Edna May Oliver vs. The Glass Ceiling

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.

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.



  1. I love these movies, and especially with Gleason and Oliver. You’re right about the saucy comebacks and repartee, so much fun. I forget which movie has a hilarious crack about Gleason in his boxers and Oliver saying he doesn’t scare her til he’s got his pants on. Great post.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Ruth, it’s been some time since I watched the delightful THE PENGUIN POOL MURDER, but thanks to you, I’m eager to revisit Hildegarde Withers and Oscar Piper! We need more smart, witty comedy-mysteries with gals of a certain age who save the day and get the fella! 😀 Great post, my friend, as always!


    • Dor, you are SO RIGHT about “women of a certain age” and smart comedies featuring such women. Edna May/Hildegard were trailblazers, and the mainstream film industry still hasn’t caught up! Thanks for your kind words. 🙂


  3. I really enjoyed this post Ruth. And it’s a shame we have to rewind all the way back to ’32 to find roles like it. Part of me wants to believe it’s because only the true gems have stood the test of time, but if you take a cut of Hollywood at the moment I struggle to see what the ‘future classics’ are in terms of female performances.

    I’m surprised the managed to fill the Golden Globes actress noms, not through a lack of talent, but due to a lack of material.

    *rant over* 😉


    • I’m surprised the managed to fill the Golden Globes actress noms, not through a lack of talent, but due to a lack of material.

      Although I haven’t yet seen it (but plan to very shortly!), I get the impression that Still Alice might fill the gap you’re pointing to. But I couldn’t agree more with your overall point.


    • Your rants are welcome any time. It IS a shame that 1932 would produce such a movie, but not today. I can’t think of any middle-aged A-list Hollywood actresses who LOOK middle-aged and would still be considered a lead in a mystery or thriller, unless they underwent some glorious on-screen transformation.

      Oh dear, now I feel a rant coming on myself…


      • I can’t think of any middle-aged A-list Hollywood actresses who LOOK middle-aged and would still be considered a lead in a mystery or thriller

        Helen Mirren was well into middle age by the end of the Prime Suspect series, but of course those weren’t Hollywood. Tilda Swinton has starred in some Hollywood thrillers, though: The Deep End and Julia (2008) are the ones that come to mind. Of course, Swinton’s features are so striking that it’s hard to tell what age she is so I could understand if you claimed she violated your “LOOK middle-aged” criterion.

        I’m trying to think if Meryl Streep has been in any thrillers lately . . .


  4. This would make a great Saturday afternoon movie. Nothing too deep or thought-provoking. Just a good film to sit back and enjoy. Though I’m not familiar with it, I’ve saved it for some Saturday this Winter. By the way, I took a look at my Movies Board on Pinterest and you’re responsible for the vast majoirty of my “collection” — and what a collection! Thanks, Ruth. 🙂


    • Absolutely – this movie is perfect for a Winter afternoon. It’s a fun mystery, and the Oliver-Gleason scenes are terrific, but then I’m a big fan of both of ’em.

      I’ve never thought of starting a movie collection on Pinterest. Brilliant idea!


  5. Thanks so much for posting about this! I hadn’t heard of the series and now I can’t wait to watch! (And I concur with the shocking-yet-not-surprising lack of roles for women of any age that aren’t limited to being decorative. Three cheers for feminist rants!)


    • Yes, you’re right – women of any age tend to be decorative in movies. Here we are in the 21st century, and we don’t have any equivalent of Hildegarde Withers – or Miss Marple, for that matter.

      Thanks for dropping by. 🙂


  6. Oh, this movie really sounds good to me! I love mysteries where you are surprised at who did it and add a little romance – perfect! I’m going to see if I can find it. I appreciate the recommendation, Ruth!


    • I adore this movie, mostly because Edna May Oliver is the main character. And it’s refreshing to see a mid-life romance on screen. Plus, lots of great lines. I hope you have the chance to see it! 🙂


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