Sequels and franchises aren’t anything new to Hollywood. They just didn’t dominate the film business the way they do today. Whether it was adventure serials like Flash Gordon and Tarzan, or the Bowery Boys, Andy Hardy, and Blondie and Dagwood, moviegoers have always been ready to spend time with beloved characters in a new adventure.
One of the earliest franchise examples from the talkie era were the Hildegard Withers films. Based on a series of novels written by Stuart Palmer, between 1932 and 1937, RKO Radio Pictures produced six Withers’ films, all of which are finally available on DVD thanks to the Warner Archives.
In her debut, “The Penguin Pool Murder (1932),” we meet Hildegard Withers (Edna Mae Oliver), a middle-aged, busybody, spinster school teacher, while she is on a field trip to a New York aquarium with her students. After a dead body drops in the penguin tank and the police seem baffled, Withers becomes an amateur detective.
Withers’ friend, foil, and sometimes love-interest is Police Inspector Oscar Piper (James Gleason), one of those cigar-chomping, hard-boiled types. But not so hard-boiled he is unwilling to accept the help of an intelligent amateur with good instincts — even if she is smarter-than-thou.
“Penguin Pool Murder” was produced by David O. Selznick. The sequel (and my favorite of the three sampled), “Murder on the Blackboard” was produced by Pandro S. Berman. Both men were cutting their teeth and only a few years away from the creative heights that would make them giants in an industry that was, then, filled with giants. The burgeoning talent of both is apparent in the slickness of the production, the tight storytelling, but most especially the casting.
The odd couple chemistry between Gleason and Oliver really is the whole show, and, thankfully, the dialogue is up to the task of two terrific character actors.
Other than the relationship between the two protagonists, what I also love is the look and feel of the production. In all three films, the black and white cinematography, production design, and wardrobe, capture that Model-T era that was about to go through a drastic style revision as the 1940s approached.
Though Gleason would stay on through all six films, Oliver left after the third (to work at another studio) and was replaced in the final three chapters by two other actresses, including ZaSu Pitts. Though I haven’t seen those, I can report that the Oliver-Gleason films are comedy/mystery gems.
The Hildegarde Withers Mysteries Movies Collection is available at the Warner Archive Collection