Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of Joan Blondell (1906-1979), an iconic Warner dame known for her snappy speech and straight-shooting style. We’ve covered Illicit (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Night Nurse (1931), but haven’t even yet scratched the surface of her miraculous Pre-Code career. We’re making up for lost time, and so far we’ve featured Blonde Crazy (1931), Union Depot (1932), and The Greeks Had A Word For Them [a.k.a. Three Broadway Girls] (1932). Today…
Miss Pinkerton (1932)
A private duty nurse gets herself mixed up in a murder investigation. Starring Joan Blondell, George Brent, Ruth Hall, John Wray, and Elizabeth Patterson. Based on the novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Adaptation by Niven Busch and Lillie Hayward. Additional dialogue by Robert Tasker. Directed by Lloyd Bacon.
“Nurse Adams is sent to the Mitchell house to care for Julia Mitchell, who is in shock after discovering the body of her nephew, Herbert Wynne. Her supervisor tells her that she will be working undercover for the police, who suspect that Wynne was murdered. Police inspector Patten… learns that Wynne recently took out a life insurance policy, [and] changes his mind, [deciding] that Wynne committed suicide. Patten suspects that Wynne shot himself through a newspaper so as not to leave powder burns, and asks Adams to look for the newspaper. While she is searching the house, Adams meets Paula Brent, who says that she was Wynne’s fiancée. Paula believes that someone in the family killed Wynne for the insurance money, but at the inquest, Wynne’s death is declared accidental.
“Meanwhile, Adams sees a mysterious stranger creeping around, who grabs her and locks her in a closet. Adams’s screams lead the family to summon the police, who find Charles Elliott holding a newspaper with a bullet hole in it. They arrest Charles even though Adams is sure he did not kill Wynne. Julia is very distressed when she hears about the arrest and summons her lawyer Arthur Glenn. Outside the room, Paula begs Adams to let her search Wynne’s room to clear Charles. While they are talking, Glenn asks Adams and his stenographer Florence Lenz to witness Julia’s signature on a statement which they do not read. Then Dr. Stewart gives Julia a shot for her heart.
“Moments later, Julia dies because someone substituted arsenic for the amyl nitrate, but before she learns of the death, Adams washes the hypodermic which causes the doctor to report her to the police. Paula then is found with a marriage license revealing her secret marriage to Wynne. This revelation seems to give Charles a motive, so Patten questions him again and Charles admits that he and Paula are in love. According to Charles, on the night of the murder, he was trying to discourage Wynne from bothering Paula, when he heard someone coming up the stairs and climbed out the window. While Charles is telling his story, the police find Hugo, the butler, has been drugged. Hugo demands that they question Florence. When they do, the police learn that Glenn…” (This summary, truncated to avoid the spoiler of the whodunit, is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
I’ve purposely edited this post to avoid spoilers, as one of the joys of a murder mystery, like the one offered in Miss Pinkerton, is solving the inevitable whodunit. While some experts in the genre may have an easier time of piecing things together than I did, the film — to its credit — is a brisk 65-mintues, so the proceedings do not have the time to slow enough for any potentially obvious answers to arise and make the characters seem idiotic, or worse, lacking in self-awareness. In other words, while the audience for the film may be slightly ahead of the plot, this is not to the detriment of the story or the characters within. And because the film is so action packed, we are engrossed from beginning to end. The story, from the book by the renowned Mary Roberts Rinehart, itself is fascinating, and the host of individuals culled for the ensemble, although some too suspicious for their own good, undoubtedly infuse the intrigue.
And that is because everyone is well cast. Elizabeth Patterson, best known to sitcom fans as Mrs. Trumbull in I Love Lucy (1951-1957, CBS) is excellent as Julia, whose shocking murder raises the stakes and hurtles the film to its exciting conclusion. George Brent is our leading man detective, and although he never seems to get to play out-of-type, it’s difficult to be disappointed, because he is perfect for the roles in which he’s cast (even if they are all uncannily similar). He’s smart, charming, and a bit sarcastic — the perfect specimen of unsentimental 30’s masculinity. And, furthermore, he plays so effortlessly off of our spotlighted leading lady that one wishes they had even more moments together. (The material they are given to share is undoubtedly Miss Pinkerton‘s highlight.)
But Joan Blondell is top-billed, and unlike her prior film The Famous Ferguson Case (a murder mystery by the same director that I watched for potential inclusion here, before deciding against it), she deserves it! Not only is she at the center of all the action, with plenty of chances to scream at the top of her lungs, but the character is also the best defined. (Multi-dimensionality is sometimes taken for granted in murder mysteries, even though it is of the utmost importance.) She’s filled with her trademark one-liners, giving snappy banter to EVERY person in the film. Her giddiness in solving the case, combined with the accompanying snooping, gives the film its fast pace. She’s marvelous, and because of her presence, the film goes from being good to great. It’s no The Thin Man (1934), but Miss Pinkerton is well done and almost as entertaining. Rent the DVD and enjoy.
Come back next Friday for another Blondell Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical comedy!