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,Nancy Drew: Detective

Amateur Sleuths - April 8-10


A staple of movies and television over the decades, the amateur sleuth is a nonprofessional detective who uncovers and/or helps to solve various crimes, often murder. These investigators may be drawn into crime scenes because of their profession: reporter, retired detective, mystery writer. Others are Everyman sleuths, ranging from little old ladies to inquisitive kids.

TCM is devoting three dates in April to films featuring these Amateur Sleuths, many of whom were so engaging that they earned their own movie series. Here are highlights.

Part I, April 8:
The Penguin Pool Murder (1932) stars Edna May Oliver as Hildegarde Withers, the eccentric spinster-schoolteacher sleuth created by mystery novelist Stuart Palmer. This movie, in which Miss Withers witnesses a murder at the New York Aquarium, led to two sequels starring Oliver, with the role later taken over in movies by Helen Broderick and ZaSu Pitts and in a TV film by Eve Arden. In Oliver's films, the role of the police inspector who works with (and is attracted to) Miss Withers is played by James Gleason.

Smart Blonde (1937) was the first of the Warner Bros. series of second features about wisecracking reporter Torchy Blane (Glenda Farrell), teaming here with her cop boyfriend (Barton MacLane) to solve a murder she has witnessed. Farrell and MacLane starred in seven of the nine Torchy movies, with the star part later assumed in one film each by Lola Lane and Jane Wyman. Torchy was considered a leading example of a type that was relatively rare in pre-War America: a feisty, career-oriented female who could hold her own with the guys in solving crimes and everything else.

Nancy Drew... Detective (1938) introduced to the movies the fictional girl detective who had become famous from the series of mystery books written by various authors under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. Bonita Granville stars as the enterprising Nancy, who in this installment helps solve a kidnapping case. The movie's success led to Granville reprising the role of Nancy in three sequels. The character later appeared in other media including graphic novels and TV shows.

Murder She Said (1961) brought another famous amateur-sleuth character to films: Miss Marple, the elderly heroine of Agatha Christie's crime novels and short stories. Margaret Rutherford is priceless in this and the three other films in which she plays Miss Marple. In this one, she witnesses a murder while traveling by train and, of course, sets about solving it in her own droll way. This film costars Arthur Kennedy, James Robertson Justice and Rutherford's real-life husband, Stringer Davis. Miss Marple was played by numerous other actresses in stage, film, TV and radio appearances - but, for many fans, Rutherford owns the character.

Also screening: The Mad Miss Manton (1938), starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda; The Lady Vanishes (1938), directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave; and Detective Kitty O' Day (1944), starring Jean Parker.

Part II, April 9:
The Kennel Murder Case (1933), a Warner Bros. production, stars William Powell as Philo Vance, a cultured, rather foppish amateur detective made famous in the crime novels of S.S. Van Dine (the pen name of Willard Huntington Wright). Powell had already played Vance in three Paramount films. When he moved on to MGM and the Thin Man series, other film actors stepped into the role of Vance including Basil Rathbone, Warren William and Paul Lukas. The Kennel Murder Case has to do with the apparent suicide of a financier Vance believes was murdered.

The Saint in New York (1938) was the first in a series of RKO movies featuring British amateur detective gentleman Simon Templar, a.k.a. "The Saint," originated in the novel of the same name by Leslie Chateris. Louis Hayward, who stars as the debonair character in this film, would later be replaced in the series by George Sanders and then Hugh Sinclair. Hayward would once again play Templar in 1953 in the Hammer Films production of The Saint's Return. In the original, Templar is recruited by the New York Police Department to help rid the city of deadly gangsters.

Meet Boston Blackie (1941) introduced Chester Morris to the role of Boston Blackie, a character created by Jack Boyle in short stories beginning in 1914. A jewel thief in the stories, Blackie switched over to the side of law and order in a series of silent films beginning in 1918. Morris is the best-remembered Blackie, having played the character in 14 B films from Columbia Pictures beginning with Meet Boston Blackie, as well as in a 1944 NBC radio series. The character later showed up in graphic novels and a TV series starring Kent Taylor.

The Gay Falcon (1941) was the first in a series of 16 B films from RKO Pictures about Gay Laurence, a suave amateur crime solver nicknamed "The Falcon." George Sanders, who had previously played "The Saint" in a film series for the same studio, played the similar "Falcon" character in four films before turning the role over to his real-life brother, Tom Conway. The Gay Falcon has Laurence investigating a ring of jewel thieves.

Also screening: Footsteps in the Dark (1941), starring Errol Flynn; My Favorite Brunette (1947), starring Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour; and The Detective (1954), starring Alec Guinness.

Part III, April 10:
After the Thin Man (1936) was the second of six Thin Man films starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, the husband-and-wife sleuthing team created by novelist Dashiell Hammett. The popular MGM movie series ran from 1935 to 1947, and the concept also was used in radio and TV series as well as theater productions. After the Thin Man has the sophisticated, martini-loving couple solving a murder connected to Nora's family. Costars include a young James Stewart.

Fast Company (1938) was the first entry in a three-part MGM film series about another pair of married amateur detectives that may have been designed to take up the slack between the studio's Thin Man films. Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice star as Joel and Garda Sloane, married rare-book dealers investigating a murder in New York City. In the follow-up movies, Fast and Loose and Fast and Furious (both 1939), other actors took over the characters created by novelist "Marco Page" (a pseudonym for Harry Kurnitz).

Mr. and Mrs. North (1942) is yet another MGM comedy-mystery about married sleuths, this one starring William Post Jr. and top-billed Gracie Allen as Jerry and Pam North, characters created by novelists Frances and Richard Lockridge. The screenplay, adapted from a 1941 Broadway play by Owen Davis, has the couple returning from vacation to find a dead body in their apartment. The characters also were featured in a long-running radio series heard on CBS and NBC from 1942 to 1954. Richard Denning and Barbara Britton starred in a TV show that ran on CBS and NBC from 1952-54.

Also screening: The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936), starring William Powell and Jean Arthur; Haunted Honeymoon (1940), starring Robert Montgomery; Having Wonderful Crime (1945), starring Pat O'Brien and Carole Landis; and Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), directed by Woody Allen and starring Allen and Diane Keaton.

by Roger Fristoe
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