Hildegarde Withers Strikes Back!
If you mention Nancy Drew, most people will know the young sleuth you're talking about. Should you discuss Miss Marple, you'll get a few smiles and appreciative nods. But if you talk about Hildegarde Withers, even die-hard mystery buffs will have to think long and hard on who that is. The creation of writer Stuart Palmer, Hildegarde was a card-carrying spinster and stern schoolteacher, a tough old gal who used her enemies' habit of underestimating her and her wit to crack cases that even baffled the cops. She's not as well-known now as during her heyday, but through the Warner Archive Collection's Hildegarde Withers Mystery Collection, six RKO features featuring this character have returned for amateur gumshoes to dive into once more.
Penguin Pool Murder (1932)
Withers (Edna May Oliver) and her students take a field trip to the local aquarium, where they arrive just in time to see a corpse drop into one of the exhibits. Could the culprit be the dead man's philandering wife? The deaf-mute pickpocket? The aquarium's director? With an itch for righting wrongs that needs scratching, Withers hops into action and starts sniffing out clues -- whether Inspector Piper (James Gleason) wants her assistance or not. Penguin Pool Murder is a highly-entertaining mystery/comedy that nicely establishes the series' characters and semi-serious tone. The rapport between Oliver's stuffy Withers and Gleason's smart-alecky Piper really makes the movie, showing the two as determined to solve the killing as they are to put one another in their place. Even the crime itself is a bit of a stumper, since the most supposedly-saintly suspects have dark sides as well. Penguin Pool Murder is an enormously-fun flick with spunk, personality, and a suspenseful head on its shoulders.
Murder on the Blackboard (1934)
After finding one of her colleagues killed in the cloak room, Withers (Oliver) turns her schoolhouse inside out in search of the guilty party. The blend of humor and thrills that turned Penguin Pool Murder into such a delightful ditty are back again in Murder on the Blackboard. Returning director George Archainbaud raises the stakes without losing what worked the first time around; with this heinous act taking place on her home turf, Withers is more determined to find out who's responsible than ever. Additional twists arrive in the form of vanishing bodies, secret tunnels, and a multitude of sketchy suspects, all of which work in harmony to create a crackling whodunit. But again, what really makes the movie click is the teaming of Oliver and Gleason as two intensely stubborn do-gooders, both of whom lock horns as regularly as they join forces. Its structure isn't quite as smooth as its predecessor's, but Murder on the Blackboard is a vintage treat in its own right.
Murder on a Honeymoon (1935)
En route to Catalina Island, Withers (Oliver) gets wrapped up in a killing that takes place under her nose on the plane ride over there. Murder on a Honeymoon would be the third and unfortunately final time Oliver would play Hildegarde Withers, and although it's not as sharp as the two pevious pictures, having a blast here is still easy-peasy. While much of your enjoyment comes from trying to figure out just how the titular dirty deed was pulled off, the film definitely puts a greater emphasis on comedy than its brothers. We see a lot of Withers and Piper being typically adversarial, but Oliver has some standout scenes of her own, especially when her character ends up schooling the all-too-relaxed Catalia police force on how to conduct a proper murder investigation. Oliver's confident performance reflects Hildegarde's own gradual transition from concerned schoolmarm to bona fide sleuth. Murder on a Honeymoon offers solid fun already, but it's also a fine send-off to Oliver, who commanded the role in a way her successors couldn't even hope to match.
Murder on a Bridle Path (1936)
After a society girl is found dead in Central Park, who else but Withers (Helen Broderick) should be onhand to declare foul play. Murder on a Bridle Path sees Broderick (Swing Time) taking over the role of Withers, following Oliver's departure from RKO. But while I don't intend to slam the former, who was a perfectly capable actress, Oliver's presence is definitely missed here. Despite what snappy lines it does scrounge up (most of which are delivered by The Hidden Hand's Willie Best), Murder on a Bridle Path doesn't share the same pluck that made its three predecessors such joys to watch. Broderick's performance especially emphasizes Hildegarde's know-it-all nature to an unfavorable degree. Gleason's Inspector Piper is back, but he isn't a partner-in-snark here so much as just someone else Withers chastises for not being as smart as she is. Add onto that a tired script (worked on by four people!), and Murder on a Bridle Path amounts to a mystery that's not terribly fun to become wrapped up in.
The Plot Thickens (1936)
It's twice the excitement when Withers (Zasu Pitts) and Inspector Piper (Gleason) end up connecting a rich muckity-muck's slaying to a daring museum heist. In the same year that Murder on a Bridle Path debuted Broderick in the role of Hildegarde, RKO saw fit to give her the George Lazenby treatment and restrict her to a one-movie run. Pitts (Life with Father) stepped in to play the inquisitive Miss Withers for The Plot Thickens, but while she thankfully taps into the character's humorous side more than Broderick let herself do, she also sheds virtually all sense of authority. Gone is that headstrong educator we came to know and love; she's been replaced here by a spacey busybody who's hung around the police station enough times to become its unofficial mascot. The flick has some luck in getting Withers and Piper back to messing each other as they should be, but it's not as skillful in cramming two separate mystery plots into one cohesive potboiler. Although The Plot Thickens includes some chuckles, it improves over the previous picture only slightly.
Forty Naughty Girls (1937)
When a hated press agent is murdered in the middle of a Broadway show, it's a stroke of luck that Withers (Pitts) and Piper (Gleason) are in the audience. The last of Hildegarde's theatrical adventures (a TV movie would follow in the 1970s), Forty Naughty Girls does have a rather nifty premise to it. How can Withers and Piper sniff out a killer when all the suspects are constantly running on- or off-stage? It seems like a sure-fire way to keep the plot fresh and exciting, but unfortunately, Forty Naughty Girls still messes it up big time. At this point in the series, the schtick that the lead characters have been forced to repeat has become particularly grating; Piper can only baselessly accuse people of murder for so long before you start wondering how his badge hasn't been taken away yet. Pitts carries on with her daffy portrayal of Withers, and the mystery -- while set up intriguingly -- ends with a weak payoff. Considering the entertaining heights to which Penguin Pool Murder delivered this franchise at the start, it's disheartening to see Forty Naughty Girls bring it to such an uninteresting close.
(The Hildegarde Withers Mystery Collection is available to purchase from the Warner Archive Collection -- http://www.warnerarchive.com )