Movie Madness and/or Mania: Nancy Drew… Detective (1938)

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.

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4 Responses to Movie Madness and/or Mania: Nancy Drew… Detective (1938)

  1. Funbud says:

    I’m a big fan of Bonita Granville! She pretty much defines the word “bitch” in films as diverse as “These Three” and “Now, Voyager” (1942). She’s also very good in “White Banners” (1938) and runs up against the Nazis in “The Mortal Storm” (1940) and the disturbing “Hitler’s Children” (1943). TCM occasionally runs the Nancy Drew films, also. Bonita married the producer of some of her films, Jack Wrather, and together they produced TV series like “Lassie”. They also built the Disneyland Hotel, the first hotel near the newly opened theme park. They made a fortune, and Walt Disney learned a lesson. From then on, all the Disney parks included their own, Disney-owned hotels.

    • mondomolly says:

      I had totally forgotten that she was one of Bette Davis’s tormentors in Now, Voyager!

      Personal anecdote: in 11th grade me and my friend Rachael (who sometimes comments here) had to perform a scene from The Children’s Hour for our English class, and the only film version available to watch in preparation was These Three. I played the Granville role 😉

  2. Westfan says:

    I devoured Nancy Drew books! I grew up in the 50s and 60s and had an older sister, we were lucky enough to have a few of the titles in their original blue covers from the 30s, when Nancy looked quite the flapper. Sure they were formulaic, but I read them very early on and they were like candy. I highly recommend “Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew And The Women Who Created Her”–
    by Melanie Rehak. It’s a good intro to the women who wrote the books, particularly Mildred Wirt Benson, who was quite the progressive role model. The early books were filled with some racist undertones, edited out of the later editions. My favorite memory is that in one of the books, the criminal had the same last name as my own, not all that common a name. That always tickled me!

    • mondomolly says:

      Thanks for commenting- it’s very timely- one of the things I’ve been looking at is the differences between the original editions and the reissues, and the casual racism is definitely something that comes up (and is also particularly relevant to the third film in the WB/Bonita Granville series)

      I’ll keep an eye out for Girl Sleuth- I have enjoyed a few other books from different series by MIldred Wirt Benson!

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