Watching 1939: Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (1939)

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.

nd hidden staircase1939 film:
Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (1939)

Release date:
Sept. 9, 1939

Bonita Granville, Frankie Thomas, John Litel, Frank Orth, Renie Riano, Vera Lewis, Louise Carter, William Gould, George Guhl, John Ridgley, William Hopper, Dick Elliott, Don Rowan

Warner Bros.

William Clemens

After their father dies, the Turnbell sisters (Lewis, Carter) are set to inherit their family home. However, the stipulation is that the ladies must stay in the house every night for 20 years or they lose the home. Over the years, the women have affidavits from witnesses to prove they have been in the home every night, which lawyer Carson Drew (Litel) is handling. On the eve of their inheritance, someone tries to steal the affidavits and disprove the women, and their one witness is murdered. Teen sleuth Nancy Drew (Granville) and her pal Ted (Thomas) try to figure out who is trying to take a home away from the women.

1939 Notes:
• By the numbers:
– 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.
– Frankie Thomas was in seven films in 1939.
– Renie Riano was in 14 films released in 1939.
– Frank Orth was in 19 films released in 1939.
– Vera Lewis was in 18 films released in 1939.
– Louise Carters was in four films released in 1939.
– William Gould was in 24 films released in 1939.
– William Hopper was in 15 feature length films released in 1939.
– John Ridgley was in 32 feature length films released in 1939.
– Don Rowan was in eight films released in 1939.
– George Guhl was in 25 films released in 1939.

nd hidden staircase

Other trivia:
• The only of the Nancy Drew films that is based on a Nancy Drew novel, according to Nancy Drew historian.
• This is one of three Nancy Drew films released in 1939 by Warner Brothers starring Bonita Granville. The others were: “Nancy Drew…Reporter” and “Nancy Drew and Trouble Shooter.” The Nancy Drew series ended in 1939.
• One of four Nancy Drew movies from 1938 to 1939. Three of these films were released in 1939. This is the fourth and final film to be released in the series.
• Based on Nancy Drew stories by Carolyn Keene.
• Noel Smith was originally set to direct the film.
• Several contests surrounded the film, such as a candid camera photo contest of mysterious or haunted house in your home town, a ghost story writing contest, or finding the typical youth in your hometown, since Bonita Granville and Frankie Thomas were called the “typical American boy and girl,” according to the film’s press book.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Actress Bonita Granville, born Feb. 2, 1923, had been acting since she was 10 years old. Granville excelled at playing brats, and even was nominated for an Academy Award for playing a devilish child in THESE THREE (1936). As she grew into teenage roles, she moved on from the brat, while still playing a high spirited young woman.

In 1939, Granville, now 16, was growing out of child roles and playing more teenage characters, including one of the most famous teenagers — sleuth Nancy Drew. Starting in 1938, Warner Bros. made four films based on the Nancy Drew mystery novels, a character by Edward Stratemeyer, who ran the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a company that wrote a host of children’s series. The novels were ghost written under the name Carolyn Keene, with the early novels primarily being written by Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson. The Stratemeyer Syndicate sold Warner Bros. the film rights to the character for $6,000.

“I’d been a fan of the books, so I was absolutely floored at getting the coveted part,” Bonita Granville said in a 1986 interview. “They tested every teen gal in L.A., but I had already worked at Warner Bros. so I had the credentials.”

Granville said each film was made in less than three weeks and were made to play at the bottom of a double bill.

The fourth and final film is the only one that has a title similar to the novels, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (1939).

“It was Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (1939) and that was it,” Granville said in her interview. “I wasn’t available as I had signed a short-term MGM contract, but Warner Bros. never offered me any more Nancy Drews anyways.”
However, Granville had 16 mystery books written by Kathryn Heisenfelt and the books had her “acting about in a decidedly Nancy Drew fashion.”

In fact, this was the last Nancy Drew feature-film made until 2007, though the teen sleuth was represented in some short-lived television shows in the 1970s and 1990s.

It’s a shame that this is the last of the Warner Bros. Nancy Drew films, because I think “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” may be the best. Of all the films, this one is most Nancy Drew-like with hidden doors and secret passage ways. However, its 46- minute until we find the staircase mentioned in the title.

It’s funny and there are some really fun lines. Frankie Thomas and Bonita Granville are high energy and use snappy teen slang, like when Granville’s Nancy Drew exclaims, “Boy, this is the pancakes!” Thomas’s Ted wears a sweatshirt signed by his friends. It’s all very youthful and fun.

Here are a few lines I particularly enjoyed, that gave me a laugh.
“Nancy, if I give you my belt, I’ll be wearing my pants like a pair of spats!”

Ted: “You could have busted your neck!” Nancy: “I didn’t land on my neck.”

“You might sink with those boats you’re wearing” – Ted commenting on Nancy’s shoes.

“I only hope you can catch up with me when I start to retreat.”

Poor Ted, even in the last film, he hasn’t learned that Nancy always gets him into trouble.

I’m fairly certain that Nancy Drew is obstructing justice throughout the film with creating evidence and tampering with real evidence. She writes phony suicide notes and even puts sleeping tablets and someone’s coffee. Goodness, but heck it’s still fun.

In the past, I’ve certainly been critical about the Nancy Drew films not being similar to the books. However, when I revisited these recently, they made me laugh and I had a good time. And even the Stratemeyer Syndicate were pleased with the films. I’ve had such fun revisiting these, and letting go my concern over staying true to the literary character, that I was sad to watch “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase,” knowing it was the last one.

Bonita Granville was certainly youth personified in these. She may have better films, but these are a good time.

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