Friday, September 24, 2010

Hildegarde Withers

A genre popular in the pre-Code era was the zippy mystery; I think I've mentioned Philo Vance in the past. Vance wasn't the only detective popping up in the movies in those days; there were lady crime solvers too like Hildegarde Withers, a spinster teacher with an acerbic wit who was able to cut to the chase much more quickly than the police. She was first played by Edna May Oliver (pictured at left), and two of Oliver's appearances as Withers are airing tomorrow morning on TCM: The Penguin Pool Murder at 6:00 AM ET, followed at 7:30 AM by Murder on the Blackboard.

Oliver left the series when she signed a contract at MGM in 1935, and continued to make movies until illness cut her career and life short. But she got to play supporting roles in some of the great period pieces being made in those days. She's Juliet's nurse (and gets lines with Andy Devine, of all people) in the 1936 version of Romeo and Juliet; she played Dickensian characters in a version of David Copperfield and a version of A Tale of Two Cities; and she might be best remembered as Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice. Or, that honor might go to the period piece that got her her one Oscar nomination: being lent out to Fox for Drums Along the Mohawk, where she played a tough, independent frontier widow. Thankfully, we have TCM to show us the works of fun character actors such as Oliver.

And speaking of character actors, watch The Penguin Pool Murder carefully. Quite a few of them show up, notably James Gleason as the police detective; but also Edgar Kennedy (you saw him recently in It's a Wonderful World) as a policeman, and Mae Clarke.

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