Watching 1939: Nancy Drew…Reporter

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  Nancy Drew…Reporter

Release date:  Feb. 18, 1939

Cast:  Bonita Granville, John Litel, Frankie Thomas, Dickie Jones, Mary Lee, Larry Williams, Betty Amann, Sheila Bromley, Olin Howland, Betty Amann, Joan Leslie (uncredited), Charles Smith (uncredited)

Studio:  Warner Brothers

Director:  William Clemens

Plot: Nancy Drew (Granville) enters a contest at the local newspaper with a group of teenagers for the best written high school story. The editor (Jackson) assigns them each trivial stories, but after overhearing a conversation about a murder trial, Nancy decides to cover a more interesting story. Eula Denning (Amann) has been charged with murder of her wealthy guardian. Nancy is determined to clear Eula and recruits her friend Ted Nickerson (Thomas) to help; sleuthing against the wishes of her district attorney father, Carson Drew (Litel).

1939 Notes:
• This is one of three Nancy Drew films released in 1939 by Warner Brothers starring Bonita Granville. The others were: “Nancy Drew…Trouble Shooter” and “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase.” The Nancy Drew series ended in 1939.

• Bonita Granville four films in 1939 and only one of them wasn’t a Nancy Drew film, “Angels Wash Their Faces.”

• John Litel was in 13 films in 1939.

• Mary Lee’s first film. She was in 19 films between 1939 and 1944.

Other trivia: 
• One of four Nancy Drew movies from 1938 to 1939. Three of these films were released in 1939.

Joan Leslie in an early film role (right)
Screen cap by Jessica P.

• Joan Leslie’s fourth film. She plays an uncredited role as a journalism student

• Based on Nancy Drew stories by Carolyn Keene

• In 1962, Justice Arthur J. Goldberg in a Supreme Court Decision disallowed a practice called “block booking,” where motion picture distributors required televisions stations to buy packages of films to get the ones they wanted. Goldberg named one of the Nancy Drew films in his statement:
“Station WTOP in Washington, in order to get such film classics as Casablanca and Treasure of the Sierra Madre , also had to buy Nancy Drew, Troubleshooter and Gorilla Man,” according to “Translate Nancy Drew from Print to Film,” an essay by Diana Beeson and Bonnie Brennan.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Growing up, I collected all of the yellow-bound Nancy Drew books, dressed up as her for Halloween and played all of the Her Interactive Nancy Drew computer games. I even have a Nancy Drew cardboard cut out in my spare bedroom. Needless to say, I’m a fan.

So because of my love for Nancy Drew, I sought these films out in middle school. I love Nancy and Bonita Granville, so I want to say I love these films. But my love and knowledge of Nancy Drew is what holds me back.

With the first Nancy Drew mystery published in 1930, the books were popular by the time the first Nancy Drew film adaptation was released in 1938. By 1938 and 1939, Bonita Granville was also starting to transition from child roles to teenage and young adult characters. But the script for this film doesn’t allow Granville to grow up.

In the books, Nancy Drew is cool, calm, collected and smart. The 1930s books (before the 1950s edit) depicted Nancy as self-confident, brave and kind. But the film script did not portray Nancy Drew that way. Warner Brothers’ Nancy Drew is frantic, flighty, and filled with screwball comedy. The portrayal is not only unfair and insulting to fans of the Nancy Drew novels, it’s also unfair that Granville was still pigeon-holed in her shouting and child-like characters that made her famous.

Of the four Nancy Drew films, three of them were released in 1939 (which speaks to how much money Warner Brothers put into them) and all of them starred Bonita Granville. Granville was only in one other film in 1939, which was Angels Wash Their Faces (1939). Starting in the early 1940s, Granville grew into more adult, and sometimes sophisticated, roles like H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941) or Now, Voyager (1942), proving she could play more than a shouting brat (though she is wonderful in those bratty roles).

In the books, Carson Drew encourages his daughter’s sleuthing and discusses cases with her, while also advising her to be careful. But in the movies, Carson Drew (played by Litel), chastises her in a “I told you time and time again not to do that” manner. Litel, who seems to show up in nearly every film of the 1930s and 1940s, was in 13 films in, 1939 including the three Nancy Drew films released that year.

Ilike Frankie Thomas in this film, though I’m puzzled why he’s Ted Nickerson rather than Ned. The character of Ted is more similar to Nancy’s novel character: cautious and sensible.

Bonita Granville and Frankie Thomas as Nancy Drew and “Ted” Nickerson in “Nancy Drew…Reporter.”

Back in 2010, I wrote a piece about my ideal Nancy Drew 1930s or 1940s film cast. But now, I realize the cast isn’t the issue (though Walter Pidgeon would have been a fabulous Caron Drew), it was the script. Bonita Granville would have been a wonderful Nancy Drew had she been allowed to play Nancy as she was written in the novels.

“Warner Brothers failed to realize that Nancy Drew’s appeal to the moppets and others familiar with her through the books was as a detective and not a screwball comedian,” according to “Translate Nancy Drew from Print to Film,” an essay by Diana Beeson and Bonnie Brennan.

The Nancy Drew films were also not successful in the theater, according to Mystery Movie Series of 1930s Hollywood by Ron Backer.

However, these Nancy Drew movies are important. Three of the films were released in 1939. And these four films are also one of the few film portrayals of Nancy Drew. For a character so famous, Nancy Drew has only been on the silver screen in these four Warner Brothers films and in a 2007 film “Nancy Drew,” starring Emma Roberts (which also got the character wrong.) After the last Nancy Drew film was released in 1939, the character did not manifest outside of the books again until the 1970s TV show, The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries (1977) starring Pamela Sue Martin. Nancy Drew didn’t even appear on radio.

I hate to be so hard on this film. I don’t dislike it, and honestly, the movies would be fine if the lead character was named Betty Harper or Susan McGillicuddy. The let down comes because the script is tied to such an iconic fictional character that so many people grew up with.

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5 thoughts on “Watching 1939: Nancy Drew…Reporter

  1. True. She’s not our Nancy, but I’m used to movies being “different”, so by the time I saw this for the first time I simply sighed and gave in. I do like John Litel as Carson Drew. He looks like my dad around the eyebrows. His and Nancy’s relationship in these movies reminds me of my husband and our daughter. They’re nuts!


  2. Same thing happened to my man, Matt Helm. I have these four Nancy films in a DVD set – which I’m sure you have, too.


  3. Pamela Sue Martin may not have looked like my Nancy Drew, but she hit the characterization on the bullseye. I enjoy the Bonita Granville series by preferring to see them as something non-Nancy Drew. Granville’s portrayal made me wonder if some producer wasn’t slipping something into her morning cereal. Talk about hyper!😂


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