Friday 23 March 2007

Penguin Pool Murder (1932) George Archainbaud

Yes, they were making crime B movies in the precode era, and they even had such wonderful character actors as Edna May Oliver playing the leads. She's Miss Hildegarde Martha Withers, a teacher who has taken her charges to the aquarium, only to catch a pickpocket, lose the same pickpocket, lose her hatpin, find her hatpin and then find a corpse in the penguin pool. The victim is Gerry Parker, a newly broke broker, who has racked up a list of people willing to kill him, many of whom are of course present in the aquarium at the time of discovery. That list starts with his wife who is obviously far more keen on her husband's former money than her husband, her former lover who we've already seen knock out Parker with a swift punch to the jaw, the aquarium director who had invested through him and apparently been ripped off and a deaf mute pickpocket who's caught with the victim's watch.

Edna May is hardly the only character actor or B movie regular here, though she really established herself as a leading actress. Police Inspector Oscar Piper is a lively James Gleason, who is always a pleasure but who is even more dynamic here than usual. Both of them were popular enough to return twice more as the same characters, in Murder on the Blackboard and Murder on a Honeymoon. The victim's wife is Mae Clarke, precode regular and recipient of Jimmy Cagney's grapefruit in The Public Enemy. Barry Costello, a lawyer, is Robert Armstrong, not yet famous for King Kong but already a notable supporting actor or B movie lead. There's also Donald Cook as the former lover, Gustav von Seyffertitz and others.

It's Edna May's show though. She's as wonderfully dismissive as you'd imagine from seeing her in any of her other roles and she has great fun doing so. She's always a joy to watch and that joy is only heightened by the fact that there's far more of her than usual, something that James Gleason obviously agreed with because there are a few scenes where he's obviously trying not to laugh. While it's his investigation, she takes over in true Edna May Oliver style and makes it her own, riding roughshod over everyone and browbeating them all in the process. Now I need the sequels...

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