Cast & Crew
Edna May Oliver
After she learns that her stockbroker husband Gerald has squandered all of the family money on bad investments, Gwen Parker telephones Philip Seymour, a former lover, and begs his help. Philip meets Gwen at the Battery Park Aquarium, which is run by Bertrand B. Hemingway, an angry, defrauded client of Gerald. While Gwen, who has announced her intention to divorce Gerald, asks Philip for a loan, Gerald receives an anonymous telephone call about his wife's activities. Overcome with jealousy, Gerald storms into the aquarium and, in his fury, accosts Philip, who strikes back and knocks him unconscious. Philip then drags Gerald's body behind the aquarium and leaves him lying next to the penguin display tank. While Philip and Gwen are approached by Hemingway, schoolteacher Hildegarde Martha Withers leads a group of her students on a tour of the aquarium and inadvertently knocks over "Chicago Lew," a deaf-mute pickpocket. After Lew slips away from the police, Hildegarde discovers that her antique hatpin is missing and sends her students to hunt for it. To Hildegarde's relief, the hatpin is found, but as the group is about to leave, Hildegarde sees Gerald's lifeless body plop into the penguin tank. Soon after, Inspector Oscar Piper arrives with his men and begins to question suspects, which include Lew, who is discovered behind the tank, Barry Costello, a penguin-loving lawyer who has offered his services to Gwen, Hemingway, Gwen and Philip. Eventually Philip confesses to the murder, and although Hildegarde, who has become an active participant in the investigation, doubts his guilt, Oscar arrests him. However, when medical examiner Dr. Max Bloom reveals that Gerald was killed by a sharp point being driven through his right ear, Hildegarde, realizing that her hatpin was the murder weapon and that only she, Oscar, Bloom and the killer know this fact, advises Oscar to tell the press that Gerald was stabbed through the left ear. After Gwen is arrested as Philip's partner, Costello shows Oscar a note from Lew, which states that he can identify the killer. By the time Oscar and Hildegarde arrive at Lew's Tombs prison cell, however, Lew is dead, and Hildegarde and Oscar suspect foul play. At Philip and Gwen's trial, Costello puts Hildegarde on the stand and, during his accusatory questioning of her, reveals that he knows that Gerald was stabbed in the right ear. After Hildegarde proves that Costello was both Gwen's lover and Gerald's killer, Gwen and Philip are released from prison. Oscar then proposes to Hildegarde.
Edna May Oliver
Clarence H. Wilson
Gustav Von Seyfertitz
William Le Maire
Hugh Mcdowell Jr.
David O. Selznick
Penguin Pool Murder
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 to Miss Amelia Butterworth, a character created by Anna Katherine Greene in 1898. She would be followed by Rachel Innes in Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Circular Staircase (1908) -- better known by its stage and film title, The Bat -- and Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, who made her first appearance just a year before Withers. Drawing on his background as a private detective, Palmer wrote novels and short stories about the character for more than two decades.
At the time RKO filmed The Penguin Pool Murder, they had the perfect Hildegarde Withers under contract, character actress Edna May Oliver, who had won acclaim for her supporting role in the Oscar®-winning Western Cimarron (1931). As her partner in crime solving they cast another veteran, James Gleason. Their affectionate sparring was so effective the studio even had them get married at the end. Director George Archainbaud kept the action moving briskly, as he would on the Western films and television series he would specialize in decades later. He also added an innovation that would remain unnoticed for years; several of the sets had ceilings prominently featured. In that, he anticipated Orson Welles' work on 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 writer two years later. Deciding that Withers and Piper worked best as friendly antagonists, studio executives decided to disregard their marriage at the end 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 things going first with Helen Broderick and then Zasu Pitts in the lead. But neither was as perfectly cast as Oliver, and the series died after only six films. That hardly marked the end of the road for Withers, however. MGM adapted Once Upon a Train, co-written by Palmer and Craig Rice to team Withers with Rice's hard-drinking lawyer detective John Malone, in 1951. But they transformed the schoolteacher sleuth into a Montana housewife played by Marjorie Main for Mrs. O'Malley and Mr. Malone. In 1971, ABC would produce A Very Missing Person, a pilot for a Hildegarde Withers TV series starring Eve Arden, but decided not to pick up the project. Five years later, the character would put in her last screen appearance, in Neil Simon's private eye spoof Murder by Death (1976). This time she would be played by Estelle Winwood as a decrepit old woman cared for by Elsa Lanchester in a spoof of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. None of these pretenders to the chalkboard could compare to the original, however. Whenever The Penguin Pool Murder airs on television, 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
Penguin Pool Murder
I'm a schoolteacher, and I might have done wonders with you if I'd caught you young enough.- Hildegard Withers
What are you trying to do, put the B on me?- Telephone Operator
I'm trying to put nothing on you. You have enough on already. Now, if you answer my questions, you can go right back to your artwork!- Hildegard Withers
Now that you've got your disguise on, I would like to ask you a few questions. That is if you talk through all that make-up.- Hildegard Withers
Penguin Pool Murder was the first film in the Hildegarde Withers-Oscar Piper series. The series consisted of six mystery-comedies based on novels or short stories written by Stuart Palmer. James Gleason played "Oscar Piper" throughout the successful series, which ran until 1937. "Hildegarde Withers," however, was portrayed by three different actresses. Edna May Oliver played her in the first three films, Helen Broderick, the fourth, and ZaSu Pitts, the last two. Kenneth Macgowan earned his first associate producer credit on this film. For other titles in the series, consult the Series Index.