Thursday, November 8, 2007

Nancy Drew - Detective (1938)

Bonita Granville made four Nancy Drew B-movies based on the famous character in the series of novels for girls. This first entry gives us beginning and end titles with the silhouette of Nancy drawn as a shadow in the dark, carrying a flashlight and with the wind blowing her hair, her scarf, and her skirt before her. It is a typical image found in the illustrations for the books by Carolyn Keene (actually a pseudonym for a team of writers), and is wonderfully evocative of that girls’ mystery genre.

Warner Bros. specialized in hard boiled crime films of detectives and gangsters, but there is nothing hard boiled about the Nancy Drew series, which does not even follow the novels that closely. We do have Nancy, plucky, clever teen who sticks her nose in other people’s business, but Bonita Granville plays her with more cheerfulness and humor than her literary counterpart. Carson Drew, her lawyer dad played by John Litel, an intelligent kindly authority figure and seems to defend only innocent people, and spends a lot of time warning Nancy to stay out of trouble.

Ned Nickerson becomes Ted in this series. Played by Frankie Thomas, Ted is a bit more bumbling but a lot more funny than his counterpart in the books as well. Ted’s and Nancy’s relationship is more teasing than amorous, but the chemistry between the two young actors brings a lot to the films. Nancy’s other chums, “boyish George” and “plump Bess” are nowhere to be seen. Just as well, there’d be nothing for them to do.

In this first outing, the plot is fast paced, almost as fast as Nancy’s speech. A rich elderly woman is kidnapped, and Nancy drags poor Ted along on a spree of clues, thugs, and ineffectual police represented by Captain Tweedy to save the day. Ted is useful because he can tackle people and knows a lot about carrier pigeons.

Nancy’s famous roadster (for those of you who grew up on the original stories, you will recall she never drove a car; she drove a roadster. She never wore a dress; she wore a frock), is about the size of the Queen Mary. We can tell by the rear-screen projection whizzing by us just how maniacally fast Nancy drives. Nancy leaves the comfort of her palatial suburban house with its enormous curved staircase and goofy maid Effie, to scour River Heights for clues. (Or clews, depending on which editions you read.)

There is a lot of racing about in Nancy’s roadster in this film. We have a wonderful, essentially trouble-free world of two all-American kids who change their own flat tires, fly in biplanes with helmets and goggles, shooting aerial pictures with a Brownie camera and develop their own black and white prints, send Western Union telegrams, and also distress signals through the radio. They use Ham radios and know that bluebells are also called larkspurs. They face surly gunmen and Ted, good guy that he is, even consents to dressing in disguise as a female nurse of that era to help free the old lady held hostage in a sinister rest home. Resplendent in a dress white nurse’s uniform, white stockings and cap, and cape, he looks like Cherry Ames on steroids. (Unlike Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames never got her own B-movie serial. Must not have had a good agent.)

The real nurse (played by Mae Busch, who we last saw as the battleaxe Mrs. Hardy in “Unaccustomed As We Are”) inside the spooky house is being very mean to the old lady, who has a lot of money, which is why everybody is bothering about her. Ted is a much nicer nurse. When one of the bad guys flirtatiously hits on Ted, our hero bravely pulls out his compact and begins to reapply his makeup, virtuously giving the ne’er do well the brush-off.

Add a rumble seat and a roadster with a broken starter than needs to be cranked in order for the engine to turn over, and you have one swell adventure, at least one for the time capsule.

That’s all for this week. See you Monday. Have a good weekend.

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