MURDER ON THE BLACKBOARD: Hildegarde Withers on Page and Screen

In switching from a monthly author to theme-based posts, I fear the Tuesday Night Bloggers got it a little backward. You see, in May we explored travel and vacations , all whilst I was still slaving away at my teacher’s desk. Now it’s June, when summer vacation starts for haggard educators (oh, and kids, too!), and our new theme is . . . academia! Never mind – this gives me the opportunity to explore some classic authors whom I never read before and to even revisit an old favorite. This week, let’s look at elementary school teacher turned detective, Miss Hildegarde Withers.

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Miss Withers is the creation of Stuart Palmer, who wrote fourteen novels and dozens of short stories featuring the caustic, horse-faced spinster between 1931 and 1969 (the final novel, Hildegarde Withers Makes the Scene, was completed by Fletcher Flora after Palmer’s death.) The character was a combination of his own high school teacher, Miss Fern Hakett, and the actress Edna Mae Oliver, whom he had seen playing Parthy, a similarly acerbic character, in the original Broadway production of Showboat. Miss Wither’s sidekick is NYC homicide detective Oscar Piper, who can match her barb for barb and appears to have a soft spot for the schoolteacher, despite her tendency toward one-upmanship in every case.

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I found a used copy of the eighth Miss Withers mystery, The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan (1941) to introduce me to this author and his creation. Instead of the typical New York setting, our heroine is vacationing in Hollywood as part of a six month long sabbatical (ah, what a great idea that sounds!). Miss Withers is accosted over brunch in The Brown Derby by agent Harry Wagman, who recognizes the amateur sleuth and offers her the job technical advisor on Mammoth Studios’ upcoming production of Lizzie Borden. She gets the job but is only in her new office for five minutes before she discovers the dead body of her office neighbor. Saul Stafford was half of a successful screenwriting team, known for his vicious (I mean really vicious) practical jokes. The studio police figure it for an accident, but Hildegarde knows a murder when she sees one, and she is determined to solve the case. Before long, Oscar Piper is drawn from his beloved Big Apple to La La Land, and he and Miss Withers skirt many dangerous obstacles before they land on the truth.

Palmer wrote in the screwball comedy vein, alongside writers like Kelley Roos, Craig Rice, Jonathan Latimer and Fredric Brown, and this novel is hilarious from start to finish. Miss Withers may be a spinster, but she’s nothing like Miss Marple. Think more of a Lew Archer in support hose! Palmer paints a nice picture of Los Angeles, and indeed he would go onto having his own career as a screenwriter, penning several scripts of the Bulldog Drummond series. The story twists and turns nicely to a satisfying, if not exactly “fair play” finish. But I have to say the real fun is in the way Palmer satirizes Hollywood and the filmmaking process. My favorite character was the producer for Lizzie Borden, Thorwald L. Nincom. (I figured with a name like this that there would be a “Nincom-poop” joke around the corner . . . it didn’t take long!)

Much of joy comes from observing Nincom try to subvert the Lizzie Borden story to his vision of a super-epic, pushing the romance over the murders, trying to substitute the axe with a less prosaic murder weapon:

“Wouldn’t it be plausible that the Borden family, with all their shipping business, would have collected a lot of antique armor and weapons, so that the murderer could pick a halberd off the wall? It would be more picturesque.”

In fact, as big a mystery as to who killed Saul Stafford and three other people is the question of who will play the title role in the picture. Thorwald is full of great ideas:

“No, no, no – no – no! I saw those tests, I tell you. And Sheridan won’t do for Lizzie. Listen, Artie, I don’t want oomph; I want sizzle! What? Now, seriously, can you imagine the De Havilland girl killing her parents with a hatchet? It’s got to be somebody else. Of course, Davis, only Harry Warner wouldn’t ask any more than a pound of flesh for her.”

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In the final page, Nincom makes his decision, and that surprise ending is even better than the murder solution! I laughed out loud a lot while reading this book, and it made me want to revisit Miss Withers again soon.

Everyone in Hollywood is reduced to a casting type, including Miss Withers, whom Nincom dismisses as someone who “might fit into the dead-pan, sour-puss New England background.” And when two secretaries discuss their newest employee, one of them describes Miss Withers as “a mixture of Edna May Oliver and Charlotte Greenwood.” (This is the author’s “sign of approval” over the Hollywood casting of Oliver who played the character in the first three pictures.)

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The first novel, The Penguin Pool Murder, came out in 1931, and it didn’t take long for Hollywood to green light a film version. RKO snapped up the rights and began a series of six films in 1932. These were “B” pictures, quickly filmed with low production values, but they were helped immeasurably, at least at first, by the casting of the two leads. By a fortuitous coincidence, Edna May Oliver, half of the inspiration for the novel’s heroine, played Hildegarde. Palmer clearly approved of this choice, and in Happy Hooligan, Miss Withers is mistaken for Oliver twice. Character actor James Gleason made the perfect foil as Oscar Piper and, unlike Oliver, appeared in all six films.

In The Penguin Pool Murder, we meet Miss Withers on the job, escorting her class on a field trip to the New York Aquarium. Also there is Gerald Parker, a stockbroker, who has followed his cheating wife Gwen and surprises her there with her ex-lover Philip Seymour. Before long, Parker’s dead body falls into the penguin pool right before Miss Withers’ startled eyes. To add insult to injury, he seems to have been stabbed to death with the schoolteacher’s own hatpin! Miss Withers takes this personally and resolves to find the killer. She comes up against Inspector Piper for the first time, and sparks fly.

