The perfect casting can make or break an adaptation of any story. One successful example of superb casting is that of Edna May Oliver in the role of amateur sleuth Hildegarde Withers.
Hildegarde Withers is a New York City teacher (originally from Boston) who, in Murder on the Blackboard, is described as “in the neighborhood of forty–the close neighborhood–and that her face has something of the contour, and most of the characteristics, of a well-bred horse. Her nose, even without the pince-nez, would be a trifle thinnish, but the mouth is wise and friendly…”
This description could very well have been made with Edna May Oliver in mind. Author Stuart Palmer had seen Oliver in a performance of Show Boat during its first run on Broadway in 1927 to 1929. He admitted this influenced the creation of the character, who was also in part based on a high school teacher of his.
A true character actress, Edna May Oliver (1883-1942) starred in over 40 films, mostly in a supporting role—often as the spinster aunt type. She’s perhaps best known for her roles as Aunt March in Little Women (1933), Aunt Betsey in David Copperfield (1935), Sarah Wendling in the Shirley Temple movie, Little Miss Broadway (1938), spunky frontierswoman Mrs. McKlennar in Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice (1940). However, she truly had the chance to shine as the lead in three RKO film adaptations of Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers mysteries.
Some years back, by chance, I had the opportunity to watch Murder on the Blackboard on AMC one weekend afternoon. I was quickly drawn into the story of a school teacher who, in keeping a juvenile deliquent after school, discovers a murder. She quickly mobilizes into action and calls in the police. The murderer is still on the premises! Though the killer escapes, Edna May Oliver as Hildegarde Withers doggedly pursues the clues with her wit and wisdom.
Recently, by chance, I came across a yellowed paperback copy of the book. Recognizing the title from the movie I’d seen so many years ago—and which has long had a cherished place in my mind—I quickly determined to read this story. So far the book has not disappointed.
It begins: “The solitary prisoner sat quietly, his hands clasped in front of him. One shoe moved up and down against its mate, but there was no quivering of his lips. He’d show Them if he could take it or not!” Not long after we learn this is a student in detention. Miss Withers has kept the boy afterschool. She hears the comings and goings of teachers leaving for the day, but something strikes her as off. She heard the music teacher’s heels-taps pass by on the way to the cloakroom, but she didn’t hear her leave. Investigating, she discovers the young woman dead.
Miss Withers then sends her errant student to fetch Inspector Piper of the New York Homicide Squad. She, too, leaves and pauses at a shop across the street until the police arrive. All the while she keeps an eye on the front doors of the school. When Inspector Piper arrives, they return to the school’s cloakroom but find the body gone. While Piper makes a search of the school, Withers awaits the arrival of more officers. Piper is coshed while searching the basement. He’s soon discovered by Withers, Sergeant Taylor, and the other officers.
Withers advises the other officers about the school and informs them that she knows the murderer hasn’t left the premises. She’d been watching the front entrance, and the only other exit, the fire escape, sounds an alarm if used. Eventually, the killer does escape via the latter route. In the meantime, the police discover a grave that was dug in the basement, and Miss Withers deduces where the body was hidden.
It’s all very intelligently written and a joy to read. Miss Withers is both witty and nearly diabolically clever. Like a prim and proper schoolmarm of old, Miss Withers’ commanding presence yields results with both the slightly bumbling officers of the law and the suspects in the music teacher’s demise. Though I do think I’ve spotted an early tell-tale clue during Withers’ search of the school that strongly indicates the killer—I shall see if I’m right by book’s end—this mystery is well constructed. I feel there is much more to learn as the story’s just begun. By Chapter Seven, Miss Withers has only just begun questioning suspects.
Murder on the Blackboard was originally published in 1932. The film adaptation occurred shortly after in 1934 with Edna May Oliver as Hildegarde and James Gleason as Inspector Piper. This was actually the second of the filmed series. The first being Penguin Pool Murder. Naturally there are differences between book and film. In the movie, I remember Inspector Piper was not the officer who was coshed at the beginning. This was obviously arranged to maintain the comic pairing between Oliver and Gleason in their roles.
There are at least six Hildegarde Withers novels, not counting short story collections and one posthumous novel. Only three of the films based on series star Oliver. When she left studio RKO for MGM, the series limped along with two other actresses, but never acheived the success of Oliver in the role. Sadly, Murder on the Blackboard does not appear to be readily available. Maybe someday the series will be released?
For an excellent overview of Stuart Palmer, his character of Hildegarde Withers, and a bit about the movie adaptations, do read this article written by mystery author Steven Saylor. For more about Edna May Oliver, check out this article.