January 16, 2014 by smumcounty
Stockbroker Gerald Parker (Guy Usher) is on the phone with Bertrand Hemingway (Clarence Wilson), the director of the New York City aquarium. Hemingway is irate because Parker had to sell off his stock at a loss. “Liar! Cheat! You ruined me! You robbed me! And when I see you I’ll…” Da da dum!
Gerald Parker’s wife, Gwen (Mae Clark), gets a call from some unknown person who needs five thousand dollars. “Of course, I love you, darling. I’d do anything. But where can I get five thousand dollars by Wednesday?” Unfortunately, her husband has fallen on hard times. They lost everything in the market and all he has left is his life insurance policy. Da da dum!
Gwen makes a call to a former lover, Phillip Seymor (Donald Cook), who agrees to meet her at the aquarium. During their meeting Parker gets a call alerting him to their clandestine meeting. Gwen is asking Seymour for money (“I’d leave him today but he’s put all my money in the market to try to save himself.”) when they’re surprised by the appearance of Parker. After a brief altercation, Parker is lying on the floor, knocked out cold. Instead of running and hiding their shame, Seymour decides to drag Parker out of the way, leaving him on a catwalk over the penguin pool!
Schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers (Edna May Oliver) is also at the aquarium with her class on a field trip. She’s lost her hatpin and assigns her class the task of finding it with a prize of no homework for the next day for the student who finds it. Her student, Abraham, quickly recovers the hat pin on the stairs and she’s ready to go when Isidore calls her over to the penguin pool to look at the funny “chickens”. While she’s explaining to him that these are no chickens, Parker’s lifeless body falls into the pool directly in front of them. Hildegarde has the presence of mind to call the police and Inspector Oscar Piper (James Gleason) is soon on the scene to find the guilty party. The games afoot!
The “The Penguin Pool Murder” (1932) is the first of a series of films by RKO based on the adventures of amateur sleuth Hildegarde Withers created by Stuart Palmer in a series of novels from the same period. This sort of B-grade film was a staple of film production in the 30’s. With the vogue for double features taking off and with some theaters changing bills two or three times a week, it’s estimated that seven hundred feature films were required each year to meet the exhibition needs of the theaters. Films of this sort helped to fill that need. B movies didn’t contain big name stars and often used sets left over from other productions so they were relatively cheap to make. The studios loved series because once launched, they came with a built in audience and represented a proven return on their investment. Mystery films were some of the most popular types of series at this time. Think Charlie Chan or Sherlock Holmes or even The Thin Man series with Myrna Loy and William Powell. The genre often consisted of a victim being dispatched early on with a cast of supporting characters with both motive and opportunity.
Given that this is a B-grade quickie with no obvious stars, you might be tempted to think the quality of the film is lacking, but thanks to the performances of Edna May Oliver and James Gleason this is a thoroughly enjoyable film. Edna May Oliver and James Gleason were both character actors who were in great demand during the 30’s. In this regard, the choice of these two to star in this series is an unusual one; character actors were not normally called on to carry a film. But here it pays off in spades. The interactions between Oliver and Gleason are what make this film stand out from the hundreds of other B movies of the period, that, and Oliver’s portrayal of this prim and proper spinster. Hildegarde is definitely a know-it-all and she can’t help but make her feelings of superiority clear through her facial expressions and body language. Her performance makes this a comedy as well as a mystery and the film proved popular enough to inspire a sequel.
This being the first of the Hildegarde Withers mysteries, it’s interesting to see the development of Hildegarde into a first rate sleuth during the course of the film. At first, she is drawn unwillingly into the investigation when Inspector Piper holds his preliminary interviews with the witnesses at the aquarium. Being one of the prime witnesses, Hildegarde is required to be there and being a precise and meticulous person she takes the ‘minutes’ of the interviews. She’s very observant and proves herself useful to Inspector Piper in this scene. When Seymour confesses to the murder, Hildegarde points out that his description of the murder doesn’t make sense and he’s likely only confessed to shield Gwen. Later she’s proven right. The end of this scene is a good example of the comic bantering between Piper and Hildegarde that make this film distinctive:
Hildegarde: If he could laugh, I know whom he’d be laughing at.
Piper: You know I can’t quite make you out Miss Withers.
Hildegarde: This is a busy day for you inspector. Now you have two mysteries to solve.
