sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2019-02-11 08:54 pm
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What's good looks got to do with romance?

You know how it is. You're watching a movie and it's not a romance, but there are a couple of young lovers in it because the angle's as old as New Comedy, and meanwhile off to the side a couple of middle-aged weirdos are stealing all their scenes. In a musical or an operetta, they may be the secondary couple with some songs and a subplot of their own, but they are otherwise unlikely to take precedence in the plot, much less romantic center stage. Love is for the birds and pretty faces. Enter George Archainbaud's Penguin Pool Murder (1932).

I don't want to mislead anyone. There are some young lovers in this movie; they even have exclusive rights to its first eight minutes. It just happens that they are mostly larcenous and/or murderous airheads who photograph nicely—they're played by Mae Clarke, Donald Cook, and eventually Robert Armstrong—and once the script has established their relevance to the wife-slapping, fortune-squandering stockbroker found stone dead in the penguin tank of the New York Aquarium, it promptly forgets about them as anything but MacGuffins. It can afford to. At the eight-minute mark, a purse-snatcher comes bolting around the curve of a seal pool and takes a flying faceplant into the damp concrete, an immovable object having been deftly inserted into his stride. Splendidly tart as ever, Edna May Oliver's Miss Hildegarde Withers gives the object a tidy dust-off and observes the lesson for her eagerly jostling young class: "There, you see? Never try to evade the law with an umbrella between your legs." An already exciting field trip becomes a real day out when Teacher's garnet-headed hatpin goes missing and a corpse intrudes on its recovery and a modest programmer gears up to real charm as the redoubtable Miss Withers meets her match in James Gleason's Inspector Oscar Piper, world-wearily introducing himself at the aquarium's door with the slight misapprehension "Some kid called up and said there was a dead man in swimming with the ducks." The two of them spark off one another at once; they have the crackling, competitive chemistry traditionally assigned to younger, more conventionally attractive leads and their double-act is such a pleasure to watch that while I have to work to remember the mechanics of the actual mystery, I suspect I will retain forever the flirtatious reprimand in Oliver's voice as the schoolteacher takes her leave of the inspector who "can't quite make [her] out": "This is a busy day for you, Inspector. Now you have two mysteries to solve!" Their eventual team-up feels luxuriously inevitable, like watching a partner dance come together from a couple of hummed phrases and a restless foot. He's shortish for a man, she's tallish for a woman; her vowels could out-Brahmin Boston and he sounds like all Brooklyn in a day; he fumes and rumples like a sawed-off stogie while she in her prim elongation suggests an egret incompletely metamorphosed into a hatrack; if it wasn't obvious already, they're adorable. Pleasingly, their romance is a meeting of minds as well as physiognomies, her amateur detective's disdain for the police gradually tempered by appreciation of his individual smarts—Hildegarde's faster with deductions, but Oscar correctly susses out emotional terrain—just as his blue-collar dismissal of the teaching life one-eighties once he realizes the brains and the character it takes. If anything, the film slyly suggests that the spinster schoolteacher may be better prepared to pursue justice than the NYPD. "I've taught school long enough, Inspector, to know when someone is telling the truth or not . . . If I can handle a classroom of children, one district attorney ought to be easy!" Watching his dorky, fearless partner stride doughtily off to crack the case single-handed if she has to, Oscar pays her equal tribute as both sleuth and woman: "Boy—and she can cook, too!"

