by ron backer
when i started a mystery review site, way back in 1927 (or something like that), i did so because i thought it would be fun to have a record of my thoughts on the mystery fiction i was reading. i wish i'd done it a bit sooner, like before i read the majority of the nero wolfe books, but so be it. at the time mystery cinema wasn't really on my radar but it wasn't all that long before i started to discover some of the great mystery films that came out in the thirties and forties.
which is why i did something i rarely do anymore and that's to request a review copy of a book - mystery movie series of 1930s hollywood. though the name might suggest otherwise it's actually the second volume author ron backer wrote on this topic, after mystery movie series of 1940s hollywood.
and it's great stuff, mind you. i have yet to see the 1940s volume and i hope that i do so one day but this volume is packed to the rafters with more mystery movie series than i had ever imagined could exist. i found the book interesting on two levels. as for as sitting down and reading it, i discovered that i didn't have much use for most of the chapters that covered movies i've never seen. but i found those chapters worthwhile in that they pointed me in the direction of many movies i hadn't previously known about.
backer has done a thorough job with this volume, looking at 22 series and 167 films in all. he essentially does a fairly in-depth review of each of the films, along with plenty of background on the series itself and major figures such as actors, directors, writers and the like. in the case of those films that got their start as novels or stories, he also provides a section on how the film compared to the source material.
which is a pretty impressive piece of work and one that i'd highly recommend to anyone who has an interest in these movies. if you don't have an interest in mystery movies from this era check out a few.
from the table of contents, here are the series that backer covers.
1. philo vance: the upper class detective
2. bulldog drummond: the english adventurer
3. charlie chan: the chinese detective
4. arsene lupin: the gentleman thief
5. hildegarde withers: the teacher detective
6. thatcher colt: the police commissioner
7. inspector trent: the police detective
8. nick and nora charles: the thin man series
9. perry mason: the defense attorney
10. sophie lang: the lady thief
11. sarah keate: the nurse detective
12. torchy blane: the investigative reporter
13. alan o’connor and bobbie reynolds: the federal agents
14. mr. moto: the japanese detective
15. bill crane: the private detective
16. joel and garda sloane: the husband and wife team
17. nancy drew: the teenage detective
18. mr. wong: the other chinese detective
19. barney callahan: the roving reporter
20. brass bancroft: the secret service agent
21. tailspin tommy: the young aviator
22. persons in hiding: the fbi story
based on characters created by stuart palmer
funny how simple the answers are when you know them.
movies starring stuart palmer's amateur detective hildegarde withers were all the rage during the thirties and this is the one that kicked things off. edna may oliver stars here and in the next two episodes and helen broderick and zasu pitts took over the role for the last three movies of the series. though she is a schoolteacher and a civilian, withers works in tandem with the gruff inspector oscar piper to solve crimes and trade mildly disparaging wisecracks. gleason starred as piper in all six of the withers movies.
these movies were not meant to be taken too seriously and the penguin pool murder is no exception. miss withers just happens to be visiting the aquarium with her students when a gentleman of the lifeless persuasion is found in the penguin pool. we viewers have already seen some of the background leading up to this murder, but there are various twists and turns that keep things hopping until the no-nonsense schoolmarm finally figures it all out. piper, as usual, is a few steps behind, but give him an a for effort anyway.
these are not movies that i really watch for the plotting and this one, which gets off to quite a slow start, was more of the same. when withers and piper get into crime-solving mode and start pecking at each other things perk up considerably. recommended, as are the other three in the series that i've seen thus far, as long as you're not someone who takes your mystery movies too seriously.