The next day, Piper shows up at Hildegarde’s apartment to get the notes that she made during the interviews. She greets him with a full breakfast consisting of eggs, sausages, and waffles. She’s typed out her notes for Inspector Piper and looking them over he’s impressed. “You know you oughtn’t to be a schoolteacher, Miss Withers. You ought to be a…” “Detective?” she replies hopefully. But he shoots her down. “I wouldn’t say a detective. You see it takes a certain type to be a detective. What I mean is that a woman detective always looks like a woman detective.” “What about a woman detective that looks like a schoolteacher?” she pipes in. “Anyway, thanks for the notes and thanks for the waffles,” he says as he’s leaving. “Thank you … for nothing,” she replies after him. It’s in this scene where we also learn that Hildegarde’s hatpin was the likely murder weapon, having been jabbed through the ear and into the brain of Parker as he lay unconscious. This gives Hildegarde the excuse she needs to stay with the case. “I started in this affair because it was exciting. Now that I’m in it, I’m going to stay in it until we find out who did kill him.”
After this Hildegarde, takes some initiative and goes to Parker’s office to interview the telephone operator to find out who made the call that brought Parker to the aquarium. Fortunately, YouTube has this scene so you can get an idea of what Oliver brings to this role.
Miss Withers interviews Parker’s telephone operator (Rochelle Hudson)
There are a couple of interesting points I’d like to make about her interaction with the operator.
Operator: Well it ain’t likely a woman would be calling me baby, is it?
Hildegarde: No. Not so far downtown as this.
This is a sly reference to the gay nightlife that populated the areas of Greenwich Village and Harlem in the 30’s which are uptown from Parker’s Wall Street office. Being a Pre-Code film it was acceptable to acknowledge the existence of gay people, however tamely. If the film were made a couple years later, it’s likely this line would have been removed.
Secondly, when Hildegarde leaves, she comments on the operator’s choice of lipstick.
Operator: OK, Lydia Pinkham!
This one I had to look up. Wikipedia states that Lydia Pinkham “was an iconic concocter and shrewd marketer of a commercially successful herbal-alcoholic ‘women’s tonic’ meant to relieve menstrual and menopausal pains.” Means nothing to us now but at the time audiences must have howled.
Eventually, Inspector Piper develops a grudging respect for Miss Withers’ detecting abilities and chutzpah. At one point, Piper is convinced that Gwen and Seymour are responsible for the murder and when they are indicted by the DA he feels his job is done. But Hildegarde is having none of it. “I’ve seen men enough today, Oscar Piper, to know that if this murder is to be solved, a woman’s got to do it.” With that she storms out of Piper’s office. “Boy, and she can cook too!” he says to himself. For a man in the 30’s, that’s high praise indeed. Eventually he invites her along on his investigations. When Piper makes a trip to the holding cells to visit a suspect, he suggests that Hildegarde accompany him. Gwen’s lawyer, Barry Costello (Robert Armstrong), objects. “Why let an outsider in on it? She’ll only delay us.”. “Not her. You don’t know that gal,” Piper replies. Hildegarde is presented as a strong woman in this film and she’s got to be admired.
At the end of the film, after the murderer has been revealed and sent to prison, there’s a sweet scene between Hildegarde and Piper in his office. They’re talking about the star-crossed lovers Seymour and Gwen and wondering if they’ll get back together.
Piper: Phooey, what’s good looks got to do with romance?
Hildegarde: Young man, have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror?
Piper: Sure. Have you?
Hildegarde: I was in hopes you wouldn’t bring that up.
Piper: All right. So what? I’m convinced that you and me should incorporate.
Hildegarde: Are you proposing that we start a detective bureau?
Piper: No. I’m just proposing. What are you doing?
Hildegarde: Well … I’m just accepting.
Piper: Ok. The license bureau closes in fifteen minutes.
And with that he grabs his hat and they race out of the office. It’s admittedly very sudden but it doesn’t come completely out of the blue. Piper has been warming to Hildegarde throughout the film. It’s nice to see an older couple, and a plain couple at that, come together and find one another. One can imagine them growing old together.
Edna May Oliver made two more Hildegarde Withers films for RKO. The studio execs, thinking that Hildegarde and Piper worked better as antagonists decided to ignore the marriage at the end of this film and they’re single again for the second film of the series, “Murder on the Blackboard” (1934). The series ended for Oliver when she moved to MGM but RKO kept it going with other actresses portraying Hildegarde, including Zasu Pitts. James Gleason continued in all six films of the series as Inspector Piper.
The last point I’d like to make about this film is that brevity is the soul of wit. This film, as with many B movies, is very short compared to modern films. It runs only 75 minutes. Of course, shorter was cheaper and that’s the primary reason for the brevity. But that makes the movie no less enjoyable. Filmmakers today need to learn that length does not equal quality, or artistry, or depth. Why should I have to devote three hours of my life to enjoy the latest film by Scorsese when I can spend less than half that time in watching this film? And who’s to say which I would enjoy more?