The Original Nancy Drew Movie Mystery Collection
Nancy Drew: Detective (1938)/Nancy Drew: Reporter (1939)/Nancy Drew: Trouble Shooter (1939)/Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (1939)
Directed By: William Clemens
Starring: Bonita Granville, Frankie Thomas, John Litel, Frank Orth, Renie Riano
- Various bits of teen slang from the Nancy Drew film series
- That conceited Tweet Tweet
- Aw! Quit disturbing the molecules.
- Aw! Crud and guff
- Suffering Cats!
- That'd chap a monk.
- No soap.
- ...it gives me the whim whams
Over the span of less than a year between November of 1938 and September of 1939 Warner Brothers turned out four films based on the popular "Nancy Drew" series of juvenile detective novels. While the studio took some liberties with the characters from the book series, primarily for the purpose of injecting humor, and only incorporated plot elements from two of the actual novels, they managed to create an enjoyable series of "B" pictures thanks largely to its likeable cast and fast moving plots.
Nancy Drew: Detective - 1938 - 66 minutes
In the first entry in the series, Nancy (Granville) is investigating the disappearance of Ms. Eldrige (Helena Phillips Evans), a wealthy benefactress who goes missing just before she was to cut a large check to Nancy's Brinwood School for Young Girls. Nancy enlists the somewhat reluctant Ted Nickerson (Thomas) to help her get to the bottom of things despite obstacles including the condescending and none-too-bright Police Captain Tweedy, physical threats from the kidnappers when she gets too close to the truth, and discouragement from her father out of concern for her own safety.
This is a great start to the series, with all of the elements (Nancy's array of hats and scarves, Ted's nonsense-speak gag when a diversion is needed, the silly teen-slang, Nancy's aggressive driving habits, cross-dressing ...) in place from the get go. The father-daughter chemistry between Nancy and Carson plays very well in this one, but the later films in the series took less interest in this dynamic. Ted is the perfect put-upon foil whom Nancy always convinces to go along with her schemes despite his inevitable humiliations and litanies of any number of things he would rather be doing. Much like in the books, Nancy is almost always right about things, but the film Nancy has a hint of bad-girl mischievousness and a touch of hyperactivity that makes her a bit more fun as a movie character. Reliable character actor Frank Orth squeezes all the comedy juice he can out of the role of the amusingly incompetent Captain Tweedy.
Nancy Drew: Reporter - 1939 - 67 minutes
In the second feature, Nancy and her Brinwood classmates take a field trip to their local newpaper office where the high-strung editor (Thomas Jackson) gives them each a "softball" story to cover, and offers an award to the girl who writes the best story. Nancy swaps her assignment slip with that of an absent reporter who was supposed to cover a high profile murder inquest. The suspect, Eula Denning (Betty Amann) is indicted, but Nancy is convinced that she is innocent and sets out to prove it. With the help of Ted, and somewhat hampered by Ted's kid sister, Mary (Mary Lee), and her friend, "Killer" (Dickie Jones), Nancy becomes increasingly suspicious of boxer Soxie Anthens (Jack Perry) and his connection to Miles Lambert (Larry Williams), a relative of the deceased.
The plot of the second feature is somewhat simpler than that of "Nancy Drew: Detective", but the running time is filled out by bits of business involving Mary Nickerson and Killer, including an out of left field musical number in a Chinese restaurant. While this lowers it a bit in my estimation, it is still a fairly zippily paced mystery, focusing, as would the third film, "Nancy Drew: Trouble Shooter" on the cat and mouse aspect of Nancy's attempts to gather proof of the suspects' guilt. Captain Tweedy's role is reduced to a cameo in this episode, but Nancy and Ted are assisted in the film's final act by the enthusiastic Sergeant Entwhistle, who goes undercover in Grandmother drag in an attempt to catch the killers.
Nancy Drew: Trouble Shooter - 1939 - 68 minutes
In "Nancy Drew: Trouble Shooter", Nancy, her father, and their maid Effie (Riano), travel to Sylvan Lake when family friend, Matt Brandon (Aldrich Bowker), is accused of murdering his neighbor. Despite the usual discouragement from her father, Nancy cannot help but get involved. Since the Nickerson's vacation home is also near the lake, as was established in the first film, Nancy is able to enlist Ted in her efforts to clear "Uncle Matt" and identify the real murderers. As investigation unfolds, Nancy is unsettled more by her father's developing romantic interest in Uncle Matt's neighbor, Edna Gregory (Charlotte Wynters), then by any of the usual peril she creates by running afoul of the murderers.
The core of the plot of "..Trouble Shooter" is almost identical to that of "...Reporter", except instead of being framed by the newspaper competition and padded with the Mary and Killer bits, the story is framed by a domestic family drama involving Nancy's resentment of Edna, and padded by some stereotypical ethnic/racial comedy involving Edna's slow witted black servant, Apollo Johnson (Willie Best - This talented and prolific comic actor, who in his early career was billed as "sleep and eat", may have the dubious distinction of eating more stolen chickens on screen than any actor in Hollywood history based on an unscientific sample of my memory of films in which I have seen him). Throw in the fact that the Sylvan lake law enforcement officers are not nearly as amusing as Police Captain Tweedy from the other three films, and "...Trouble Shooter" amounts to the weakest entry in the series. That being said, it does feature some very good action sequences including a scene where Ted runs into a burning building in an attempt to retrieve some evidence and another where Nancy and Ted are taken up in a crop duster and then abandoned by the parachuted pilot in an attempt to make their deaths look like an accident.
Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase - 1939 - 60 minutes
The last film in the series, which shares its title and certain plot details with the second book in the series of novels, finds Nancy getting involved with a strange series of events surrounding the home of elderly sisters Rosemary (Vera Lewis) and Floretta (Louise Carter) Turnbull. After almost 20 years, they are about to finally meet the terms of their father's will and come into full possession of their estate. The will required that at least one of them spend the night at the house every evening for 20 years. A strange series of events including a mysterious death begins to convince them that their house is haunted. Nancy believes there is another explanation, possibly related to the sisters' plans to donate the property for the construction of a hospital, and employs Ted's help to both further her investigation, and do whatever it takes to keep the sisters from moving out of the house before they inherit it.
The basic premise is very close to that of "Nancy Drew: Detective". In this case, you have two elderly sisters about to donate their home for the establishment of a hospital instead of a single wealthy woman wanting to donate funds to the school. Instead of leading to a disappearance/kidnapping, this time we are treated to a haunted house story, which I liked just as much if not better. This is the leanest of the scripts, and also the shortest of the films, in the series. That proves to be a virtue as it moves along at a very fast and enjoyable pace. Ted's summer job as an iceman is used for laughs, but always integrated into the unraveling of the mystery at hand. In the course of their investigation, Nancy gets Ted arrested multiple times, once in drag after having his clothes stolen, to humorous effect, especially given the welcome series re-appearance of Police Captain Tweedy. Elements liable to give modern parents a severe case of the "whim whams" include the usual reckless driving and interference with police investigations with an additional element of irresponsible teenage gunplay, especially when Nancy waves a loaded luger around, even casually pointing it at her own chest before conducting an impromptu ballistics test.
All four films are presented in 4:3 black and white transfers appropriate for their original theatrical aspect ratios. All of them show varying signs of print damage. "Nancy Drew: Detective" shows particularly heavy damage early in the film in a scene in Carson Drew's office. The image looks like it has water spots all over it. This type of damage reappears in the film's last reel in a scene where Nancy and Ted are locked in a basement. Other than these sequences and a few instances of dropped frames, visible film element damage is tolerable.
"Nancy Drew: Reporter" is by far the worst looking presentation of the bunch, with excessive grain levels and film damage compared to the other titles in the collection that will make you think you are seeing spots through most of the film's running time.
"Nancy Drew: Trouble Shooter" is easily the best looking title in the set with light grain but significantly fewer visible nicks and scratches to the film element.
"Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase" shows a significant amount of element wear and tear that keeps it from rising quite to the level of "...Trouble Shooter", but nothing as severe as the first two titles in the series.
All of the titles have pleasing levels of contrast taking into account occasional density fluctuations within the frame due to film source issues. Ringing along horizontal edges is minor to non-existent, and compression normally does a good job keeping up with the film grain, although the significantly higher grain level on "...Reporter" leads to more visible artifacts than the other titles.
All of the titles look significantly better than the broadcast masters that have been used for recent airings on the Turner Classic Movies channel, but they are limited by the condition of their film elements which appear to be presented honestly with little or no touch-ups in the digital video domain.
All of the films have English mono 1.0 audio with no alternate language dubs. In general, the audio tracks have the expected amount of optical track crackle and hiss, somewhat cleaned up by digital noise reduction tools. There are noticeable sibilance issues with the dialog. Unfortunately, "Nancy Drew: Reporter" has significantly more audible noise and distortion than the other titles in the set. The audio on the first reel in particular is as bad as anything I have heard on DVD. For the rest of the film, the signal to noise ratio improves slightly, but sporadically relapses to be as bad as in the opening scenes.
All four films include their original theatrical trailers.
The DVDs come packaged in a standard Amaray-style case with an additional hinged tray in the center allowing it to hold two discs. The menus allow the users to select the film they want and back up to the top menu if they change their mind. Chapter lists are not available from the disc's menu, but they are present on each title, accessible by either directly entering the chapter number or skipping through them with your player's advance button on your remote. For some reason, the film titles are listed out of sequence on the front cover, but they are arranged on the discs themselves in chronological order.
Fans of the book series or of films of the late 30s in general will likely enjoy this release, as they are above average "B" pictures that transcend their budgetary restrictions primarily due to an engaging cast headed by Bonita Granville and Frankie Thomas. In addition to their entertainment value, they serve as an interesting time capsule showing how teenage life was depicted by mainstream Hollywood in the late 30s. The audio video presentation is hobbled somewhat by problematic film elements, especially for "Nancy Drew: Reporter" which seems to be from a source at least two generations of film down from that of any of the other titles in the set. With that in mind, the folks behind the transfer and compression appear to make the most of what they had to work with. While this release was likely prompted by the new theatrical Nancy Drew film starring Emma Roberts, I hope that we will see Warner tapping into some more of their better vintage "B" titles for DVD release in the near future.