Edna May Oliver (left) tries to explain the obvious to James Gleason. Image: kdsjf eifj sdk

Edna May Oliver (left) explains the obvious to James Gleason. Image: Past Offences

Question: When was the last time you saw a movie in which…

  1. A female amateur sleuth did a better job of solving a mystery than a male detective?
  2. A middle-aged woman who LOOKS middle aged is the main character?
  3. A man becomes romantically interested in a middle-aged woman who is smarter than he?

Happily, the last time we saw a movie like this was the other night. Sadly, the movie was made in 1932.

The Penguin Pool Murder is a gem of a film that ought to be more well known. It has a witty script, clever camera angles, and a mystery that will keep you guessing until the last scene.

Edna May Oliver stars as Miss Hildegard Withers (emphasis on the Miss), a spinsterly schoolteacher who wears a sensible suit and comfortable shoes. She is prim, smart and ambitious, and her vocabulary includes such delightful phrases as “insofar as”.

Oliver happens to be at the city’s aquarium with her class on the day a murder is committed. While she is shepherding her students around the (gorgeous art deco) building, a body falls into the penguin pool. Enter James Gleason as the crusty detective who talks more like a gangster than a law enforcement officer.

As a potential suspect, Oliver is taken into the manager’s office for questioning by Gleason. Something stirs in her and she quickly gloms onto the opportunity of her scholastic lifetime: catching a murderer.

Gleason is impressed by Oliver’s ability to judge character. (“I’ve been teaching school long enough, Inspector, to know whether someone is telling the truth or not.”) He appreciates her help – indeed he relies on it – but his chauvinism sometimes interferes with his professionalism.

In one scene, Oliver shows him notes she’s compiled based on evidence they’ve gathered. Gleason is astounded at what she’s written.

Gleason: You oughtn’t to be a school teacher, Miss Withers. You ought to be a –

Oliver: Detective?

Gleason: (laughs) No, it takes a certain type to be a detective.

Oliver: (dryly) I’ve noticed that.

The chemistry between Oliver and Gleason is a lot of fun – and very appealing. Their banter has been described as that of “an old married couple” but, in our opinion, the dialogue is saucier, mostly because Gleason’s detective loves a woman with backbone.

Penguin-Pool-Murder-1932

Edna May Oliver can get anyone to talk. Image: moviefanfare.com

Although Oliver’s character looks like an old-fashioned defender of The Establishment, she is not. For example, in one scene, Gleason tells Oliver he’s leaving to interview someone and that she should stay put. Oliver sits down for a moment, then forcefully stands up, wraps her fur stole around her neck – twice – and marches out the door.

The one scene that is most illustrative of Oliver’s character is when she barges into a men’s public restroom. She is following Gleason, who goes into the washroom and closes the door ahead of her. Oliver pauses slightly, as though she’s steeling herself, then storms through the door. Gleason, kneeling beside an unconscious man, doesn’t even blink when he sees Oliver enter.

This movie was based on the first of 18 Hildegard Withers novels, seven of which were published in the 1930s. Six movies were made from these novels; Oliver starred in the first three.

The Penguin Pool Murder has become one of our favourite films, and we think it could become one of yours. Set aside an hour to watch this film; you’ll be glad you did.

The Penguin Pool Murder: Edna May Oliver, James Gleason, Robert Armstrong. Directed by George Archainbaud. Written by Willis Goldbeck. RKO Radio Pictures, 1932, B&W, 75 mins.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

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