Thursday, 2 April 2009

The Penguin Pool Murder (1932)

Edna May Oliver was one of the most recognizable character actresses of the 1930s. Often described as 'horse-faced', there was something very endearing in her homely, lanky screen persona of bossy females. After a variety of small roles in forgettable films, she came to prominence in this movie, the first of three in which she played the schoolmarm-cum-amateur sleuth Hildegarde Withers. Three further sequels followed with Helen Broderick and then Zasu Pitts taking on the role, before it was resurrected on TV in the '70s with Eve Arden. Oliver meanwhile moved on to showier roles in prestige productions, amongst them Little Women, A Tale of Two Cities, Romeo and Juliet, Drums Along the Mohawk, and Pride and Prejudice, before her death at a relatively young age in 1942.

This film is definitely a B-production running a scant 65 minutes, but it is full of delightful touches and Oliver is not the whole show. The relationship between her and abrasive police detective James Gleason (a recurrent character in the series) is full of sparks as they complement each other in the investigation of a stockbroker found dead in the eponymous penguin pool at the New York aquarium. Suspects include the deceased's wife played by Mae Clark (who was immortalised forever by being the recipient of a grapefruit in the mush by Cagney), two of her former flings including lawyer Robert Armstrong who wants to protect her, a mute pickpocket, and the aquarium's prissy director. Even Oliver is under suspicion when it is discovered that the dead man was killed by a hatpin through the ear -- hers, as it happens, which she had her motley pupils on their field trip scrambling to find. The dialogue is sharp and the photography occasionally brings to mind earlier expressionistic cinema with its dark angles and shifting focus. Even the location of the fascinating art deco building at the foot of Manhattan has historic interest. I can't say that I remember it from my childhood in New York since it was closed in 1941 (!) and the only one I recall was and I believe still is at Coney Island, but it was fascinating to see footage of the lower city back then.

Now all that remains is for me to winkle out her other two Withers incarnations, and good old Richard tells me that Murder on the Blackboard (1934) is due to be shown later this year. Now that's something to look forward to...

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