In 1931, novelist Stuart Palmer introduced a new detective into the mystery pantheon, a schoolmarm spinster by the name of Hildegarde Withers. The character was relatively popular, appearing in sixteen novels and short story collections before Palmer’s death in 1968. Hildegarde is, in spirit, similar to her much more famous British counterpart, Miss Marple, the star of many an Agatha Christie mystery: both are witty, wise, and observant, and altogether wholly unexpected sleuthing figures. But while Miss Marple has a kind of steady reserve to her, Hildegarde is caustically comic in nature, sparring with her official police counterparts while solving a variety of deadly crimes.
In the 1930s, Hildegarde made her way to the big screen in a series of six enjoyable bite-size mystery/comedy films for RKO, beginning with 1932’s Penguin Pool Murder. She was initially brought to life by the brilliant character actress Edna May Oliver, with James Gleason (and his ever-present cigar) as her police detective foil/sometimes beau Inspector Oscar Piper. Oliver filmed three mystery adventures with Gleason, and their pairing is marked by an easy rapport as they fling barbs back and forth while on the case (and off). But in 1935, Oliver left RKO for a contract with MGM, and the role was recast, first with Helen Broderick in the fourth film, and then Zasu Pitts for the last two. Gleason remained on the case for all six films, but the final three movies in the series, while still entertaining, sadly lack some of the incisive wit and truly warm chemistry he had shared with Oliver.
The Hildegarde Withers films are typical B-mystery fare (albeit with generally better production values). In some ways, they are reminiscent of MGM’s Thin Man series, though admittedly, the Withers mysteries lack that indefinably sexy sparkle that makes the Thin Man flicks so endearing and popular. And much like the later Thin Man films, the Withers stories are not truly suspenseful, as the perpetrators are typically easy to pick out from the start. But in most entries in the series, the performances tend to greatly elevate the sometimes predictable material. Oliver is simply wonderful in the lead role, even if Broderick and Pitts do not quite meet the bar set by their predecessor. As the anchor of the series, Gleason is genuinely hilarious as Piper, particularly when he baits his leading lady of the moment with tart rejoinders and suggestive comments. The supporting casts in the various Withers mysteries also feature some recognizable faces, including Bruce Cabot (of King Kong fame), Leo G. Carroll, Mae Clarke, and Lola Lane, among others.
Recently, Warner Archive released the Hildegarde Withers Mystery Collection, a two-disc set that includes all six RKO Withers films. Though the discs lack special features (typical of such MOD releases), the films themselves are presented in relatively clear transfers, though there are some blurry scenes, particularly in the presentation of the sixth film, Forty Naughty Girls. The first disc includes the three Oliver-starring mysteries; the final disc has the Broderick and Pitts films.
If you’re looking for a light, entertaining mystery (with some comedy thrown in for good measure), all I can say is, Hildegarde Withers is your gal.
Here’s a brief breakdown of all six features:
Penguin Pool Murder (1932)
The first entry in the series introduces us to spinsterish schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers (Oliver), who finds herself in the midst of a murder investigation. While Withers corrals her unruly students on a trip to the aquarium, she finds a man floating in the penguin pool. The man’s wife, Gwen (Mae Clarke) and her former lover, Phillip Seymour (Donald Cook), are accused of killing him, and while Inspector Piper (Gleason) is convinced of their guilt, Hildegarde thinks otherwise. Piper, bemused by her insistence on helping with the case, allows her to assist in the investigation. But complicating matters is Gwen’s lawyer, Barry Costello (Robert Armstrong), whose defense of his client includes trying to cast guilt for the murder on an indignant Hildegarde.
Murder on the Blackboard (1934)
The previous film ends with Piper impulsively asking Hildegarde to marry him (which she then agrees to), but at the start of the second film, they are unmarried and, as the dialogue reveals, have not seen each other in a while. No explanation is given, but none is really needed as the action takes off with the murder of one of Hildegarde’s teaching colleagues. The only problem is, by the time Hildegarde calls in Piper to investigate, the corpse has disappeared! When it is revealed that the dead woman possessed a $50,000 sweepstakes ticket, the list of suspects grows to include her former boyfriend, Addison Stevens (Bruce Cabot); her co-worker and roommate Jane Davis (Gertrude Michael), who also happens to be involved with Stevens; the drunken janitor of the school, Oscar Schweitzer (Frederick Vogeding); and the adulterous MacFarland (Tully Marshall), principal of the school, who’d had an affair with the victim.
