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RKO Pictures launched what could have been one of the great detectiveseries in 1932, when Edna May Oliver starred in The Penguin PoolMurder. As Stuart Palmer's elderly schoolteacher turned sleuthHildegarde Withers, Oliver was one of the screen's most liberated women,defying Police Inspector Oscar Piper (James Gleason) to track down killerswith little regard for his pride or her own safety. Although Oliver leftthe series after only two more installments, leading to a serious declinein quality for the films, her first two outings in particular were yearsahead of their time, thanks to director George Archainbaud's uniquely visual narrative skills and for the films' depiction of an older, independent woman.
Withers first appeared in the novel The Penguin Pool Murder in 1931,the latest in a long line of elderly female detectives that dates back toMiss Amelia Butterworth, a character created by Anna Katherine Greene in1898. She would be followed by Rachel Innes in Mary Roberts Rinehart'sThe Circular Staircase (1908) -- better known by its stage and filmtitle, The Bat -- and Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, who made herfirst appearance just a year before Withers. Drawing on his background asa private detective, Palmer wrote novels and short stories about thecharacter for more than two decades.
At the time RKO filmed The Penguin Pool Murder, they had the perfectHildegarde Withers under contract, character actress Edna May Oliver, whohad won acclaim for her supporting role in the Oscar®-winning WesternCimarron (1931). As her partner in crime solving they cast anotherveteran, James Gleason. Their affectionate sparring was so effective thestudio even had them get married at the end. Director George Archainbaudkept the action moving briskly, as he would on the Western films andtelevision series he would specialize in decades later. He also added aninnovation that would remain unnoticed for years; several of the sets hadceilings prominently featured. In that, he anticipated Orson Welles' workon Citizen Kane (1941) by almost ten years.
The Penguin Pool Murder did well enough to inspire a second sequel,Murder on the Blackboard (1934), with the same stars, director and writertwo years later. Deciding that Withers and Piper worked best as friendlyantagonists, studio executives decided to disregard their marriage at theend of the previous feature. Oliver would star in one more Withers film,Murder on a Honeymoon (1935), with Gleason but without Archainbaud.When she left RKO later that year, the studio would try to keep thingsgoing first with Helen Broderick and then Zasu Pitts in the lead. But neither was asperfectly cast as Oliver, and the series died after only six films. Thathardly marked the end of the road for Withers, however. MGM adaptedOnce Upon a Train, co-written by Palmer and Craig Rice to teamWithers with Rice's hard-drinking lawyer detective John Malone, in 1951.But they transformed the schoolteacher sleuth into a Montana housewifeplayed by Marjorie Main for Mrs. O'Malley and Mr. Malone. In 1971,ABC would produce A Very Missing Person, a pilot for a HildegardeWithers TV series starring Eve Arden, but decided not to pick up theproject. Five years later, the character would put in her last screenappearance, in Neil Simon's private eye spoof Murder byDeath (1976). This time she would be played by Estelle Winwood as a decrepitold woman cared for by Elsa Lanchester in a spoof of Agatha Christie's MissMarple. None of these pretenders to the chalkboard could compare to theoriginal, however. Whenever The Penguin Pool Murder airs ontelevision, it attracts new members to its devoted cult of fans.
Producer: Kenneth Macgowan, David O. Selznick
Director: George Archainbaud
Screenplay: Willis Goldbeck
Based on a story by Lowell Brentano and the novel by Stuart Palmer
Cinematography: Henry Gerrard
Music: Max Steiner
Principal Cast: Edna May Oliver (Hildegarde Withers), Robert Armstrong(Barry Costello), James Gleason (Oscar Piper), Mae Clarke (Gwen Parker),Donald Cook (Philip Seymour), Edgar Kennedy (Donovan).
by Frank Miller