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Murder on the Blackboard

Murder on the Blackboard(1934)

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teaser Murder on the Blackboard (1934)

In her cinematic debut, schoolmarm-detective Hildegarde Withers solved The Penguin Pool Murder (1932) at the New York Aquarium. For the purposes of RKO Radio Pictures' follow-up, Murder on the Blackboard (1934), foul play would follow the third grade teacher home - or rather to work, and the halls of Manhattan's Jefferson Elementary School. The creation of mystery writer Stuart Palmer, the exacting and often exhausting Withers was the heroine of a baker's dozen whodunits published between 1931 and Palmer's death in 1968. A spinster sleuth on par with Agatha Christie's Miss Jane Marple and Patricia Wentworth's governess gumshoe Maud Silver, Withers was a natural for pictures, especially when played by Edna Mae Oliver, whose stamp on the character is considered definitive. As he had on the first film in the series, George Archainbaud returned as director, reuniting Oliver with onscreen partner James Gleason, as Inspector Oscar Piper; though the source novel had sidelined Piper with an injury, leaving Miss Withers to crack the case solo, screenwriter Willis Goldbeck wisely shifted the dummy hand to a supporting player to allow Withers and Piper to continue the repartee that was the series' long suit. With Oliver's abdication to Metro in 1936, the role of Hildegarde Withers passed first to Helen Broderick and then to Zasu Pitts for three more films before RKO retired the character. Thirty-five years later, Hildegarde Withers returned in the form of Eve Arden for the unsold ABC-TV pilot A Very Missing Person (1972).

By Richard Harland Smith

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