The Hildegarde Withers Mysteries was a B-movie detective serial from RKO. It consists of six films each of which follow busybody schoolmarm Hildegarde Withers as she assists the disgruntled Inspector Oscar Piper in various murder investigations. They are based on the popular Hildegarde Withers novels by author Stuart Palmer (who also wrote some of the scripts for another B movie detective serial: The Falcon).
Edna May Oliver plays Miss Withers in the first three films, Helen Broderick plays her in the fourth and the series finishes with Zasu Pitts in the fifth and sixth films. Each of the three actresses bring their own unique spin to the Hildegarde Withers character. The only consistency you'll find is with James Gleason who plays Oscar Piper in all six films.
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Withers to Piper: "Stop acting like a movie detective!"
Penguin Pool Murder (1932) - A school field trip, lost hat pin, a love triangle, a sad
aquarium and a curious penguin. The story starts off with a fairly straightforward scenario: an unhappily married woman and her lover encounter her husband at an aquarium and the husband is killed. But the situation proves to be a lot more complicated than we originally thought. Visiting school teacher Hildegarde Withers (Edna May Oliver) assists Inspector Oscar Piper (James Gleason) in the investigation, much to his initial dismay. This film features the saddest aquarium you will ever see. It's difficult to watch the aquarium scenes and not weep for those poor creatures who are trapped in dirty tanks and cramped pools.
Murder on the Blackboard (1934) - A murdered teacher, a secret stash of liquor, an Irish lottery, and musical notes. Withers calls upon Piper when a music teacher is murdered at her school. This film is probably the most frightening of all three and squeamish viewers should be glad that this is the 1930s and you won't find the gore that a modern day forensics drama would gleefully dish out. By the second film Withers and Piper are a crime-fighting team and Piper, while still critical of Withers, relies on her more as a detective and continues to do so in the following films.
Personal note: This story hit a little too close to home because of a recent real-life incident in which a local school teacher was murdered at her school.
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Murder on a Honeymoon (1935) -A seaplane, poison cigarettes, a movie producer, mistaken identity and a curious dog. Miss Withers goes on vacation to the Catalina Islands but she can't seem to escape murders. The seem to follow her everywhere! A man is poisoned on the plane and everyone on board is a suspect. Because the person killed is tied into a trial in Inspector Piper's jurisdiction, he travels to Catalina and Withers and Piper join forces to solve the mystery. This one is probably my favorite of the bunch and the last one for Oliver as Withers. Look for Matt McHugh, Frank McHugh's brother, who plays one of the pilots of the seaplane.
Murder on the Bridle Path (1936)- Horses, a recently released convict, a sickly man, a betrayal and revenge. Helen Broderick plays a sophisticated and well-dressed version of Withers. She was my favorite of the three actresses who played Withers although Edna May Oliver really establishes the character and both Broderick and Pitts take the character in different directions. It's a rather weak film but interesting nonetheless.
The Plot Thickens (1936) - A museum, an astrology obsessed cop, upstairs/downstairs conflict and a stolen antique cup. This complicated and convoluted plot that starts off with a man murdered because he was mistaken for someone else and an antique cup from an art museum is stolen. Both Withers and Pipers try to solve both mysteries simultaneously. Zasu Pitts plays a clumsier and more aloof Hildegarde Withers.
Forty Naughty Girls (1937) - A plagiarist, a musical, a director with a roving eye and a bait-and-switch. Hildegarde Withers and Oscar Piper are on a date! All fancied up, in clothes that really don't suit them, Withers and Piper head to the theater to see the Forty Naughty Girls musical on stage. They are not in their seats long before they are both called to investigate a murder backstage. Interesting premise but ended up being the weakest and most boring of all of the films. Not a great way to wrap up the series. While I adore Zasu Pitts, I feel like she was miscast as Withers.
There is noticeable romantic tension between Withers and Piper. Piper proposes at the end of the first two films and they are on a date in the last film. They never consummate their relationship so while they act like a married couple, the tension between this spinster and confirmed bachelor elevates the comedy.
I enjoyed the first three films, felt the fourth one was so-so and the last two films left me very disappointed. The change in actresses for the Withers character hurt the series overall. James Gleason's portrayal of Oscar Piper is wonderful and the only real substantial thing that holds the series together and gives it some consistency. I recommend this film for hardcore 1930s or B-movie detective serial enthusiasts only. If you want to try out a mystery serial, I recommend the Charlie Chan or The Falcon series instead.
The Hildegarde Withers Mysteries Collection is available on DVD MOD from Warner Archive. It's a two disc set with all six films.
Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. I received the Hildegarde Withers Mysteries Collection from Warner Archive for review.