by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved
The film was The Penguin Pool Murder, first in a series of six films RKO made in the 1930's based upon Stuart Palmer's character of Hildegarde Withers, an old-maid schoolteacher who moonlights as an amateur detective and helps her sometimes-boyfriend, Inspector Oscar Piper of the official police, solve particularly baffling crimes. Withers is as close as any American author got to creating a U.S. version of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, and for the first three of the six films RKO perfectly cast Edna May Oliver as Withers and James Gleason as the irascible Piper -- who, praise be, was drawn as somewhat less dumb than the official police detectives in these movies.
The film opens in an ornate aquarium through which Miss Withers is leading a class of her students on a field trip, though we get only a few opening shots of aquatic life (Max Steiner is credited with music, and though much of the film is unscored we get an early hint of the Steiner style in an opening montage of the various fish and other life forms on exhibit at the aquarium -- and instead of just writing a generic "aquarium" theme and varying it, Steiner comes up with a different musical motif for each species; alas, most of the rest of the film is unscored and so this is the only sequence in which Steiner shines) before we cut back to more terrestrial intrigues: Bertrand Hemingway (played by the marvelous character villain Clarence Wilson, though it seems that he's supposed to be at least slightly sympathetic here), manager of the aquarium, is murderously mad at stockbroker Gerald Parker (Guy Usher) for having lost all Hemingway's money in the market crash. Parker says he can't make good Hemingway's losses because he lost all his money in the crash, too.
Parker's wife Gwen (Mae Clarke, looking quite a bit older and more matronly than she did in the 1931 Waterloo Bridge, The Public Enemy -- in which she was on the receiving end of James Cagney's famous grapefruit -- and Frankenstein) is cheating on him with someone else, and though we don't at first know who that someone else is she's also shown tapping an ex-boyfriend, Philip Seymour (Donald Cook), for money -- she dated him before she married Parker and clearly seems interested in getting back together with him and dumping her now-broke husband. (So much for "for richer or for poorer.") Gwen and Philip meet at the aquarium, Gerald confronts them there and Philip punches him out in a stairwell, knocking him down and apparently killing him -- at least he thinks he has, but in fact he's still alive until later, when he suddenly drops from the rafters of the aquarium and lands in, you guessed it, the penguin pool (the opening credits were shown against the backdrop of footage of a penguin walking around a tank, and the water makes a whirlpool effect that's superimposed over the penguin and the credits and later used in the actual movie as a transition device).
Hildegarde Withers complains to her students that her cherished hat pin -- one handed down to her by her mother -- is missing; later it turns up, but with a piece broken off the end of it, and it turns out that Gerald survived Philip's attack but was actually killed by someone else, who committed the murder by stabbing him behind the ear with the hat pin. (Yeah, right.) Also among the dramatis personae are "Chicago Lew" (Joe Hermano), a deaf-mute pickpocket working the crowds of the aquarium; and Barry Costello (Robert Armstrong), an attorney who loves penguins so much he spends his lunch hours in the aquarium watching them, and who offers his services to Gwen when Inspector Piper immediately comes to the (wrong) conclusion that she and Philip conspired to murder her inconvenient husband. (The script mentions the famous case of Ruth Snyder, a woman unhappily married to an older man, who plotted with her insurance agent Judd Grey to kill her husband -- the real-life basis of James M. Cain's novel Double Indemnity and also alluded to in the 1933 James Cagney film Picture Snatcher, in which he plays a paparazzo who sneaks a camera into the death house and actually takes a photo of a woman being executed -- just as some enterprising photographer had grabbed a similar shot of Ruth Snyder's actual electrocution.) It ultimately turns out that Costello was the real murderer -- he was Gwen's other extramarital lover -- and Gwen slaps Philip at the end as Hildegarde and Piper watch from afar and Hildegarde inexplicably accepts Piper's marriage proposal.
The Penguin Pool Murder is no great shakes as a thriller (for some reason, 1930's filmmakers made great, exciting gangster pictures but usually turned out dull, plodding movies when they tried to tackle other sorts of crime) but it's an entertaining film for three reasons: Edna May Oliver's unsurpassable performance in the lead (later RKO would try out Helen Broderick and ZaSu Pitts in the role, but neither caught the essence of the character the way Oliver did); Willis Goldbeck's clever, wisecrack-filled screenplay; and the dark, rich, almost Gothic direction of George Archainbaud. Aided by the superb (and regrettably short-lived) cinematographer Henry Gerrard, Archainbaud turns the aquarium into a veritable Old Dark House with fish, adding not only visual distinction but a sinister atmosphere (particularly the many shots of the upper reaches of the building, and the overhead setups in which the camera is placed in the building's rafters and looks down on the action) and thereby making the movie considerably more entertaining than it would have been if it were relying on thriller-type action (of which there's awfully little) alone to move its audience.