by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved
The film was Murder on the Blackboard, second in the series of Hildegarde Withers mysteries produced by RKO in the 1930's, made in 1934 with the same director (George Archainbaud), screenwriter (Willis Goldbeck, adapting a novel Stuart Palmer, creator of the Miss Withers character, had published serially in Mystery magazine) and stars: Edna May Oliver as Withers and James Gleason as her official police collaborator/rival, Inspector Piper. The film takes place, as its title suggests, in the school in which Miss Withers teaches when she's not busy solving crimes -- though we see very few shots of the classroom and, contrary to the expectation of the title, the murder victim, a music teacher named Louise Halloran (Barbara Fritchie), is found dead in the school's cloakroom and not in a classroom.
The film gets off to a good start when we see Janie Davis (Gertrude Michael), roommate of Louise Halloran and secretary to the school's principal, MacFarland (Tully Marshall -- what's Erich von Stroheim's favorite foot-fetishist doing in a place like this?), who in their big scene together makes a blatant pass at her. Today they'd call it sexual harassment and she'd be either hauling him before an administrative discipline board or suing him, but she basically pretends it isn't happening and is saved by an opportune phone call from Mrs. MacFarland, calling to tell her would-be adulterer of a husband that she isn't going to be spending the night at her mother's after all, leaving MacFarland to try to pretend that this is good news. McFarland and Withers both catch Janie with a gun, and Janie says it's not hers -- she took it away from Louise because she was worried Louise was going to commit suicide with it.
Janie has been dating a fellow teacher, Addison Stevens (Bruce Cabot), who had been Louise's boyfriend the year before, and Louise is threatened by Otto Schweitzer (Frederik Vogeding), the school's janitor (when Withers smells his breath she notices he's been drinking heavily but says, "At least it's bonded stuff"), who's blackmailing Louise for some unspecified reason when it's really he who needs to fear blackmail: he's got a whole cellar at the school full of contraband bourbon and he's been making extra money selling it on the black market. (Between the original publication of Palmer's novel in 1932 and the film in 1934, the repeal of Prohibition suddenly and rather drastically dated this part of the plot.) Withers discovers Louise's body and calls Piper, but when he shows up with a squad of officers the body has mysteriously disappeared (not that old chestnut again!) and she discovers an empty can of benzene (for some reason spelled "benzine" in the film).
The prime suspects are Otto and Janie, who went halves on an Irish sweepstakes ticket with Louise and stands to win up to $300,000 on it (and is suspected because getting all that money herself would be better than having to fight Louise for half of it), but the real murderer turns out to be Addison Stevens (making this the second Hildegarde Withers movie in a row that not only contained a cast member from King Kong but revealed him as the killer at the end), who had secretly married Louise when they were still dating and now wanted to get rid of her (she wouldn't give him the divorce he asked for) so he could marry Janie. Murder on the Blackboard isn't as good a movie as The Penguin Pool Murder -- the intrigues and the suspects just aren't as interesting -- but Archainbaud directs it in the same proto-noir style, creating one of those uneasy mixtures of simple-minded black-and-white mystery story and near-Gothic chiaroscuro atmosphere (the cinematographer was Nick Musuraca, who would shoot many of the authentic RKO noirs in the 1940's) that manages to be appealing in its sheer weirdness, and for Edna May Oliver's utter rightness for the Withers character; she'd play her once more (in Murder on a Honeymoon, which begins with a mysterious death on board an airplane and takes place mostly on Catalina) and then would leave the series -- there'd be three more, with Helen Broderick in one and ZaSu Pitts in two, but they hardly captured the character as well as Oliver did.