The twist that Oscar foresees while Hildegarde is still hoping for a traditional happy ending is that the young lovers really aren't: instead of a post-acquittal kiss and make up, girl hi-hats boy and he retorts with a sharp smack on the cheek. (The gesture hasn't aged well. It seems intended in context to read as an appropriate kiss-off for the character's double-dealing, but I just don't feel that way about hitting people. That it's Clarke who gets slapped at both ends of the picture also reminds me uneasily of the well-documented glee audiences took in seeing her pasted with a grapefruit in The Public Enemy (1931); I wondered if a different actress might have gotten a less physical farewell.) The twist the audience has been rooting for is that young love isn't the only kind that gets happy endings. No sooner is one avenue of romantic closure dismissed than Oscar bursts out with the pull quote of this post, unable to stand hearing Hildegarde mourn that the two young people made "such a nice-looking couple"—"Hooey!" shouts the skinny, balding, irascible little man. He and Hildegarde mutually acknowledge that neither of them is a fashion plate. "All right, so what?" the inspector goes on. "I'm convinced that you and me should incorporate." In her dryest, most deflecting voice, the schoolteacher inquires, "Are you proposing that we start a detective bureau?" Oscar doesn't miss a beat: "No, I'm just proposing. What are you doing?" With one of her characteristic nervous gestures, Hildegarde straightens the fur collar of her unflattering coat and gives him the shyest smile we've seen from her. "Well, I'm—I'm just accepting!" Blackout on the middle-aged weirdos lighting out for a marriage license. It's a deeply satisfying left-fielder of an ending and I expect the only people it blindsides are the ones who think that romance is dead after thirty-five.

It's a nice reminder that noir is not the only documentary genre, too. As one would hope from the title, Penguin Pool Murder is a showcase for the New York Aquarium in its original location at Castle Garden, before Robert Moses uprooted it in 1941 for the sake of the Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel and the grudge of a never-built bridge; scenes appear to have been shot not just in the exhibit hall but all over the aquarium, showing the catwalks above and behind the tanks, the staff offices behind frosted glass doors, and even the inside of a men's washroom. We are treated to a panoply of marine life, dogfish, parrotfish, angelfish, an octopus eating a crab. As for the diversity of human characters, Hildegarde's students are a believably mixed, metropolitan group, visibly including Black and Asian children as well as the expected assortment of first-generation Europeans—there's a questionable crack at the expense of Sidney Miller's Isadore Marks, habitual kibitzer and the most obviously Jewish kid onscreen, but the small nerdy kid disappointed to learn that his prize for finding Teacher's hatpin is a free pass on the homework he already did two days in advance is, refreshingly, Black. (Hildegarde promises to think up a new prize for him.) The deaf-mute pickpocket is played by deaf-mute actor Joe Hermano and he cusses out the cop who arrests him in sign. Other supporting cast members include a personable and attractive little penguin who provides an important clue and an excuse for a character to cry, "Get away, you meddling fool! I'm trying to save a penguin's life!" and, as part of the script's cute habit of tracking the progress of the case via newspapers left randomly lying about, a black cat licking spilled milk beside an important headline. I don't have a ton to say about Henry W. Gerrard's cinematography, but it does nice work with water and wavering shadows in the after-hours aquarium. And it is a pre-Code movie, after all, so when a gum-chewing secretary being quizzed about an anonymous phone call sasses Hildegarde that "it ain't likely that a woman'd be calling me 'baby,' is it?" the schoolteacher can display an informal familiarity with Depression-era Manhattan's lesbian scene by agreeing placidly, "No, not so far downtown as this."

I do not know how closely Penguin Pool Murder resembles its source material, the 1931 novel of the same name by Stuart Palmer; I know that Palmer wrote fourteen novels and two collections of short stories starring Hildegarde Withers and RKO produced six films ditto, although for reasons as yet unknown to me future entries retconned her relationship with Oscar Piper and Oliver returned for only the first two sequels, after which she was replaced first by Helen Broderick and finally by ZaSu Pitts. I can't imagine anyone else in the role, honestly. She's the best reason to see this movie; she had a face that typecast her for comedy, the iliac crest to play Gormenghast's Irma Prunesquallor, and Penguin Pool Murder treats her as a real heroine. I like movies that show me things I don't often get to see, and I don't often get to see a prickly middle-aged couple granted the same kind of crime-solving romantic arc as Glenda Farrell and Frank McHugh in Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) or Marsha Hunt and Van Heflin in Kid Glove Killer (1942). Not to mention a penguin. This prize brought to you by my meddling backers at Patreon.
gwynnega: (Basil Rathbone)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2019-02-12 03:26 am (UTC)(link)
A delightful write-up of a delightful film. I saw it on TCM a few years back; now I want to see it again.
moon_custafer: (Acme Bookshop)

