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Case Number 11534

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The Original Nancy Drew Movie Mystery Collection

Warner Bros. // 1938 // 263 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // June 12th, 2007

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All Rise...

Nancy Drew gets a sporty roadster, but Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger is stuck with this old jalopy.

The Charge

"Gruesome!"—Ted Nickerson

Opening Statement

Some time after Mildred Wirt (aka Carolyn Keene) handed the Nancy Drew reigns over to other ghost writers, the tenth Nancy Drew tale was written by Walter Karig. Password To Larkspur Lane gained notoriety because Karig broke the contractual silence about the identity of Carolyn Keene during a rights dispute and he was kicked off of the Nancy Drew writing team.

For fans of the series, Password To Larkspur Lane is an ominous choice for the first movie adaptation of their favorite teen detective. Just as Walter Karig flaunted the Nancy Drew mystique, so did Warner Brothers muck with the highly successful formula in their film adaptations. The result dismayed many fans. Nevertheless, Bonita Granville (The Guilty) can only be described as vivacious, which makes it hard to stay mad at her as she careens through these four Nancy Drew adaptations (known as "in-betweeners" back in the day).

Facts of the Case

Nancy Drew—Detective
When a kindly donor to Nancy's private school goes missing, Nancy suspects foul play. Strange cars, odd adult behavior, and a stray carrier pigeon only serve to confirm Nancy's hunch. She enlists Ted Nickerson (Frankie Thomas, The Angels Wash Their Faces) to dress up like a nurse and sneak Nancy into a suspicious retirement home, where disreputable folks take them prisoner. Can Nancy's sleuthing skills and Ned's…I mean, Ted's technical prowess get them out of a jam?

Nancy Drew…Reporter
Nancy and some of her chums take a three-day internship at the local paper. They are given lackluster assignments, so Nancy trades hers with that of an absent reporter. She finds herself at a murder trial where a young woman is practically sewn up by the evidence against her. But Nancy suspects that Ms. Denning (Betty Amann, Isle of Forgotten Sins) is innocent and sets off to follow a suspicious ex-boxer. Nancy finally resorts to a fake newspaper story to flush out the real crook, which results in a convoluted chase through the city.

Nancy Drew…Troubleshooter
Carson Drew (John Litel, Pocketful of Miracles) takes a trip to Sylvan Lake to clear his friend Matt (Aldrich Bowker, Everybody's Hobby) of murder. Nancy and her piqued curiosity tag along. When Carson falls for the charming Edna Gregory (Charlotte Wynters, Smart Blonde), Nancy becomes jealous. Ted does his best to keep out of trouble. But Nancy can't help but follow some strange leads uncovered by Apollo Johnson (Willie Best, Dangerous Money), Edna's put-upon servant.

Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase
The Turnbull sisters, Miss Rosemary (Vera Lewis, Night Nurse ) and Miss Floretta (Louise Carter, Madame Butterfly), are in danger of losing their ancestral home when their servant is murdered. Nancy and Ted step in to investigate, spending the night in the "haunted" mansion.

The Evidence

Voracious young readers are likely familiar with Nancy Drew, the perennial heroine of melodramatic, highly improbable adventures. New editions have reshaped Nancy and her friends over the years to reflect the times and keep her relevant to new generations.

Of course, these films were created in the era of the original Nancy Drew. Unlike the Nancy Drew you may have come to know, the original Nancy packed a pistol and flashlight, drove a roadster, had tough friends like George (and softer friends like Bess), gave orders to Hannah the housemaid, and didn't always respect authority. She is tall, thin, and immaculately dressed and an expert in athletics, art, and social customs. Imperious and tenacious, Nancy often made mincemeat of Ned's masculine prerogative in pursuit of her suspects. Her world is not flattering to the non-white or the poor. Above all, the original Nancy Drew is persistent, taking as much time, money, or liberty with the law as necessary to get to the bottom of the mystery at hand.

If this is your Nancy Drew, you're in for a few surprises where the Warner Brothers adaptations are concerned.

Though some might not consider them minor at all, let's start with the minor characters. Ned Nickerson is now Ted Nickerson, for no discernible reason other than to make a change. Ted is a sidekick and potential love interest rather than a boyfriend. George and Bess (even Helen, her original friend) are gone—in fact, Nancy seems to have no close female friends. Hannah is now Effie, and seems rather high strung. Why the supporting cast was so trimmed—and especially why key names were changed—is a mystery that irks Nancy Drew fans to this day.

The real changes, however, were to Nancy herself. Unlike the cool, tall, brave, and immaculately composed Nancy Drew of the novels, this Nancy is a short, spunky, hyperactive ball of inquisitive energy and sheer luck. Where the original Nancy packs a piece, this one faints after handling a gun. The original Nancy could outdrive most men, while this one smashes bumpers right and left. Original Nancy inhabits a moody world full of foreboding mysteries and cat-and-mouse games while this world is filled with slapstick cops, cross-dressing, murders, impromptu musical numbers, and slimy gangsters.

Diehard fans of the books have every right to take umbrage at these changes. But the truth is, this light, madcap treatment yields some pleasant surprises.

Unlike the long suffering Ned, Ted has no spoken relationship with Nancy. Frankie Thomas's Ted is equal to Bonita Granville's Nancy in many ways. She enlists him in the end (despite much false protestation) to move the plot along, but Ted's aid always comes at the price of spirited bickering. Though Thomas's portrayal is bound to some of the corny conventions of the day, his brash compassion for Nancy wins through. Unlike the done deal of Nancy and Ned, we have yet to see Nancy and Ted come together, which provides a delicious undercurrent.

