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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The Mystery of the Murdered Movie

I love Nancy Drew.

I have played and solved 21 of the HerInteractive PC games and read most of the original yellow bound novels. I even own a Nancy Drew cookbook, a “Nancy Drew’s Guide to Life” book and a large Nancy Drew cut out.

Nancy Drew has played a pivotal role for the past 80 years in literature for young girls, as well as in pop culture.

Everyone knows who she is and is fairly respected as a literary character. However, why is there not a flattering movie adaptation depicting everyone’s this important literary character and symbol for American women?

Eight years after the first Nancy Drew novel, “The Secret of the Old Clock,” was published in 1930, the first Nancy Drew film adaptation was released.

Nancy Drew, Reporter,” the first film adaptation of the series, was released in 1938, three more movies were released all in 1939. These movies included “Nancy Drew  Troubleshooter,” “Nancy Drew Detective ” and “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase).”

Film series were not rare in the 1930’s and 1940’s. In fact many studios made a great deal of money off of series such as “Andy Hardy,” “Dr. Kildaire,” “Maisie” and “Boston Blackie just to name a few of many.

I imagine that is what Warner Brothers was trying to do with Nancy Drew. But none of the films followed or resembled any of the Nancy Drew books, except for snippets of “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” which I think is modeling itself after the book “The Hidden Staircase.”

In novels Miss Drew is level-headed, fearless and intelligent. She doesn’t goof off and there isn’t much time for romance in her life. Yes there is her boyfriend, Ned Nickerson, but I can count on one hand the amount of times they kissed or flirted in the novels. She was also very talented and fashionable. She could tap dance the Morris code while wearing a freshly pressed tailored suit.

Also in the novels, Ned was concerned about Nancy but never hindered her sleuthing. Carson Drew, Nancy’s father, was a distinguished lawyer. He teased his daughter for her appetite for mysteries and trusted her good sense.

However, the characters in the 1930s Nancy Drew series didn’t resemble Carolyn Keene’s intelligent teens.

Nancy Drew, played by Bonita Granville, was bumbling, scatter-brained and frightened for most of the films. She set out to solve a mystery but would run home before finding any actual clues.

Bonita Granville as Nancy Drew and Frankie Thomas as Ted Nickerson

Ned Nickerson, played by Frankie Thomas, was named TED in the movies for some reason. He was maybe the most tolerable character in the movies, but I wouldn’t run to him to protect me.

John Litel was a very irritating Carson Drew. He forbid Nancy from sleuthing and worried about her constantly. Even Hannah Gruen, the housekeeper, ran away in terror when someone broke into their home. Hannah in the books would have knocked them on their ear.

John Litel as Carson Drew in “Nancy Drew…Reporter” (1938)

The films involve very little mystery solving and an over abundance of silly slap-stick. I’m not asking for a whole detailed novel to be played out in the 68 minute films, but Warner Brothers could have at least been accurate with their character depictions.

Bonita Granville, who was 16 when she played Nancy Drew, was in top-notch films such as “These Three”(1936), which she received her only Oscar nomination, and “Now, Voyager” (1941), giving excellent performances in both but clearly Nancy Drew was not the role for her.

I made a list of who, with some tweaks to the script, could have been the perfect Nancy Drew casting in the 1930s or 1940s.

Nancy Drew: Deanna Durbin (19 at this time) would be my first pick. She sometimes plays silly characters, but also plays serious roles beautifully. Nancy Drew was also supposed to be very attractive. Miss Granville wasn’t ugly, but Deanna Durbin is decidedly prettier. I’m sure they would have to fit in a song or two for Deanna. She would have been old enough by this time, because “First Love,” the film that she received her first on-screen kiss came out the same year as the series.

Carson Drew: John Litel is generally a character actor with small roles. I’m not sure why they chose him to play the distinguished lawyer, Carson Drew. I can’t think of anyone else who could play this role more perfectly than Walter Pidgeon. Mr. Pidgeon is the definition of distinguished and sophistication. With his fatherly and friendly acting style, along with his pipe, I can picture him now giving Nancy advice.

Ned Nickerson: I would either say a teen-aged Jackie Cooper (17 at the time) or Robert Stack (20 at this time). Both boys were attractive and would have seemed more protective of Nancy Drew than Frankie Thomas. Stack was also in the 1939 film “First Love” with Miss Durbin and would have been of a suitable age.

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