Movie Madness and/or Mania: Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (1939)

For the fourth and final entry in Warner Bros. 1938-39 series of Nancy Drew films, we finally get to a credited adaptation of an actual Nancy Drew book.

Now, I have not read The Hidden Staircase, the second book in the series, published in 1930, but browsing through a summary of the story, the film seems to follow the same basic “mystery”, but changes the details of why the mystery needs to be solved.

As the film opens, a phalanx of reporters is storming the Drews’ front door, demanding to photograph Nancy, presumably because of her role in solving the last mystery. There is a very funny bit where they mistake housekeeper Effie Schneider for Carson Drew’s famed daughter (as I understand it Effie was a bit character in the books, but here she replaces stalwart housekeeper Hannah Gruen).

Carson Drew, who has gotten dizzier with each passing film, is working on executing a will on behalf of the elderly Trunbull sisters, who are looking to donate their vast mansion to the local doctor to set up a children’s hospital in River Heights; their late father’s will had specified that the sisters must live in the house and spend every night there for 20 years after his death to come into the inheritance; otherwise the mansion is bequeathed to the city (it is mentioned in passing that certain factions want the property to build a racetrack). Just a few weeks away from the 20 years being up, Drew, esq. has busied himself collecting signed affidavits proving that the sisters have fulfilled their part of the bargain.

But he runs right out of the house, leaving his briefcase behind- as Nancy tries to flag him down as he speeds off, a gangster-type (very familiar to the audience by this point in the series) pushes his way in, demanding the briefcase. As he rifles through the house, Nancy thinks quickly when she sees the ice man pull up to the house, putting the card in the window for a suspiciously large order.

The ice man is none other than Ted (Ned) Nickerson, who groans but gamely starts hauling in the 150 pounds requested, and for once actor Frankie Thomas is not the victim of the slapstick rescue.

While the gangster-type escapes, Nancy just knows that SOMETHING IS UP with the Trunbull estate, and wheedles Ned-Ted into changing his whole route and letting her ride along to make the delivery there.

When they arrive at the Trunbull’s, they find the police barring entry to a(nother) flock of reporters, as they learn that the Trunbull’s chauffeur, Phillips, has just been found shot dead in his room! As the ice man, Ned is OBVIOUSLY there on official business and up to no meddling, so they let him in, with Nancy disguised as his “assistant”.

Captain Tweedy and the various detectives don’t seem to have any problem with Ned-Ted and Nancy nosing around while the cops determine if the death was suicide or murder. The Trunbulls are beside themselves, convinced that it was murder and the killer will be back for them, and are ready to vacate the premises and forfeit their inheritance.

So, obviously, the only thing Nancy can do is fake evidence and plant it. Yup, the whole plot hinges on Nancy’s flagrant tampering! She has Ned-Ted write a fake suicide note, which she leads Tweedy to “discover,” closing the case. Too late does Nancy notice the photographs in Phillips’s room- he’s the same gangster-type that forced his way into her house that morning in search of the affidavits!

The police also play pretty fast and loose with the evidence, handing over the murder/suicide weapon to Ned-Ted to examine (he manages to nervously fidget it apart); when the bullet casing is located some distance from the corpse, and Ned-Ted shares his Uncle has the same kind of Luger pistol (“captured in the War”) Nancy gets an idea…

Oh, Ned-Ted. He thinks he’s really going places at the ice company when his boss tells him that a woman called in an order for 500 pounds and requested for him specifically to deliver it (wink, wink).

Of course he drives out into the middle of the desert and finds out that Nancy was the one who made the call, because she wants to perform a test with his uncle’s Luger RIGHT AWAY. Ned-Ted is finally fed up, and starts loading the 500 pounds of ice into the back seat of her snappy roadster. He eventually consents to firing the gun, and Nancy is thrilled to discover the casings don’t fly very far- Phillips couldn’t have killed himself! Unfortunately, Ned-Ted discovers that the post he was using for target practice was a sign indicated that they are on a nature preserve and shooting is prohibited- just as a motorcycle cop pulls up, siren blaring. Nancy jumps into her car and speeds away, 500 pounds of ice and all, leaving Ned-Ted holding the bag!!!

Nancy’s flagrant dismissal of the law continues, as she drugs the Trunbull sisters (!!!) so she can investigate their claims of the paranormal, which involves having Ned-Ted camp out in the basement overnight. As he sleeps, an axe-wielding figure creeps in and steals his clothes. Ned-Ted is arrested the next morning when he attempts to sneak back home clad in an old gown (and matching feathered hat!) that he was able to find.

The Trunbulls are also arrested, this time for the murder of their chauffeur, after Nancy coughs up the bullet-casing evidence and admits that she and Ned-Ted were behind the phony suicide note. They are drug off to jail, and Nancy now races the clock to prove their innocence and free them so they don’t void the terms of the will!

Again, I’m a little foggy on how this mystery gets solved, exactly, but Nancy and Ned-Ted discover a secret passageway from the Trunbull’s basement to the neighboring house, where they discover Ned-Ted’s missing clothes and the plans for building a racetrack on the Trunbull’s property. This time the budget goes to the thrilling climax, in which Nancy, Ned-Ted and the murderous neighbor become trapped in the passageway as it fills with water and are finally discovered and rescued by the police.

The shortest of the four films in the series, this one comes in at just under an hour. I understand that Warner Bros. additionally planned for at least four more films to follow, but these were canceled. A number of factors might have influenced the decision- by the late 1930s a number of the major studios were phasing out their “B” units, and the movies on the bottom of double bills would be supplied by minor studios that specialized in low-budget films.

Warner Bros. would retain the film rights to the Nancy Drew series, but would not attempt another theatrical feature based on the material for almost 50 years; and in 2019 WB would remake this film, 80 years after its original release!

Availability:  DVD; streaming on YouTube.

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2 Responses to Movie Madness and/or Mania: Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (1939)

  1. Funbud says:

    Speaking of Frankie Thomas (were we?), any fans might like to check him out in the family drama “One Foot In Heaven” (1941) in which he plays the son of a Methodist minister, chaffing under the label of being a clergyman’s kid. It’s a surprisingly entertaining film about the minister (Frederic March) and his loyal wife (Martha Scott) struggling through the years. In a shocking plot twist for the time, Frankie’s character is accused of having premarital sex (!) which leads to scandal. I’ve often thought whoever dreamed up the TV series “Seventh Heaven” must have seen this film. It turns up on TCM fairly often.

    • mondomolly says:

      Oh, I’ll have to keep an eye out for that one! Both Granville and Thomas are reallt solid performers, and Thomas especially is good at slapstick comedy in this series.

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