RKO’s Hildegarde Withers Mysteries
Back in the early days of sound films, Hollywood churned out countless mystery/crime films on a nearly daily basis. There were dozens of series’ – Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, The Thin Man, Philo Vance, Nancy Drew, Bulldog Drummond, The Saint, The Falcon, Lone Wolf, and the list goes on. RKO launched a terrific, if short lived, series of three films starring Edna May Oliver as an amateur sleuth and school teacher named Hildegarde Martha Withers and they might be the best of the quickies. The bigger budget Thin Man series is certainly more polished, but Hildegarde is a force to be reckoned with.
The first of these little gems, The Penguin Pool Murder (1932), is an engaging little comedy-mystery set at a public aquarium. It doesn’t really matter who-done-it, the real joy is watching Oliver and veteran actor James Gleason, who plays Police Inspector Oscar Piper, engage in some verbal jousting as they work through the list of possible suspects. Over the course of the investigation, the craggy detective and spinster schoolmarm develop the most charming little crush on one another, adding to an almost impossibly adorable little film.
Second in the series is Murder on the Blackboard (1934), another entertaining whodunit that finds Hildegarde discovering the body of a fellow schoolteacher, but before Oscar and the police arrive, the body disappears. Another round of overzealous snooping and bickering with Detective Piper turns what is a fairly routine mystery into something much more endearing. Oliver’s unusual appearance and talent for deft physical comedy reminds of a cross between Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Carol Burnett.
The last film in the series to star Oliver is Murder on a Honeymoon (1935). This outing has Hildegarde on holiday to Catalina island and solving two murders. Gleason is on hand again as Inspector Piper who spends most of the film arresting the wrong people for the murders. Not quite as tight as the first two films, but a fun watch nonetheless.
The series continued with 3 more films, but without the charming and hilarious Edna May Oliver. She went on to earn an Oscar nomination for her supporting role in Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), but died just two years later on her 59th birthday. She was a gem. James Gleason would also earn an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). Gleason appeared in 160 films over his long career as one of Hollywood’s go-to character actors. He died in 1959 at age 76.
All three films are on a single Black Vault DVD if anyone cares to give them a look.