Penguin Pool Murder
Director: George Archainbaud
Screenplay: Willis Goldbeck
Starring: Edna May Oliver as Hildegarde Withers, James Gleason as Inspector Oscar Piper, Mae Clarke as Gwen Parker, Robert Armstrong as Barry Costello
Production company: RKO Radio Pictures
Date of release: 1932
I mentioned a few months ago that the Hildegarde Withers movies, based on the comic novels by Stuart Palmer, were being released on DVD by Warner Bros. Then last week, the Golden Age of Detection Yahoo Group alerted me that the first film, Penguin Pool Murder, was being aired in the UK (at the ungodly hour of 6AM).
Edna May Oliver was 49 and already an established character actress when she first played frumpy schoolteacher Miss Withers, a role she reprised twice more before handing over to Helen Broderick in 1936. We meet her leading a (surprisingly multiracial – have I misunderstood US history?) group of schoolchildren around the New York City Aquarium. Her quick work with a brolly helps in the capture of a pickpocket known as Chicago Lou:
‘There children you see, never try to evade the law with an umbrella between your legs.’
But the kids’ day-trip is about to get even more exciting, as Miss Oliver spots the body of dodgy stockbroker Jerry Parker falling into the Aquarium’s penguin pool. This doubles the population of the pool, as the Trustees appear to have only stumped up for one penguin. It’s a nice one, though.
The immediate suspects are Jerry Parker’s wife Gwen and her lover Philip Seymour, but there are others. In fact the movie opens with the pince-nezzed Aquarium Director Mr Hemingway barking down his phone at Parker: ‘You cheap swindler. you.’
The investigation is led by Inspector Piper, played by James Gleason almost entirely out of one side of his mouth (the other is full of cigar).
‘Quickest moider case I ever solved.’
Piper inexplicably allows Miss Withers to follow him around as he does his stuff, and they’re soon sparking off each other. In fact the two of them come off as a 1930s version of Moonlighting:
‘You took the words right out of my mouth.’
‘Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty left.’
‘And if I don’t, you’ll have a couple.’
The case proceeds via a mini locked room mystery and a courtroom cross-examination to a fairly surprising proposal of marriage. Ultimately, this is very much a creaking period piece and the humour hasn’t aged especially well, although it retains a certain charm. At only 70 minutes, it’s worth a look if you’re awake at 6AM.
- TCM has the odd trailer for Penguin Pool Murder – ‘the police look like a bunch of pansies’.
- There’s an interesting perspective on the movie at a blog called Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, which celebrates the old New York City Aquarium where it was shot.
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.