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Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Classic Film Review: Penguin Pool Murder (1932)

Penguin Pool Murder stars Edna May Oliver as Miss Hildegard Withers, a schoolteacher sleuth who happens to be visiting the aquarium on the day a body tumbles into the penguin tank. This body belongs to unscrupulous stockbroker Gerald Parker (Guy Usher) who has just discovered his wife Gwen (Mae Clark) meeting with former flame Philip Seymour (Donald Cook). Suspicion naturally falls on those two with passing lawyer Barry Costello (Robert Armstrong) taking on defence of Gwen Parker. But Miss Withers throws herself into solving the case herself, much to the disgruntlement of Inspector Piper (James Gleason).

I adored this film. The case was intriguing enough, though I had my suspicions from the off about who the killer was, but the real delight comes from Miss Withers herself. She is a fantastic creation with the turn of phrase of Miss Gulch from The Wizard of Oz and the sleuthing skills of Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote, of course. An intelligent, sarcastic woman who refuses to take 'no' for an answer, she persists in showing Inspector Piper where he's going wrong. Eventually, he learns to defer to her authority and they form a nice little tag-team.

The rest of the cast is adequate enough. Once Piper accepts Miss Withers, the character comes into his own - think of it in terms of Sheriff Metzger in Murder, She Wrote but with a nice little twist at the end. I found Mae Clark as Gwen a little difficult but the majority of the male cast was acceptable. However, this was always Miss Withers's film and it shows. The mystery is good but the interplay is better - and there's a wonderful penguin involved too.

This is the first of three Miss Withers stories Oliver and Gleason made together. After this, the role was taken over by Zasu Pitts, who I didn't really enjoy in Sing and Like It (1934, reviewed here) and I can't see in the role of Miss Withers. However, Eve Arden did make a one-off appearance in the role in a television special in 1972 - given my love of Eve, I'm definitely going to keep an eye out for that one.

Ultimately, I loved this film because of Edna May Oliver - she's a character I'd love to be any day.

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