By Ed Garea
Miss Pinkerton (WB, 1932) – Director: Lloyd Bacon. Writers: Niven Busch & Lillie Hayward (adaptation), Robert Tasker (additional dialogue), Mary Roberts Rinehart. Cast: Joan Blondell, George Brent, Ruth Hall, John Wray, Elizabeth Patterson, C. Henry Gordon, Holmes Herbert, Mary Doran, Blanche Friderici, Mae Madison, Allan Lane, Nigel De Brulier Don Dillaway, & Eulalie Jensen. B&W, 66 minutes.
Miss Pinkerton is an attempt by Warner Bros. at the “old dark house” mystery genre. Done correctly, it’s both thrilling and entertaining. Unfortunately, the movie was not done correctly, and today is really only of interest because of the bravura performance of its star, Joan Blondell.
Blondell plays Nurse Adams, who we see at the beginning of the film coming out of the operating room after assisting on yet another busy day of surgery. She’s quite bored with the routine of the hospital and makes no bones about it. Entering the nurses’ quarters she finds them engaged in a game of cards and so decides to retire, which gives us a chance to see the gorgeous Blondell strip down to her underwear. One firmly ensconced in bed with a magazine, she is called to see Miss Gibbons (Jensen), the Superintendent of Nurses. Gibbons tells Adams that she will be assigned to the house of the rich and well known Mitchell family to care for the family’s elderly aunt, Julia Mitchell (Patterson), who is suffering from shock after discovering the body of her nephew, Herbert Wynne (Allan Lane, whose scenes were deleted in the final print), in the house. Gibbons asks Adams if she wouldn’t mind a change. Adams’s answers, “Mind a change? Lady, if you only knew!”
She arrives at the mansion and immediately goes to work assisting Julia’s physician, Dr. Stuart (Gordon), receiving instructions and getting herself familiar with her patient, as Aunt Julia needs around-the-clock care. She also meets the supervising detective on the case, Inspector Patten (Brent). Patten isn’t buying the current police theory that Wynne committed suicide, nor the family’s explanation of accidental death while cleaning his gun. There are no powder burns, and interviews with the family and staff have convinced him Wynne wasn’t the type to take his life. Hugo (Wray), the butler, stated that “he couldn’t kill himself, not the kind he was.” Aunt Julia puts it more succinctly, describing her nephew as a coward. When Patten learns that Wynne had recently taken out a $100,000 insurance policy, he changes his mind to suicide and speculated that perhaps Wynne shot himself through a newspaper to cover and powder burns. He asks Nurse Adams to look for the newspaper.
In addition, Patten recruits her to act as his eyes and ears when he is away and report anything suspicious that’s going on in the house. When she asks what her title would be, as all those investigating a case have titles, he suggests “Miss Pinkerton,” after the famous detective agency.
While searching the house, Adams meets Paula Brent (Hall), who was sneaking in. Brent tells Adams not only was she Wynne's fiancée, but that Wynne was killed for the insurance money and she knows who it was. However, at the inquest, Wynne's death is declared accidental. Meanwhile, Adams sees a mysterious figure creeping around. When she goes to check, the person grabs her and locks her in a closet. Her screams alert the family, who calls the police. When the police arrive, they find Charles Elliot (Dillaway) holding a newspaper with a bullet hole in it. Charles is arrested despite the protests of Adams, who tells Patten she is sure Elliot is innocent.
Aunt Juliet is very distressed about the arrest and summons her lawyer, Arthur Glenn (Herbert). Outside the room, Paula begs Adams to let her search Wynne’s room to clear Elliott. Glenn sends for Adams and his stenographer, Florence Lenz (Doran) to witness Juliet’s signature on a document, but they do not read the document before signing. As Juliet is still very upset, Dr. Stuart asks Adams to prepare a syringe of amyl nitrite for Juliet’s heart. Moments later Juliet dies because arsenic has been substituted for the amyl nitrite. Adams, before she learns of the death, washes out the hypodermic needle as per standard procedure. Dr. Stuart now suspects Adams of switching the medicine and reports her to the police.
Next, Paula is found with a marriage license that reveals her secret marriage to Wynne, a revelation that seems to give Charles motive. Under additional questioning from Patten, Charles admits that he and Paula are in love, and that on the night Wynne was murdered, Charles was with the victim in his room trying to discourage Wynne from pursuing Paula. He then heard someone coming up the stairs and exited out the window. While Charles is telling his story, police find Hugo the butler in a room, chloroformed. When he comes to, Hugo tells the police to question Florence.
Upon questioning, Florence reveals that it was lawyer Glenn who arranged a plan to cheat the insurance company out of their money by having Wynne marry Paula and fake his suicide and disappear, so that he and Paula could collect on the policy. But Wynne upset the plan by refusing to take a powder, so Glenn murdered him. Glenn later killed Juliet to prevent her from revealing that she hid the newspaper through which the shots were fired at Wynne. Juliet thought Adams and Florence were witnessing her signature on a confession, but Glenn used a blank piece of paper and destroyed the confession. With the case solved, Patten gets a phone call directing him to a new murder. He asks Adams if she wants to come along, but she declines. It seems she’d rather return to the peace and quiet of the hospital.
