Sun
Jan 29 2012 11:00am

The Schoolmarm and the Grouch: Stuart Palmer on the Big Screen

The Penguin Pool MurderLet’s have a big round of applause for Turner Classic Movies. Nowadays there are any number of ways to access the classic comic mystery movies that seemed to flourish in the thirties and forties but there’s probably no easier way than to point your recording device of choice to TCM and press record. I’ve been catching up on a number of such films this way and as of this writing a Thin Man marathon is only about a week away.

But given the breadth and depth of content on TCM, let’s narrow our focus to one man: Stuart Palmer. A Wisconsin native whose fondess for the exploits of one Sherlock Holmes led him to become a mystery writer himself, Palmer was a busy screenwriter as well. But he’s probably best known for about a dozen and a half mystery books that star a spinster schoolteacher and amateur detective named Hildegarde Withers.

Only a few of the Withers books have been reissued and I have to admit that I have read exactly none of them thus far. I’ll get around to that eventually. My experiences with Miss Withers have been exclusively with the six adaptations (minus the one I haven’t seen yet) that were filmed between 1932 and 1937.

Things kicked off in 1932, the year after Palmer’s second novel was published. It was The Penguin Pool Murder and it made its way to the big screen as simply Penguin Pool Murder. It should probably go without saying that an actual penguin pool (at an aquarium) does figure prominently in the proceedings and it should also be noted that Palmer adopted the penguin as a sort of mascot from this point onward.

In my not so esteemed opinion Penguin Pool Murder gets off to a bit of a slow start and never quite reaches the heights of future installments. Edna May Oliver, the first of three actresses to play Withers, and James Gleason, the only actor to play Inspector Oscar Piper—the schoolteacher’s foil—don’t seem to quite have their chemistry down, but it’s an entertaining outing all the same. It displays the lighthearted tone, bantering between the principals and twisting and turning plot that came to characterize all of the films in this series.

Murder on the Blackboard book coverThings started to click in Murder on a Blackboard, which takes place mostly in the schoolhouse where Withers teaches. Needless to say, there’s a murder, this time of one of the amateur detective’s colleagues. Oliver and Gleason seem to have their shtick worked out pretty well by now and this is arguably one of the more entertaining entries in the series.

For me the award for the most entertaining of the Withers flicks goes to the next installment—Murder on a Honeymoon. This time around Miss Withers finds herself on a plane to a resort on southern California’s Catalina Island, when one of her fellow passengers keels over before they even arrive. Not surprisingly, foul play is to blame and though he’s back in New York, Piper is privy to information which leads him to go west and team up with Withers yet again.

The pair are in fine form this time around, taking frequent digs at each other while navigating the labyrinthine contours of the plot. If you need any proof of Oliver’s skill as a comedic actress, I refer you to the scene in which she tries to follow Piper through a window without sacrificing any of her dignity. It’s also worth noting that popular humorist Robert Benchley had a hand in the writing of this zany installment.

But alas, all good things must come to an end. Which is not to say that the Withers movies stopped, but from here on out they continued without Oliver, who jumped ship to another studio. Widely considered to be the best of the bunch, even Palmer himself admitted that he had Oliver in mind when writing later installments of Miss Wither’s adventures.

Helen BroderickNext up was Murder on a Bridle Path, which starred Helen Broderick in the main role. This was the first installment that I saw and frankly I thought Broderick did quite a decent job in the role, at least until I had the chance later on to measure her against Oliver. The plot this time around concerns a high society bride who is killed while riding her horse—or so it would seem.

Broderick was out of the picture by the time the next Withers picture came along, in the form of The Plot Thickens. This time around and in the last installment as well—Forty Naughty Girls—it was ZaSu Pitts who took over the role of Hildegarde Withers. I haven’t seen the latter film, but based on my viewing of The Plot Thickens I agree wholeheartedly with those who say that, whatever other strengths Pitts might have had as an actress, she just wasn’t right for the role of Miss Withers. Aside from this shortcoming it’s not such a bad outing, as Withers and Piper try to sort out the murder of a wealthy man whose corpse gets around and also the theft of a rare item from antiquity.

Forty Naughty GirlsAfter Forty Naughty Girls it was another 35 years before Miss Withers would again turn up on screen. This time it was the small one, in the form of a 1972 TV movie that found Eve Arden taking the main role and James Gregory as Oscar Piper. This is another of the Withers movies I have yet to see but the consensus from those who have seems to be that it’s no great shakes. It’s adapted from the last Withers novel, one that was actually finished by another writer after Palmer’s death. The novel, Hildegarde Withers Makes the Scene, unwisely (or at least some have said) tries to update Miss Withers by inserting her into California hippie culture of the Sixties.


William I. Lengeman III is a freelance journalist with a fondness for gourmet tea and traditional mysteries. He writes about the former at Tea Guy Speaks and the latter at Traditional Mysteries.

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