[personal profile] moon_custafer 2019-02-12 01:52 pm (UTC)(link)
Haven’t watched it yet, but it seems to be up here on YouTube: https://youtu.be/VsP28FkMa1o
kitewithfish: Evil smile (Default)

[personal profile] kitewithfish 2019-02-12 02:23 pm (UTC)(link)
Thank you! I came just to ask where I could find this
benbenberi: (Default)

[personal profile] benbenberi 2019-02-12 02:28 pm (UTC)(link)
Oh oh oh! I know what I'm watching tonight! Thanks
asakiyume: (good time)

[personal profile] asakiyume 2019-02-17 05:39 pm (UTC)(link)
Ah, excellent!!

lemon_badgeress: basket of lemons, with one cut lemon being decorative (Default)

[personal profile] lemon_badgeress 2019-02-12 05:24 am (UTC)(link)
this movie sounds thoroughly delightful.

to answer a question from earlier which i set aside to think about and then lost to the depths of my inbox, i am not a very visually oriented person and for the most part i actively dislike watching movies or television even if it’s a story i very much want to consume, so GENERALLY AS A RULE your reviews fill me with delight because i learn enough to go on with and don’t need to think about watching them.

some of them aren’t quite enough for going on with, and then they make me wish i wanted to watch them.

and a few make me plan to watch it, if i ever get the chance. i hope i’ll see this someday.
pameladean: (Default)

[personal profile] pameladean 2019-02-12 07:51 pm (UTC)(link)
Yes, yes, this is me, though I think I plan to watch a larger percentage; but still, this is so familiar.

In addition to not being visually oriented, or rather because of it, I don't have a lot of practice processing visual art of any kind, so it just all hits me right between the eyes. One movie or graphic novel or even art museum exhibit lasts me a really long time and requires recovery.

P.
pameladean: (Default)

[personal profile] pameladean 2019-02-13 08:13 pm (UTC)(link)
Moving visual art is far more vivid, but still visual art nevertheless packs a significant punch. Oddly, I can consume endless amounts of live theater, which I guess is a sort of moving visual art, without feeling that I am staring into the sun without the right kind of lenses. It feels natural, as reading does. Brains are strange.

P.
pameladean: (Default)

[personal profile] pameladean 2019-02-15 10:25 pm (UTC)(link)
That's a very good theory. I don't think it's screens per se, so yes. Drama tries to direct one's gaze, of course, but it can't force things on you the way TV and movies can.

And in fact a favorite activity of mine is to look beyond the people centered by the play and see what the secondary and bit characters are doing in any given scene.

P.
alatefeline: Painting of a cat asleep on a book. (Default)

[personal profile] alatefeline 2019-02-12 06:27 am (UTC)(link)
I need to watch this movie!!!
swan_tower: (Default)

[personal profile] swan_tower 2019-02-12 09:16 am (UTC)(link)
"We've hit on something? Next you'll be claiming you did half the murder."

This was utterly delightful. I managed to track it down on YouTube, and Hildegard is fantastic from one end to the other -- telling the kids to look everywhere they'd gone, inside the fish tanks, inside the fish . . . and when she wakes up from her faint her first instinct is to tell the solicitous young man to go chase the murderer.
swan_tower: (Default)

[personal profile] swan_tower 2019-02-12 08:12 pm (UTC)(link)
If you do read the novels, report back!
thisbluespirit: (writing)

[personal profile] thisbluespirit 2019-02-12 09:18 am (UTC)(link)
Excuse me being annoying and not commenting on the review, but w00t! You wrote a review! \o/
shewhomust: (Default)

[personal profile] shewhomust 2019-02-12 10:23 am (UTC)(link)
This sounds terrific!
gilana: (Default)

