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Original Nancy Drew Movie Mystery Collection, The
Savant never got into Nancy Drew, probably because I was too busy reading non-fiction about rockets and dinosaurs to take an interest in juvenile fiction, especially a series about a goody-goody girl detective. Just as The Hardy Boys might have well have been young rogues from the 1890s with a few added 'with-it' phrases, Nancy Drew was initially conceived as refined and well-mannered, to set an example for young girls. Warner Bros. adaptations of the Nancy Drew books fortunately alter her character to suit the times, making the girl detective into a high-spirited and impulsive sleuth forever disobeying her father to solve a new mystery.
Clearly timed to coincide with the latest Nancy Drew film release (which, sadly, isn't doing too well in its second frame), The Original Nancy Drew Movie Mystery Collection contains the entire four-feature series of Drew comedy-dramas released in 1939 and 1940. Bouncy and cheerful Bonita Granville interprets Nancy as a nervy self-starter who tools around in a late-model roadster and cultivates an always subdued romantic interest in the slightly vacant but otherwise imaginative boy next door, Ted Nickerson (Frankie Thomas of Boys Town, The Major and the Minor and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet). When the chips are down, Ted pulls out his Boy Scout Morse code skills or his knowledge of sluice mining to help save the day.
All four of the movies are sharp, cleverly constructed entertainments. The mysteries are rather transparent -- even I had them pegged in the first five minutes -- but the fun is watching Nancy push her way through each case with a winning smile and behaviors that are consistently underhanded, dishonest and illegal -- but cute! Asking Ted for an innocent favor invariably leads to life & death struggles with armed killers, crazy plane rides and daring trips into mysterious tunnels.
The tightly organized stories are all scripted by the talented Kenneth Gamet, who wrote some barely-remembered mysteries before settling into a steady post-war diet of western adventures. The films average 66 minutes in length yet manage to develop several satisfactory threads while making room for set pieces (Ted in a boxing match, an impromptu musical number in a Chinese restaurant) and running gags. Nancy has an odd obsession with the phrase "$22.80," and Gamet makes a plus out of her habit of bashing other cars while parking. Any movie where the cost for repairing a busted car bumper is $3.50 is like a vacation from reality.
Of course the shows are dated, yet they prove to be nostalgia for a simpler time, or at least the Hollywood fantasy of a simpler time. Nancy's dad Carson is a successful lawyer yet has plenty of time to devote to Nancy. The missing Mom is never mentioned but Effie the maid (Renie Riano) is always there for a laugh. Nancy knows everyone in her hometown, including Police Captain Tweedy (Frank Orth), a dullard forever three steps behind the plot.
Disc one leads off with Nancy Drew -- Detective. A sweet old lady is kidnapped to prevent her from donating a fortune to Nancy's school, and Ted and Nancy take to the sky to locate her. Then they dress up as a nurse and widow (with Ted in drag) to bust into the old folks' home where she's kept prisoner. In Nancy Drew -- Reporter Nancy wins a contest to work for a newspaper for a few days, and swaps her lame assignment to investigate a mysterious poisoning instead. This 'cute' dishonesty leads to 'cute' breaking & entering to recover key evidence. Granville and Thomas are consistently charming but two smaller kids, 'Killer' Parkins and Ted's sister Mary (Dickie Jones and Mary Lee) practically steal the show. Writer Gamet works the little terrors into the plot beautifully, and even makes room for a bit of song and dance. Mary Lee bears a slight resemblance to Reese Witherspoon and sings like she's trying to emulate Judy Garland; she spent most of her screen career in Gene Autry musical westerns. Little 'killer' Jones heads off to the picture show, hoping that whatever's playing 'has machine guns in it." Olin Howland is a goofy deputy and one of the other student reporters is said to be Joan Leslie.
In Nancy Drew -- Troubleshooter the Drews head to Sylvan Lake to help clear an old friend of murder. Nancy and Ted tangle with a crooked farmer and his crop-dusting pilot while using a rare tropical flower to lead them to the real killers. What seems to upset Nancy the most of all is her father's romantic attraction to lovely neighbor Edna Gregory (Charlotte Winters). This episode unfortunately has the excellent Willie Best as Apollo Johnson, a slack-jawed 'shiftless' ranch hand playing in full Stepin Fetchit mode, right down to making pop-eyes at ghosts and running in panic through a barnyard fence. Nancy and her Dad condescend to Apollo, which only makes us realize that most conventional 1930s movies discriminate between 'real' people (the stars) and 'lesser people' (the sheriff, silly Effie, 'darkie' Apollo). Apollo is barely acknowledged as a human being ... he's a 'character.'
The last show is Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase a more conventional who-dunnit where we can guess who 'who' is right at the outset. A mysterious murder occurs in a locked house inhabited by two sweet old ladies (no other kind exist in this universe) and Nancy must sneak in to trap the killer. Through Nancy's meddling, poor Ted loses his ice delivery job and is caught shooting off a gun with his pants down over his ankles. The ending is an exciting and funny struggle in a secret tunnel filling with water. The only real disappointment in Hidden Staircase is that dad's romantic interest from the previous picture has vanished without further mention. Perhaps there's a missing episode that develops Nancy's disturbingly possessive grip on her father: Nancy Drew vs. the Jezebel Next Door, or perhaps Nancy Drew Has Someone Buried in Her Basement. Anyone who thinks Bonita Granville can't be lethal needs to see the terrific 1946 Monogram Noir Suspense!
We can tell that the Nancy Drew movies still work when the fourth is over, and we wish there were more. These shows are The Rockford Files of 1939.
Warners' DVD of The Original Nancy Drew Movie Mystery Collection is a neat package of four B&W thrillers in reasonable shape. What looks like water damage flits by now and then on two of the features, but it's over quickly and doesn't interfere with the viewing experience. The transfers are otherwise very clean. The only extras are the original trailers. I suppose that a tie-in docu would be in order if the new Nancy Drew movie were from the same studio; it would be fun to learn more about Bonita Granville's later success as a producer in 1950s television. But these fun mysteries stand up quite well on their own.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Original Nancy Drew Movie Mystery Collection rates:
Movies: All Excellent
Video: Very good to Excellent
Packaging: two discs in keep case
Reviewed: June 26, 2007
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