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Hildegarde Withers Mystery Collection

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Friday, Feb 28, 2014
Withering lines, dithering cops.
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Hildegarde Withers Mystery Collection

Director: Various
Cast: Edna Mae Oliver, James Gleason

(USDVD release date: 23 Jul 2013)

Spinster schoolteacher and amateur sleuth Hildegarde Withers was created by novelist Stuart Palmer, perhaps as a younger American answer to Miss Marple. RKO made several films of the character in the 1930s, now gathered in one convenient collection on demand from Warner Archive.
  
Gangly, horse-faced character actress Edna Mae Oliver plays Withers in the first three films. This busy and reliable player is perhaps best known as the actress who played Lady Catherine de Bourgh with a heart of gold in the Greer Garson version of Pride and Prejudice. In the first film, she plays the teacher with excessive tics, forever twitching her shoulders and harrumphing to give the maximum supercilious accent to every mundane line, while everyone around her performs incessant double-takes to convince us it’s all very witty. The murder takes place in an aquarium, hence the title The Penguin Pool Murder. James Gleason co-stars as her foil, a Brooklyn cop called Inspector Oscar Piper, who courts the spindly dame while engaging in good-natured badinage.Spinster schoolteacher and amateur sleuth Hildegarde Withers was created by novelist Stuart Palmer, perhaps as a younger American answer to Miss Marple. RKO made several films of the character in the 1930s, now gathered in one convenient collection on demand from Warner Archive.


Gangly, horse-faced character actress Edna Mae Oliver plays Withers in the first three films. This busy and reliable player is perhaps best known as the actress who played Lady Catherine de Bourgh with a heart of gold in the Greer Garson version of Pride and Prejudice. In the first film, she plays the teacher with excessive tics, forever twitching her shoulders and harrumphing to give the maximum supercilious accent to every mundane line, while everyone around her performs incessant double-takes to convince us it’s all very witty. The murder takes place in an aquarium, hence the title The Penguin Pool Murder. James Gleason co-stars as her foil, a Brooklyn cop called Inspector Oscar Piper, who courts the spindly dame while engaging in good-natured badinage.


The follow-up, Murder on the Blackboard, is far-fetched in several details, including the victim’s dying clue in musical notation. Oliver’s third and last film also happens to be the best and most surprising in terms of its mystery: Murder on a Honeymoon takes place on California’s Catalina Island. The murders, victims, and secrets are well worked out. No, it’s not Hildegarde’s honeymoon with Piper.


Gleason remains in the last three films, but Hildegarde is played by the younger, shorter, prettier Helen Broderick in Murder on a Bridle Path. Nevertheless, she clearly models her portrayal on Oliver. In the last two films, Zasu Pitts takes over the role and clearly models her portrayal on Zasu Pitts. These are the most comedic entries, even though Oscar suddenly has more on the ball procedurally (fortunately for the police force) while he and Hildegarde are clearly an item. (And somehow the schoolteacher can now afford a French maid.) Louise Latimer also appears in all three films, but in different roles.


The most interesting of these post-Oliver entries is the finale, Forty Naughty Girls, which essays the clever idea of having murders investigated while a musical revue is being performed. The audience is oblivious to the goings-on, even when one actor is murdered onstage! This one takes advantage of Pitts’ facility with slapstick routines, and one climactic moment with a trapdoor is genuinely funny. What Hildegarde gains in humor, she gives up in acerbity and ratiocination, and she’s billed second to Gleason—demoted in her own series!


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