[personal profile] gilana 2019-02-12 03:23 pm (UTC)(link)
Hey, speaking of movies, are you guys going to see 20,000 Leagues tomorrow night by any chance? It's one of Aaron's favorite movies ever (and one I always manage to fall asleep during when we watch the video) so we're super excited to see it on the big screen, and it would be great to see you!
skygiants: Rebecca from Fullmetal Alchemist waving and smirking (o hai)

[personal profile] skygiants 2019-02-12 09:36 pm (UTC)(link)
Wow, I'm a thousand percent here for this.
ethelmay: (Default)

[personal profile] ethelmay 2019-02-12 11:02 pm (UTC)(link)
Parts of this sound terrifically familiar and parts do not. I wonder if I saw a documentary or something where this was excerpted?
ethelmay: (Default)

[personal profile] ethelmay 2019-02-13 03:05 am (UTC)(link)
It's always possible that I read the book, but the memories I have are definitely film-ish, not book-ish. I remember the proposal scene, I think. The aquarium and the children ring no bells.
moon_custafer: (Acme Bookshop)

[personal profile] moon_custafer 2019-02-13 05:35 pm (UTC)(link)
) The deaf-mute pickpocket is played by deaf-mute actor Joe Hermano and he cusses out the cop who arrests him in sign.
I did wonder why they didn’t have the arresting cop question him if he understood ASL, but eventually decided he didn’t, but just recognized what the guy was likely saying under the circumstances.

although for reasons as yet unknown to me future entries retconned her relationship with Oscar Piper

I guess most schoolboards at the time wouldn’t have let Miss Withers continue to teach as a married woman; I can headcanon that she remembered this on the way to the Justice of the Peace, and she and Piper decided to either keep the marriage secret or to be friends-with-mystery-solving-benefits. Watching Gleason’s face light up a bit more each time he looks at Oliver is one of this movie’s joys.
moon_custafer: (Acme Bookshop)

[personal profile] moon_custafer 2019-02-13 06:23 pm (UTC)(link)
Even during the Depression? Good job, sexism.
Hm. I don’t know whether they’d have made exceptions during the Depression. I think the logic was usually “if she gets married, she’ll have ave kids and have to quit toraise them anyway,” but I can see the depression adding on “if she’s married to someone with a job, she should quit to open up the job for an unmarried woman who needs it.”
nineweaving: (Default)

[personal profile] nineweaving 2019-02-14 09:17 am (UTC)(link)
Stuart Palmer reminisces:

"The origins of Miss Withers are nebulous. When I started Penguin Pool Murder (to be laid in the New York Aquarium as suggested by Powell Brentano then head of Brentano’s Publishers) I worked without an outline, and without much plan. But I decided to ring in a spinster schoolma’am as a minor character, for comedy relief. Believe it or not, I found her taking over. She had more meat on her bones than the cardboard characters who were supposed to carry the story. Finally almost in spite of myself and certainly in spite of Mr. Brentano, I threw the story into her lap. She was based to some extent on Fern Hackett, an English teacher in Baraboo High School who made my life miserable for two years. Once I came to get her permission to transfer to another class and she said okay, only she’d be lonesome and bored without our arguments; that I was the only student in the class whom she thought enough of to bother with. I think she started me as a writer. Fern was a horse-faced old girl, preposterously old-fashioned, fine old New England family run to seed, hipped on Thoreau and Emerson."

Nine
nineweaving: (Default)

[personal profile] nineweaving 2019-02-14 05:52 pm (UTC)(link)
Edna May Oliver is magnificent, always.

Nine
asakiyume: created by the ninja girl (Default)

[personal profile] asakiyume 2019-02-17 05:37 pm (UTC)(link)
while she in her prim elongation suggests an egret incompletely metamorphosed into a hatrack **loved** that. And I love her acceptance of his proposal!

And I like that the nerdy kid is the black one--in 1931. How do we keep losing; how does the goodness not survive?

I hope this is on YouTube; I want to see it.