and original songs. And the film was directed by Edward Cline, W.C. Field's favorite director, which may account for its improvement. Cast members of note was Marjorie Lord, who played Danny Thomas's second wife on Make Room for Daddy.***

The series of films ended with this one. Everyone seemed to have lost interest. Pitts continued as a character actress, and Gleason continued as a supporting character, usually a cop, in the Falcon**** series and Joe Palooka. It was never a strong or memorable series, but there was some delightful interaction between Hildegarde and Piper.

*Her son, Broderick Crawford, won an Oscar for All the King's Men and became a TV star with Highway Patrol in the late 50s.

**Her mannerisms inspired the design of  Olive Oyl in the early Fleischer Popeye cartoons.

***The first wife, Jean Hagen, left the show after three seasons. The producers wrote her out by having her die, the first time a TV sitcom character did so. (Of course, the idea of her divorcing was never going to fly in 1956.)

****Note to linguists: in the 30s and 40s, "falcon" was pronounced "faw-con." As time went on, the "l" began to be pronounced, so nowadays it's pronounced "fal-con." One example of how pronunciation changes to match odd spelling.

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