So what have we learned from all this? Well, to start, the film was based on a novel by popular author Mary Roberts Reinhart. Reinhart came to specialize in the “old dark house” mystery, with her best-known work along these lines being her play, The Bat (1920), which inspired the renowned 1926 film adaptation, as well as one in 1931, titled The Bat Whispers. She is also credited with inventing the “had I but known” school of mystery writing (with the publication of The Circular Staircase in 1908), and the phrase “the butler did it,” from her 1930 novel, The Door, although she never used that phrase in the book.
In Reinhart’s story, Hilda Adams is a visiting nurse who works for the homicide squad and poses as just a nurse at the crime scene. In the film, she’s made a nurse at a hospital, and her first name is stricken – she’s simply “Nurse Adams.” It would seem like the perfect vehicle for Blondell, giving her a platform for her usual energetic, clever, wisecracking performance. She even gets knocked on her keister a few times during the course of the picture. But both the script and director Lloyd Bacon lets her down, for while Blondell gives a strong performance, the rest of the cast seems rather unmotivated, and the plot needlessly confused. Were Michael Curtiz or Mervyn Leroy in the director’s chair, Miss Pinkerton would be a much more lively film. As it is, it’s a film with a lot of potential and a small payoff.
Being an old dark house mystery we can expect plenty of red herrings, suspicious characters, secret passages, screaming women, lights going out at the most opportune times, and mysterious shadows followed by menacing hands. In this film, there’s no shortage of suspicious characters: the dying old aunt, a maid, an eccentric butler (of course), an evil looking doctor, a shady lawyer and his equally shady looking secretary, a fiancée, and the fiancée’s lover. And they all look incredibly guilty to boot; any one of them, or all of them, could have done it. But there’s an old saying that too many cooks spoil the broth, and it’s certainly the case here. Miss Pinkerton is done in by the weight of its script. There’s just too much going on in too short a time.
Compare this film with Curtiz’s The Kennel Murder Case. Both have multiple red herrings, but in the Curtiz film, there’s a strong character with the authority to sort everything out and make sense of it all, while solving the crime. That’s just what Miss Pinkerton lacks. Blondell’s main function in the film seems to be to get terrorized throughout the film’s running time. She’s terrific in those scenes, as her big blue eyes open even wider and she screams her lovely head off. But she lacks the balancing act of authority. She’s simply a nurse snooping around, and when she does any detective work, it goes nowhere. The character with the authority is Inspector Patten, played by George Brent, and all he does is come and go, mostly go. He’s absent, except for a few walk-ons, until the end, when he rushes to Blondell’s aid after hearing her scream as she’s almost choked to death, and solves the case.
On a minor note, what about the dog to whom Adams takes such a liking? In these types of mysteries, the dog can usually point to something or someone overlooked. But here, all the dog does is eat and go outside. It’s an opportunity wasted.
Bacon tries to spice up the convoluted plot by adding some atmosphere in the form of shadows and long silences. However, without the necessary tension, all these add up to are simple conversation breaks, for the film is merely one long conversation with little to back it up. It would help if Bacon would give us some sense of the house’s layout. Half the time we don’t know where we’re supposed to be, and we aren’t helped that only a few of the scenes have any sense of bearing on the mystery. Mostly the characters are eavesdropping on each other. In fact, the biggest mystery of the film is the discrepancy between the exterior shots of the house, with the interior, which seems so much roomier than the exterior, even though everybody seems to be bumping their heads throughout.
It would have really helped the film if there were any chemistry between Adams and Patten. For any chemistry to take hold, Brent has to be there, and as we have seen, he’s mostly absent. It isn’t until the end that we see any romance bloom, as they share a tender embrace followed with some great dialogue: (Adams) “Wait, are you married?” (Patten) “No. You?” (Adams) “No.” Unfortunately, it’s right after this exchange that Patten receives his call alerting him to the new murders, giving the viewer the impression that it was added as an afterthought, which might well be the case.
One plus for Miss Pinkerton is the photography of Barney McGill, who concocts the menacing shadows and takes some of his shots from oblique angles, adding a sense of terror that is so obviously lacking throughout the rest of the film. The scene where Adams sees Patten approach in a bathroom mirror also adds to our pleasure. But in the end it was not enough, and even the bravura performance of Blondell was not enough to pull Miss Pinkerton from the mire of mediocrity to which the writers and the director have sentenced it.
To say that Warner Brothers kept star Joan Blondell busy is an understatement. She appeared in 21 films in 1931 and 1932. In fact, her schedule was so exhausting that in one take on Miss Pinkerton that required her to lay on a cot and feign sleep, she had to be shaken awake by the crew.
Look for cameos by Lyle Talbot as a newspaper editor and young Walter Brennan as a police dispatcher (both uncredited).
Nurse Adams arrives at the crime scene in a cab.
ADAMS (to the driver): Here’s a dollar. Keep the change.
DRIVER (looks at the meter): But the fare is a dollar!
ADAMS: Then we’re even.