So, confession on the occasion of Nancy Drew’s 90th Anniversary: I have never actually read a Nancy Drew book.
Back in the early years of this site I did read and review Grosset & Dunlop’s Nancy Drew Cookbook (mmm, Crooked Bannister Cornbread, anyone?) and Simon & Schuster’s late-1980s attempt to ride the Sweet Valley gravy train with River Heights, a non-mystery series set in in Nancy’s hometown.
I have watched a few episodes of the late 1970s The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, in which Pamela Sue Martin played a bold and modern Nancy, who was rewarded by being booted from the series after a season and a half, probably because she made the Hardy Boys look like a couple of dum-dums.
But I really can’t say how well that series represents the content of the actual books- did the Stratemeyers have Joe Hardy halting his sleuthing to sing “Da Do Ron Ron” to a crowd of adoring fans in the originals?
I jest, but I am not really in any position to judge the merits of the very first Nancy Drew adaptation any better.
Harriet Stratemeyer Adams sold the rights to Nancy Drew to Warner Brothers, which would have ongoing legal ramifications into the 21st century, for an intended series of “B” movies helmed by William Clemens, who had directed entries in the Philo Vance, Torchy Blane and Dead End Kids film series.
Former child star Bonita Granville, an Oscar nominee at the age of 12 (for These Three) was cast as Nancy, and she was joined by Frankie Thomas as Ned (now called Ted) Nickerson. The first installment was adapted (uncredited) from The Password to Larkspur Lane and came in at a brisk 65 minutes.
Granville, looking quire a bit blonder than she does in her other roles, is an excitable, confident, assertive (even pushy) Nancy, of whom it is well known that she intends to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a lawyer because “I think every intelligent woman should have a career.”
BFFs George and Bess are nowhere to be found, which adds to the impression that Nancy is operating on a different level than every other character in the movie. When the eccentric alumna who was to bequeath a $250,000 donation to the girls’ school Nancy attends disappears before coughing up the money, Nancy’s classmates turn on her, annoyed that she had gotten their hopes up about getting a swimming pool for the school.
But Nancy isn’t going to give up so fast, especially after she witnesses the family physician being kidnapped from his car on the drive home!
Nancy literally drags those around her into her sleuthing, including her indulgent father and Ned-Ted, who seems to be her only actual friend.
Ned-Ted is mostly there for comic relief, which Thomas plays adeptly, at one point repeatedly dropping a wrench on his foot when they are held hostage by gangsters.
The plot is pretty wild, involving the missing dowager, the kidnapped doctor, clues received via carrier pigeon, Nancy and Ned-Ted taking to the air in a chartered airplane, and finally sneaking in to Larkspur Lane to rescue the school’s benefactor, which necessitates Ned-Ted dressing in drag. Nancy concludes the rescue mission by shooting the hat off one of the gangsters.
With pacing as breathless as the dialogue Granville delivers, it is an amusing way to pass an hour.
The series was canceled after four films (reportedly both Adams and author Mildred Wirt Benson were not fans), and Warner Brothers would not attempt another theatrical feature until 2007.
Availability: The second film in the series, Nancy Drew… Reporter is the only one available for streaming (via Amazon), but all four films have been collected as a DVD set, and are readily available on YouTube.