Thursday, August 8, 2013
'Hildegarde Withers Mystery Collection:' Murder She Solved
Warner Archive's 2-disc DVD release of the "Hildegarde Withers Mystery Collection" introduces modern audiences to a wonderfully quirky murder-mystery series from the '30s. This six-film set begins with 1932's "Penguin Pool Murder" and ends in 1937 with "Forty Naughty Girls."
Withers is a highly observant and proper spinster New York City elementary school teacher who begins her amateur crime-solving career when a murder during a field trip to the aquarium leads to her involvement in the ensuing investigation. This pursuit of justice is also "the start of a beautiful friendship" with Withers' grouchy partner in crime solving police inspector Oscar Piper.
The victim in this first outing for Withers and Piper is a Depression-era stock broker whose enemies include the aquarium director who lost all his money though investments with the broker, the broker's mistreated wife, and the wife's true love. The red herrings are as plentiful as the fish in the aquarium's tanks.
True to its genre, "Pool" has plenty of betrayals among its suspects and each new clue throws suspicion on someone new. Other elements include Withers predictably but cleverly besting the police at every turn, setting the snare that ultimately captures the culprit, and making the Perry Mason style courtroom reveal of the murderer. Having Hollywood legend David O. Selznick produce the film contributes to "Pool's" legacy.
The perfect casting of character actress Edna May Oliver as Withers and veteran tough guy James Gleason as Piper adds to the fun of "Pool" and the subsequent two entries in which Oliver plays Withers. Their mutual respect, playful verbal sparring in which Piper is severely disadvantaged, and very mild sexual bantering make this pair a relatively weak but entertaining Hepburn and Tracy.
The second film "Murder on the Blackboard" brings things closer to home by having the murder occur down the hall from Withers' classroom while she is holding a misbehaving student after school.
The victim in "Murder" is the music teacher for the school, and the crucial clue is obvious enough for the Scooby-Doo gang to figure it out at first glance. That lack of suspense, and the cliched way that leads to capturing the criminal does not detract from the fun of watching Withers and the police catch up with audience members who have seen it all many times before.
Much of the entertainment in "Blackboard" comes from creepy goings on in the school's dark and eerie basement and Piper repeatedly stating that he feels like a movie detective. Elements of a philandering principal and bootlegging activity adds to the fun.
The wind-up of the Withers series begins with the penultimate entry "The Plot Thickens." The good news regarding this one is that the murder of a millionaire whose involvement with an gang of thieves has some less predictable elements than the earlier films.
A nice Scooby-Doo element involves a true Mystery Incorporated style removing a rubber mask from a bad guy. Having said malfeasor utter that "I would have gotten away with it if not for you meddling kids" is the only thing that would have improved the moment.
The less good news is that new Withers' portrayor Zasu Pitts is not as well suited for the role as Oliver. Pitts' Withers is still spinsterish but is cruder and less bright than the Withers who Oliver plays. Additionally, Pitts' rapport with Gleason is not as strong as his relationship with Oliver. Withers and Piper still complete the job, and he even shows her up.
The final entry "Girls" also stars Pitts and Gleason. This backstage romp following behind-the-scenes murders during a performance of a hit Broadway show that Withers and Piper are attending has some great humor.
The primary victim in "Girls" is the publicist for the hit Broadway show "Forty Naughty Girls" that provides the Withers film its name. The motives for that killing include a love triangle and the publicist blackmailing someone associated with the show. In typical Withers style, a single clue that our Miss Withers picks up on is the key to a last-minute solution of the mystery.
Much of the humor relates to the essentially old married couple vibe that Withers and Piper give off by this point in the series; this element gives "Girls" a slight "I Love Lucy" feel.
The pre-Ricardos Ricardos sensibility begins with Piper and Withers explaining how they ended up at the theater when Piper wanted to go to a fight and even won the coin toss regarding the evening activity. The "Lucy" vibe is even stronger when a mishap literally makes Withers the center of attention and when Withers' snooping includes sniffing every woman around to determine the perfume that that woman is using.
Having Marjorie Lord of "Make Room for Daddy" play the lead in the musical around which the action is set also adds to the '50s sitcom feel of this '30s murder mystery.
Anyone with questions regarding Withers is welcome to email me. I ask that you please not correct the grammar in my response.