THE PLOT THICKENS. 1936. James Gleason, ZaSu Pitts, Louise Latimer, Owen Davis Jr., Richard Tucker. Based on a story and characters created by Stuart Palmer. Director: Ben Holmes.

   The role of Hildegarde Withers in this next-to-the-last movie based on her adventures with Inspector Piper was taken over from Edna May Oliver then Helen Broderick by ZaSu Pitts, whose fluttery hands and ways are best taken in small doses. She seems to fit the part, however, given Hollywood’s perspective on the stories.

THE PLOT THICKENS  Miss Withers.

   This has come up before, and in the meantime I’ve given this some small amount of thought to it — the business of detective stories being made into comedies when converted to the silver screen, especially during the 30s and 40s.

   Maybe it’s because the idea behind the traditional, cozy detective murder mystery is inherently ridiculous to begin with — the established routine of a victim, suspects, clues, questioning, locked rooms, alibis and so on.

   Could it be, when transferred into cinematic terms, the whole entire unlikelihood of the proceedings is amplified into the utterly absurd?

   That’s the question as I’ve reformulated it so far, and I haven’t answered it yet, but why else did so many favorite mystery characters turn into bumbling idiots when portrayed on the screen?

   Or why did their adventures need to “enlivened” by the presence of goofy chauffeurs, clown-like cops or (simply) funny friends? Hard-boiled operatives fared much better. I don’t think Hollywood had a very great opinion of the Ellery Queen’s or Hildegarde Withers(es) of the literary world.

   Which is not to say that I’m bitter — but wouldn’t it have been better to have had Jean Arthur play Pam North than Gracie Allen? Wouldn’t Sara Haden (Andy Hardy’s Aunt Millie) have made a better Hildegarde Withers? (It could have been worse — they might have used Marjorie Main.)

   This not being an ideal world, however, simply the best of all possible ones, we accept what we’re given. As the title indicates, there’s a lot of plot in this one: first of all a murder, with lots of suspects, including a butler and a jealous boy friend. There also turns out to be a stolen emerald in the dead man’s possession, and the whole affair ends up in a museum where the famous Cellini cup is the target of a gigantic gang of thieves.

   Simply terrific stuff!

   James Gleason, as Inspector Oscar Piper, is a pint-sized bantam with an irascible temper and even fouler-smelling cigars. As a detective, well, it’s no wonder he had Miss Withers along to do his thinking for him.

– Reprinted from Mystery*File #35, November 1993, slightly revised.


[UPDATE] 12-08-10.   When I wrote this review, I was unaware of a made-for-TV movie in which Miss Withers (Eve Arden) and Inspector Piper (James Gregory) were also the leading characters. It was A Very Missing Person, based on the novel Hildegarde Withers Makes the Scene by Stuart Palmer and Fletcher Flora. Shown on ABC, 4 March 1972, rumor has it that it was not as good as it might have been.

   And a fact that was totally unknown to me until just now, according to Wikipedia, there was a 1950s TV sitcom pilot entitled “Amazing Miss Withers” that starred Agnes Moorehead and Paul Kelly. It is apparently considered lost, probably forever.