Nancy Drew, Reporter

Nancy Drew, Reporter. First National Pictures 1939.

Before watching the movie:

I’m not sure whether I’ve ever read a Nancy Drew story. I was probably more likely to have attempted the Hardy Boys, but neither interested me that much growing up. I was much more interested in Encyclopedia Brown.

I don’t recall a particular career or pastime being mentioned as what gets Nancy into sleuthing, and a quick skim of the Wikipedia page seems to show that she’s just a smart kid who happens to be in sleuthing distance of a lot of mysteries, like a teenaged Miss Marple. I was a little worried that by using “being a reporter” to justify her investigation into this mystery, the movie would be applying the name to a much older character, but it seems that she’s a school paper reporter, trying to win a journalism prize. Still seems like a lot of unnecessary scaffolding on “smart kid solves mysteries”.

After watching the movie:

Nancy Drew is brought to the local newspaper as part of a group of high school children to participate in a young reporter contest, with the kid reporter to turn in the best story after three days to win a medal and a large check. The editor hands out puff piece assignments to all the kids, but Nancy, hungry for a bigger story, switches her garden party brief for a story assignment on an absent reporter’s desk concerning the inquest into the death of wealthy Ms. Lambert, who recently changed her will to leave all her money to her young friend Eula Denning, with nothing to her nephew and closest relative Miles Lambert. In court, it is explained that Ms. Lambert was poisoned with a very rare compound mostly known by photographers, and as a photographer, Miss Denning had a can of the chemical. Denning testifies that if the police were able to find the can, they would be able to find the killer’s fingerprints etched into the metal, but as they don’t have the can, she is arrested for murder. Immediately after, a man with a bent ear gets in his car and speeds off in such a hurry he dents the bumper of Nancy’s car, causing her to speed after him to the Lambert house, where the police officer guarding it helps her find him trying to get in the back door, claiming to be there to read the gas meter. Roping neighbor boy Ted into helping her, Nancy gets an exclusive interview and photo with Miss Denning in prison by promising her legal representation from her father Carson Drew, famous defense attorney, and then breaks into the Lambert home herself to find the can, getting chased off by the man with the bent ear. On her way to the police, an unfamiliar woman steals the can off of Nancy, who’s convinced that woman is the girlfriend of the man with the bent ear, whom she’s able to identify as boxer Soxie Anthens.

I’d seen this movie around a lot, but I never realized this is the second of four movies made with Bonita Granville. That makes it a little more understandable that they framed the mystery with journalism. They’d already done just simple “smart kid detective who is a girl”. It also explains why Nancy, Ted, Ted’s troublesome sister Mary, and Mary’s friend Killer are all only given cursory, but effective, introductions. I assume the previous movie did more heavy lifting there. It’s interesting to note that Killer is played by Dickie Jones, mainly known now for being the voice of Pinocchio in the Disney movie as well as adult work in a lot of westerns I’ve never heard of. Also very frustratingly, Soxie, the heavy antagonist of the movie, wasn’t credited in the film, making it difficult to find the actor’s name when I couldn’t remember the name of the character.

Nancy’s chief character traits seem to be being nosy and manipulating others into helping her. That Ted and her father are frequently exasperated by her getting them involved in her meddling is played for laughs, like they really intended her to not be likable. You can call it being clever and resourceful, but that’s really not the take the filmmakers seemed to have.

The strangest part of the mystery structure is that Eula Denning, the framed girl, disappears after the first act. She isn’t important as a character, only that she’s been framed and is sitting in jail. She’s an inciting incident, no more. Similarly, the movie isn’t interested in properly acknowledging the other young reporters in the contest. Nancy gets a full introduction, the next girl gets a name, and the editor cuts off any further introductions. The second girl is also the one who almost gets the prize before Nancy gives the editor her story, probably because she was already the one with the most lines.

This is a pretty basic pulp detective story for children. The journalism gimmick is very lightly involved just to distinguish it from a preceding movie that doesn’t seem as readily available, maybe because that one didn’t fall into the public domain. There were some interesting turns, but it’s severely hampered by a main character who’s as annoying as Miss Marple only pretends to be. I doubt fans of the books appreciate this series of movies.

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