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.

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