Nancy and Carson Drew also have a delightful flirtation that makes the onscreen relationship come alive. If you subscribe to the wish-fulfillment angle of Nancy Drew's life, what better father than a handsome, wealthy lawyer who doesn't date and dotes on his daughter while allowing her the freedom to pursue independent criminal investigations? There's nothing overtly sexual or creepy about their relationship, though a sequence of scenes in Nancy Drew…Reporter are at least suggestive. Nancy helps her father undress and kneels at his feet while he's sitting on the bed. He banters with her a bit, then scoops her up in his arms, carries her "over the threshold" into her room, drops her on the bed, and smacks her on the bottom. This is followed up by Nancy's clear jealousy of Edna Gregory in Nancy Drew…Troubleshooter. It isn't enough to fill a full Freudian psychoanalysis, but the imagery is there beneath the surface. At face value, their relationship is lively and fun; a joy under any interpretation.

As for Nancy, Bonita Granville admirably acquits herself as the onscreen incarnation of our favorite sleuth. With her driving scarf and sporty roadster she certainly looks the part, but Nancy comes through most in Bonita's delivery. When she narrows her eyes suspiciously or pulls a sleight-of-hand, you can see Nancy Drew in her actions. Director William Clemens skirts the edge of camp in some of the things he asks her to do, but to her credit Granville makes her portrayal of Nancy seem effortless. In some cases, Granville isn't so much channeling Nancy Drew as filling the screen with radiance. You may not entirely embrace her take on the character, but she'll cheer you up anyway.

This core cast flits through four adventures that loosely (in some cases, barely at all) mirror the books. Though it sets the pace with authority, Nancy Drew—Detective is not the most polished of the quadrilogy. Granville and Thomas are working out their bickering banter while the plot is slightly disjointed. Nancy is embarrassed by the police (who are invariably portrayed as buffoons) in a scene that would never have taken place in the books. The finale pushes reason too far for comfort, but leaves you with the patented Warm Feeling of Closure © that the movies are known for.

Nancy Drew…Reporter hits a stride, giving Nancy some actual quick-thinking to do to get the case solved. She and Ted ride the wave of their carefully crafted chemistry with a more natural banter. The conclusion of this film is in many ways a carbon copy of the previous one, though executed with more panache. But just what caused all of the police and Carson drew to converge on the scene at that precise moment? Movie magic, that's what. Nancy Drew…Reporter throws in a boxing match and a musical number which probably tickled its 1930s audience pink.

Three is a magic number and Nancy Drew…Troubleshooter takes us places the other two films didn't go. Literally: it is set at Sylvan Lake. The police are actually competent in this film, even if their suspicions are misplaced. Nancy's dislike of Edna Gregory enriches the story in two key ways. It creates emotional entanglements that flesh out the characters. It also leaves us wondering whether Edna Gregory is really the culprit or just the target of Nancy's ire. Nancy Drew…Troubleshooter also takes a page from the original Nancy Drew and pokes good old fashioned fun at the black folk, which is distasteful all around. They even dress Appollo in a white robe with a tall, pointed white hat. Dunce or Clan member? You make the call. With fires, airplane chases, and more twists than the previous films, this one is a nice change of pace.

The quadrilogy wraps up with Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase. Whether because it is based on the inaugural book or because the formula was established by the three previous films, this one is the purest Nancy Drew tale of the lot. Depending on your point of view, this makes it the best of the bunch or a rote entry in the series. Once again Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase relies heavily on Granville's charm and the Ted relationship, and performs up to par on both counts.

These four films collectively are time-capsule representations of a well-honored tradition: teen entertainment. Neither deep nor dire, these stories show a perky teen with few constraints, a swell dad, a nice boyfriend, and a cool car. They may tweak the books to the dismay of some fans, but Bonita Granville is cute enough and charismatic enough to help us overlook some of these changes. But the films did not ultimately prove deep or dire enough and production ceased. Maybe sticking to the original formula would have led to a long-running series of films, yet these four are enjoyable pockets of late '30's entertainment.

Warner Brothers has not gone overboard with special features and interactive menus, presenting the films and their trailers without much fuss. Grain and some print damage assert themselves, and values fluctuate in some scenes, but in general the transfer is detailed and stable with good contrast. The audio is rough in spots with some warbling and volume fluctuations, but again the general impression is favorable.

Closing Statement

Warner Brothers's stylish treatment of this beloved series and pure nostalgia lead some to proclaim "they don't make 'em like this anymore." In fact, they make 'em precisely like this even now. Veronica Mars is as hip and reflective of her day as Nancy Drew was of the 1930s; her flaunting of authority and social custom is not that different either. At heart, these four adaptations are escapist fun for the teenie-bopper set with enough appeal to reach adults.

The Verdict

Innocent, but too inquisitive for her own good.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 92
Audio: 90
Extras: 10
Acting: 90
Story: 70
Judgment: 88

Perp Profile

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• English
• French
Running Time: 263 Minutes
Release Year: 1938
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Classic
• Comedy
• Mystery
• Teen

Distinguishing Marks

• Trailers

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Review content copyright © 2007 Rob Lineberger; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.