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Women's History March: Miss Pinkerton (1932)

We celebrate Women's History Month with four films featuring strong female protagonists.

RODNEY BOWCOCKMiss Pinkerton (1932) tells the tale of nurse Hilda Adams (Joan Blondell) who is weary of the humdrum existence at the hospital and gets an exciting opportunity to assist the police with a suicide case--sort of.  The woman who found the body is suffering from shock and Adams is brought in to care for her.  But was it a suicide?  Is Adams a better detective than nurse?  These seem to be the main questions in this short and sweet pre-code comedy/mystery that has some strains of early old dark house mysteries as well (sets from Doctor X were used effectively here).

SAMANTHA GLASSER: The photography by Barney McGill is excellent. You can see fine details on the faces of the cast like individual eyebrow hairs and makeup lines. Combined with the ornate wood-paneled hallways, ominous staircases and decorative doorknobs, this movie has a lushness not always found in quickie entertainment.

RB: Miss Pinkerton likely needed no introduction to viewers, as the story by Mary Roberts Rinehart had been serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, which was read by millions of readers at the time.  The film was based on the third story featuring Hilda Adams, and the film takes some liberties with the character as it was written.  Blondell was an even dozen years younger than the 38 year old Hilda Adams and the character in the books was not comfortable carrying a firearm--something that Blondell does in some publicity art for the movie.  Fourteen of Rinehart’s sixty novels were made into films (including The Bat), although the Miss Pinkerton series is probably the most famous, and the novels have remained readily available (currently in print) until today.

SG: Adams is a nurse inserted into situations that might involve criminal activity in order to spy for the police. I borrowed a worn library bound copy from the Columbus Metropolitan Library in preparation for this watch and really enjoyed the first story included called The Buckled Bag. Though I wasn't able to finish Miss Pinkerton in time, the film did seem to follow the novel pretty closely. Screenland called the film, "A faithful version of Mary Roberts Rinehart's mystery novel, but somehow not as exciting as we expected."

The International Photographer felt it was difficult to get invested in the plot because we do not meet the murder/suicide victim before his demise.

RB: Reviews were mixed for this one in the trades.  “In spite of extra advertising, this failed to go over for us,” griped A.N. Miles of the 250 seat Eminence Theatre in Eminence, Kentucky.  “A good mystery play, but too many wisecracks from John Blondell (sic) and some of them fall flat,” was the analysis of Ray W. Adams, Mason Theatre, Mason, MI. 

But others disagreed.  “A fine mystery picture.  Gave good satisfaction.  Star is very clever,” felt Bert Silver of the Silver Family Theatre in Greenville, MI.  “If you like mystery of the light sort, this one will please and you can step on it as it will please the masses.  Good for any day of the week,” said G.W. Turner, Family Theatre Pine City, Minn.

When I want to be fooled by someone, I'll put myself in your shoes.

SG: Blondell's personality shines as she carries the film along. She screams like a horror movie queen and delivers quips with the punch her fans expect. Biographer Matthew Kennedy wrote, "Joan fulfilled her Miss Pinkerton obligations with an effortlessness that was becoming trademark, rising above cliched material and the limited magnetism of her co-star George Brent."

According to Movie Mirror, Don Dillaway lost a plum role in a George Arliss film when the studio assigned him to his small role in Miss Pinkerton, and he was unavailable for rehearsals. Although he worked in the movies and into the television era, he never achieved stardom.

The pre-code elements were light, although I did see a silhouette of a nude woman changing in background of the nurse's lounge near the beginning of the film.

RB: Nine years later, Blondell’s role as a female sleuth was revived as she and then-husband Dick Powell developed a radio series for NBC titled Miss Pinkerton, Inc.  The show, which was intended to be a comedy-mystery starring Blondell failed to pick up a sponsor (some reports state that it was a summer replacement, however, during prior research I have found no evidence in newspaper listings of the program ever airing at all), essentially cribbed the name, which at that point had become synonymous with female gumshoes (there is also a dismal Our Gang short; Little Miss Pinkerton) was intended to showcase the adventures of Mary Vance, who takes over her uncle’s detective agency with police detective Dick Powell along as her sidekick.  It’s a pretty good show, and I’m surprised that it didn’t take off.

SG: They attempted the show shortly after the success of their screen teaming in Model Wife in 1941, but busy schedules and small profits made them abandon the idea after one episode.

Motion Picture magazine called the film rendition "fairly exciting," and said that it, "promises rather better than it gives." Modern Screen said it was, "studded with good laughs and action."

Motion Picture Reviews said, "It is too confused to be a really good murder mystery, but it is light and entertaining and the treatment is novel."

In spite of its flaws, I was thoroughly entertained by this movie. It zips by in an hour and an hour with Joan Blondell can never be boring. Three stars.

RB: Blondell made something close to thirty movies in three years at Warner Brothers (and while George Brent wasn’t quite that busy, he was definitely no slouch) and they can’t all be winners.  I came into this one expecting to have a really good time, but something just seemed off during much of it.  In spite of the comments from theater owners about there being too many jokes, I felt this one played it a little too straight.  Blondell is a capable actress, we all know this, but at the end of the day, I have to begrudgingly give this film two and a half stars.  I really had expected better.

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