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Whenever Oliver and Gleason are onscreen together, the film is hilarious. They both had the sourpuss characters down to perfection, and their obvious affection for each lies beautifully under the surface. As a mystery, the film is just okay, but when you’ve seen as many 1930’s whodunits as I have, it becomes child’s play to pick out the killer based on some obvious tactics that screenwriters and casting agents use over and over again. I have no idea if the plot of the novel is any more complex, but this one is well-acted and fast paced (it runs a sweet 70 minutes).

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1934’s Murder on the Blackboard, based on the 1932 novel of the same name, is an even better mystery. This time, the setting is Miss Withers’ home turf, the elementary school where she investigates the murder of music teacher Louise Halloran. Whereas in the first film, the schoolteacher butted into Piper’s investigation, this time she definitely takes the lead and uncovers enough clues (including a map of the school’s geography and a cleverly written dying message) to do any Golden Age mystery proud. The suspicion is doled out evenly among four suspects, and the ending is a bit more of a surprise.

The final film starring Oliver as Miss Withers was 1935’s Murder on a Honeymoon, based on the 1933 novel, The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree. Miss Withers finds herself on a seaplane to Catalina Island when a fellow passenger is taken ill and dies by the time the plane has landed. The teacher makes a nuisance out of herself trying to convince authorities that Mr. Forrest was murdered. Oscar Piper flies out to help her when he realizes that the victim was a mob informant with a contract out on him.

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I’m not a huge fan of stories about mob informants with contracts out on them, and this screenplay bogged down for me, not least because it contains some of the casual racist humor you often found in 1930’s mysteries. (Some of that, unfortunately, can be found in Happy Hooligan as well.) Miss Withers loses some of her comic charm dealing with “tough customers,” and this time around her relationship with Piper is marred by a distinct disdain for his abilities. However, there’s a nice, larger, mix of suspects in this one, a very cute dog who actually helps solve the mystery, and an ending that would have been a great surprise . . . if I hadn’t immediately understood the significance of a bit of business that occurred early in the film.

In 1935, Edna Mae Oliver left RKO to join MGM, where she played a variety of supporting roles in prestigious adaptations of Dickens and Austen. (Her Betsey Trotwood is one of the highlights of the great David Copperfield film.) MGM’s gain was RKO’s loss. Still, they wanted to continue the series and had to re-cast. First, they went with Helen Broderick, a fine character actress who had played a wonderful sidekick to Ginger Rogers in Top Hat and Swing Time. Making her the next Miss Withers, however, proved to be a less than inspired decision.

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The film, Murder on the Bridle Path, based on the 1935 novel, The Puzzle of the Red Stallion, feels strained from the start. After a few minutes of vague romantic hijinks among the New York upper set, an unpleasant young woman named Violet Feverel is murdered while riding a horse in Central Park. The plot is awash in suspects, none of them very interesting, and nothing can distract us from the fact that the Miss Withers magic is missing. Broderick sneers her way through the role in low key fashion, while Oscar has never been more wrong-headed. In fact, their whole “relationship” consists of Miss Withers constantly turning Oscar around and pointing him in the right direction. And all they had to do was ask me because as soon as a certain actor made their first entrance, I knew this person would be unmasked at the end.

At least Miss Broderick had the dry acerbity of Miss Withers down cold. But for the last two films, RKO went in a decidedly different direction. Zasu Pitts was an acquired taste who used her huge eyes and distinctive vocal whine to play fretful biddies throughout the 1930’s. It’s hard to imagine her stumping the police with her detective skills, but she did, in The Plot Thickens (1936) and Forty Naughty Girls (1937). I think everyone agrees that Pitts was horribly miscast, and I have to admit I have not been able to bring myself to watch either film yet. But I do own and recommend the box set (which you can find here).

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I really enjoyed my introduction to Hildegard Withers. I even like her no-nonsense teaching style. If there are other Miss Withers fans out there, I would love to hear your recommendations for which book to try next!

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8 thoughts on “MURDER ON THE BLACKBOARD: Hildegarde Withers on Page and Screen

  1. I’ve only read the onre Withers to date, the second novel Murder on Wheels. It was…charming. Slight, simple, a touch facile, but so obviously a product of its time with no intent on being anything more that I couldn’t help but be caught up in it. If there’s some concensus as to what represents Palmer’s zenith I’d be interested to try something generally accepted as a strong entry in the series, but if Murder on Wheels represents the standard then I’d probably cope without reading any more. Will be curious to see what anyone else has to offer on this front…

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  2. Like JJ I have only read one of the novels, The Penguin Pool Murders, which I think I enjoyed (has been a while since I read it). Not easy to get hold of cheap second hand copies of Palmer’s novels so I haven’t really pursued getting further stories in the series.

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  3. It might be the Hollywood setting that inspired Palmer. The mystery aspect of each film wasn’t great, and since most of them seem to be based on novels, I might have just been lucky in my choice.

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  4. I have most of the books, and am rationing them out so that I don’t read the entire opus in one gulp! The short story collections are great fun, and the ‘team-up’ with Craig Rice–PEOPLE VS WITHERS AND MALONE is excellent. From what I understand it was mostly Palmer’s work, but he handles Rice’s sleuth John J Malone very well.

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