Monday, April 5, 2010

Miss Pinkerton (Warners as “First National,” 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked out was Miss Pinkerton, a 1932 Warners (in “First National” drag) programmer starring Joan Blondell (at her wisecracking best) as Miss Adams, a nurse who’s bored with the routine at her hospital (where she and her colleagues live in — an arrangement that, judging from how often it appears in early-1930’s movies, must have been fairly common then) and who gets assigned to take care of the venerable Julia Mitchell (Elizabeth Patterson), an 80-something (at least by her physical appearance) woman who discovers the dead body of her nephew, Herbert Wynne (Allan Lane), at the Mitchells’ old residence. Nurse Adams is really there at the behest of police detective Patten (George Brent), who hopes she’ll be able to turn up evidence to solve the crime. There’s a whole slew of sinister-looking people skulking around the old Mitchell house — this is based on a Mary Roberts Rinehart novel and features the same old-dark-house atmospherics as her previous The Bat — and it’s not all that easy to figure out who is doing what to whom, but at the end it all turns out to have been an insurance scam hatched by the family’s attorney, Arthur Glenn (Holmes Herbert), whose idea was for Wynne to marry Paula Brent (Ruth Hall) and fake his own death so Paula could collect on a life-insurance policy Wynne had bought — only Wynne and Paula fell in love for real and he decided he wanted to stick around, so Glenn actually killed him and put suspicion on Paula’s former boyfriend, Charles Elliott (Donald Dilloway).

Director Lloyd Bacon gets a few pleasing compositions and proto-noir effects but nothing like what Roland West or James Whale might have accomplished with this story, and the mystery angle is surprisingly uninteresting and unsuspenseful. I’d long wanted to see this movie because William K. Everson raved about it in The Detective in Film (“a lively adaptation of the Mary Roberts Reinhart story which managed to pack a surprising amount of ‘old house’ chills … into a more up-to-date mystery about the murder that everybody [except the heroine] wants to dismiss as suicide … Although no world-beater at the box office, Miss Pinkerton had the stuff for a sustaining series, and presumably only the monetary obstacle of paying for the story and character rights prevented this”), and Everson was usually right about his “sleeper” picks, but not this time; though it has its moments, about the only really entertaining aspect of Miss Pinkerton is Blondell’s hard-as-nails performance and vivid delivery of the wisecracks writers Niven Busch, Lillie Hayward and Robert Tasker gave her — and one can see those aspects of Blondell’s characters (as well as nice shots of her in lingerie) in plenty of other, better films. — 3/20/05


Last night’s “feature” was Miss Pinkerton, a 1932 Warners production based on a novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart whose full title was Miss Pinkerton: Adventures of a Nurse Detective. For some reason I had thought this book was originally published in 1922 but it was actually from the same year the film was made — it was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post from January 2 through February 12, 1932, and the movie (released by Warners in “First National” drag) came out on July 7, 1932, a fascinating comment on how fast the movie business moved in those days versus how many years even popular stories by “name” writers spend in “development” today. Miss Pinkerton has been called the first fiction ever written about a woman detective, which is not true (Charles has dug up plenty of examples on the Internet dating as far back as the 1890’s) — indeed, she’s not even that much of a detective.

She’s Nurse Adams (the film doesn’t give her a first name and writers Niven Busch and Lillie Heyward never give any other characters the chance to address her by one), who’s bored with the routine at the hospital where she works and eagerly accepts a request by police inspector Patten (George Brent, considerably more animated than usual; he actually delivers a credible performance as an action hero instead of looking limp as some woman’s boy toy) to meet him at the home of wealthy woman Julia Mitchell (Elizabeth Patterson), who fainted at the sight of her dead nephew Herbert Wynne (who isn’t played by an actor because he’s never seen alive, not even in flashbacks). The plot throws a lot of potential suspects at us even though it’s not altogether sure Herbert was murdered — the police originally suspect either an accident or suicide — and among the possible murderers (once it’s finally established Herbert was murdered) are his girlfriend, Paula Brent; her other boyfriend, Charles Elliott (Donald Dilloway); Florence Lenz (Mary Doran), stenographer; Florence’s employer, attorney Arthur Glenn (Holmes Herbert); and a few other assorted hangers-on.

The plus sides of Miss Pinkerton are Barney McGill’s and Kenneth Green’s amazing proto-noir cinematography — as a sheer piece of visual atmospherics this rivals James Whale’s amazing The Old Dark House (shot by Arthur Edeson and released in October 1932, three months after Miss Pinkerton) — and the surprising energy in the direction by the usually hacky Lloyd Bacon, who moves the action around the old-dark-house set with quite welcome pace and verve. The down side is Rinehart’s plot, which creaks along and doesn’t give us anyone other than Patten and Nurse Adams we can really root for or like — indeed, the whodunit aspect is so uninviting that by the time this film creaks to a close (it seems a lot longer than its actual 66 minutes) we really don’t care who murdered that rich guy we never got to see anyway.

What’s appealing about the movie besides the visual atmospherics is the performance by Joan Blondell, who really isn’t much of a detective but manages to get off some good lines — at one point she compares working in the hospital to “looking for wisecracks in an algebra textbook,” which will give you an idea of what this film is like — and the surprisingly good chemistry between her and Brent, maybe not that surprisingly since there’s virtually nobody else in the movie we actually like (Charles and Paula get together at the end, after it’s revealed that she was secretly married to Herbert and that big, cracking motive was one of the reasons Charles briefly topped Our Heroes’ suspect list, but we really don’t care any more than we cared who killed Herbert), especially once Aunt Julia is murdered — she had regular injections of amyl nitrate (“poppers,” they’re called now) only the killer substituted arsenic tablets for the amyl, and so Nurse Adams unknowingly prepared a lethal shot and gave it to Dr. Stewart (C. Henry Gordon) to administer — and he immediately threatens to have her prosecuted. Rinehart’s stories generally worked better on paper — she tended towards the confusing and it’s harder to follow her plots when you can’t roll back and re-read an especially hard-to-figure-out section — though the idea of a nurse-detective got used by Warners again and again, in the late 1930’s as the basis of a couple of hour-long “B”’s based on stories by Mignon G. Eberhardt and in 1941 when Miss Pinkerton was remade as The Nurse’s Secret (in the original version, at least, the nurse and her policeman boyfriend were virtually the only characters who didn’t have secrets!) with Lee Patrick and Regis Toomey in the leads. — 4/5/10