Murder on a Honeymoon (1935)
Oliver’s final appearance as Hildegarde Withers is arguably the strongest entry in the entire series, largely due to the sharp screenplay by Oscar winner Seton I. Miller (Here Comes Mr. Jordan, 1941) and humorist Robert Benchley. It begins with the mysterious death of a man on a flight to Catalina. The man, the prime witness in a federal case against a known crime syndicate, is initially thought to have died of a heart attack, but Hildegarde begins to suspect that he has been poisoned instead. Hildegarde’s fellow passengers–including a Hollywood director (Leo G. Carroll), an aspiring starlet (Lola Lane), and a pair of honeymooners (Dorothy Libaire and Harry Ellerbe)–are all suspected of killing the man, but soon are released for lack of evidence. But when the body disappears, Hildegarde wires Inspector Piper, and he flies out to join in the investigation.
Murder on a Bridle Path (1936)
This film marks Broderick’s only turn as the main character, and she presents us with a Withers who is somewhat more droll than her predecessor–gone are the prim, studied mannerisms and wide-eyed takes, replaced with a more steadfast personification. As a whole, the result is decidedly less charming, making for the weakest of the six films. Here, the case centers around the murder of socialite Violet Feverel, whose body is discovered after she fails to return from an early morning horse ride. The case is assigned to Inspector Piper, who isn’t a bit surprised when Hildegarde Withers arrives at the crime scene, having found Violet’s wandering horse while out for a walk. The two of them set out to find the murderer, discovering that Violet had garnered a long list of enemies over the years, including her sister, Barbara (Louise Latimer); her former lover–and Barbara’s current beau–Eddie (Owen Davis, Jr.); her ex-husband Don (Leslie Fenton); and Don’s meddling father, Patrick (John Miltern).
The Plot Thickens (1936)
Pitts takes over the role of Withers for this fifth entry in the series, injecting a faint note of shrill insistence into the character. Still, there is a welcome slapstick-y element to Pitts’ portrayal that hearkens more toward Oliver’s portrayal than Broderick’s more staid performance in the previous film. The two movies with Pitts also depict Hildegarde and Piper as being in a closer personal relationship than in previous films, with them acting more as a bickering romantic couple than the “close friends” they were in previous entries in the series (save the first one, with its “forgotten” proposal ending). This time around, Piper is called to investigate the murder of a wealthy man, John Carter (Richard Tucker), who is shot in the woods one evening while wooing young Alice Stevens (Latimer again). But in an effort to protect Alice from suspicion, her on-again, off-again boyfriend Robert Wilkins (Davis, Jr., again playing beau to Latimer) moves the body to Carter’s estate. Meanwhile, during the investigation into Carter’s death, a guard at a nearby museum is killed and an invaluable decorative cup goes missing. It’s up to Hildegarde and Piper to crack the case and find the link between the two murders. (Spoiler alert: there’s a really angry midget involved.)
Forty Naughty Girls (1937)
The final Withers film, with Pitts again in the main role, injects a musical element into the series. The action takes place behind-the-scenes at a Broadway show, the titular Forty Naughty Girls. The show’s press agent, Windy Bennett (Edward Marr), is found dead in the dressing room of ingenue June Preston (Marjorie Lord) during the show one night. The show’s producer, Ricky Rickman (Alan Edwards), prevails upon Inspector Piper, who is in the audience, to look into the murder, and despite Piper’s ordering her to stay in her seat, Hildegarde marches backstage to join in the investigation anyway. As Windy’s dirty dealings–including the blackmailing of the show’s author, Tommy Washburn (Alden Chase), and an ongoing affair with Rickman’s fiance, show star Rita Marlowe (Joan Woodbury)–are revealed, the list of suspects continues to grow.
The Hildegarde Withers Mystery Collection is available now on MOD (Manufacture-on-Demand) DVD through Warner Archive.