THE PENGUIN POOL MURDER. RKO Radio, 1932. Edna May Oliver, James Gleason, Robert Armstrong, Mae Clarke, Donald Cook, Edgar Kennedy. Based on the mystery novel by Stuart Palmer. Director: George Archainbaud. Shown at Cinevent 19, Columbus OH, May 1987.


   The Penguin Pool Murder is based on the popular Stuart Palmer Hildegarde Withers series and was the first of three films to star the redoubtable Edna Mae Oliver as the spinster amateur detective.

   I thought it a very appealing film indeed, but when I mentioned my enjoyment of the film to a friend he observed that he had erased it from a tape, expunging this “poorly paced” Withers/ Piper collaboration, but preserving for posterity (and me, perhaps, at a later date) a “superior” later entry in the series.

   I liked the film for the fizzy chemistry between Edna Mae Oliver and Inspector Piper, played with his usual engaging asperity by James Gleason, and what seemed to my bemused eyes to be a nicely paced comedy-mystery with some Oscar-worthy histrionics by a talented penguin.

   But I must confess that when it comes to Edna Mae Oliver, I am a patsy in the throes of an unrequited passion. My favorite Oliver performance is in John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk, where she plays a feisty widow putting Indians to rout with a broom and a stentorian voice until an arrow terminates her terroristic cavorting.


   (The only contemporary actress I can compare her to in the effect she has on me is pint-sized Linda Hunt, who conveys more intelligence and sympathy with a look than most actresses do with a pageful of dialogue. I enjoyed her unanchored — by the script — performance in Silverado, where amid the clutter of this entertaining shoot-’em-up [and down], she displays a purity of character and demeanor that raises most of her scenes to a level to which little else in the film aspires.)

   As for Penguin Pool Murder, however, I will delay my definitive judgment on it until I have seen the other Oliver/Gleason collaborations in the series.

– Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 9, No. 3, May/June 1987 (very slightly revised).