Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Nancy Drew Series

Today's topic is one of my favorite literary and film characters: Nancy Drew.

Nancy Drew: the polished princess of puzzle perfection.
Nancy Drew: the smartest seeker of secrets to steal the spotlight.
Nancy Drew: the audacious amateur amazing American audiences.  

Nancy Drew: the one and only most professional, most proper, most attractive, most resourceful, most idolized, most famous, and longest-lived heroine of American fiction, EVER.

There is really a whole world that belongs to Nancy Drew, and there is no medium that she has not traversed.  Books, magazines, graphic novels, movies, TV, computer games, internet sites, blogs, conventions, fan clubs, even Halloween costumes, have been dedicated to the study of Nancy Drew and her mysteries.  With upwards of 175 mystery novels published in the regular series and over 80 million copies sold in some 45 languages, she is a phenomenon that has nearly enveloped the globe.  

Today I bring you the original four-part Nancy Drew film series, done in 1938 and 1939, only eight years after Nancy was "born."  The four films,
have been compiled by Warner Brothers in a two-disk DVD set, and can likely be found in your local public library.  

But before I get to reviewing each of these films in turn, I want to provide a bit of the background and history that will put their creation and characters in context.  

The idea for the Nancy Drew books was developed by Edward Stratemeyer, cornerstone of the Stratemeyer Syndicate and tycoon of literary character creation.  Having already churned out dozens of popular literary series, the Bobbsey Twins and Hardy Boys among them, Stratemeyer hit upon the idea for Nancy just before his death in 1930.  

After roughly outlining the character, Stratemeyer passed on his expectations for Nancy Drew to staff writer Mildred Wirt Benson, whose responsibility it was to flesh out the skeleton (pardon me) into successful novels.  Benson wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew mystery novels under the Syndicate pen name, Carolyn Keene.  Of course, the series was much more popular than anyone expected, though Stratemeyer didn't live to know it.

Upon Edward's death the Syndicate passed to his daughters, Edna and Harriet, who together continued to guide Nancy's development.  Harriet was responsible for most of the work done between them, writing 24 of the novels herself, and dedicating more than 25 years to an extensive revision and update process on the original novels.  

Possibly more than 13 salaried ghostwriters contributed to the original series through the Syndicate, which reserved the rights to both Nancy and the pseudonym Carolyn Keene.  Other authors include Walter Karig, George Waller Jr., Leslie McFarlane, James Duncan Lawrence, Charles Strong, Nancy Axelrod, Priscilla Doll, Alma Sasse, Wilhelmina Rankin, and Margaret Scherf.

Mildred Wirt Benson shortly
before her death in 2002 at the
age of 96.
Initially, most ghostwriters were paid at a rough fee of $125 per novel written. Mildred Wirt Benson, still treasured among Nancy devotees as the most original and beloved of the "Carolyn Keenes" is said to have earned upwards of $500 for the last few books she contributed.  She is regarded as being largely responsible for shaping Nancy's personality, demeanor, and spirit.  

Benson wrote Nancy at 16 years old and driving a blue roadster.  Somewhere along the way, Nancy starting driving a maroon roadster, then ended up in a yellow one and aged to 18 years of age.  She has remained 18 years of age for the the past 75 or so years.  

Russel H. Tandy, the original illustrator, sealed the deal for Nancy's success. Stylish and sophisticated, the original book covers and inside illustrations depicted a female heroine unlike any other at the time.  Independent, smart, and courageous in word and picture alike, Nancy captured the heart of millions.  

In 1938, Warner Brothers liked nothing better than to have a slice of the Nancy Drew pie. The studio assembled a cast, threw together a plot that was only lightly based on any of the Nancy Drew books, gave the production B level funding, and sent the product off to be second billing. (Strange behavior in light of the novels' success and the hasty way in which they snatched up rights.)  Nonetheless, Nancy Drew, Detective did surprisingly well at the box office and three more follow-up productions were put in the works.  Reporter, Trouble Shooter, and the Hidden Staircase all followed within a year.  More sequels were probably on the shelf in 1939, but Bonita Granville left Warner Brothers for MGM and further development of the series was precluded.

Nancy then went untouched by the screen until the 70s, when she was reinvented for TV by Pamela Sue Martin.  Recent depictions (I'm talking about the 2007 Emma Roberts version) give us an unrecognizable Nancy, one with challenged social skills and brown hair.  How did we come to this?

Without further ado, I give you the Nancy Drew series!

The Basics:
The films feature the same core cast, with 15-year-old Bonita Granville in the title role, Frankie Thomas as "Ted" Nickerson (he was "Ned" in the books), John Litel as Carson Drew, Frank Orth as Captain Tweedy, and Renie Riano as "Effie" the housekeeper (she was "Hannah" in the books).  All were made in black and white with a run time of 60-68 minutes each.  

Nancy Drew, Detective
In this first of the series, Detective features a plucky Nancy Drew who goes on the man-hunt when a wealthy old dowager disappears after promising to donate a large amount of money to Nancy's private school.  

True to form, Nancy jumps into the mystery even when no one else believes that there is one.  Determined to find out what happened to the elderly woman, she enlists (or forces) the help of Ted Nickerson, next door neighbor.  

Together they follow the trail of clues, Ted always unwilling and always "duped" into assisting.  Nancy may be good at solving mysteries, but she is even better at manipulating the good-hearted, frustrated, Ted.  The boy who only wants to spend his summer training for football and fooling with his ham radio ends up following carrier pigeons and dressing up as a female nurse at Nancy's command.  

Captain Tweedy, the classic stupid policeman, is the perpetual thorn in Nancy's side.  He is always arresting the wrong people and coming to the wrong conclusions, and he won't take Nancy seriously.  

Carson Drew forbids Nancy to get mixed up in police matters.  She always does anyway.  Sometimes she even promises him that she'll stay out of it, crossing her fingers all the while.  

"Effie" (I have no idea why they changed some of the names) is not the warm, capable, unflappable authority she is in the books.  This series features a flighty, nervous, airhead.  But that's ok, because it is more funny that way.

Which brings me to the point: these movies are not faithful adaptations of the books by any stretch of the imagination.  Physically, Bonita Granville makes a very good Nancy Drew: blonde, pretty, girl-next-doorish.  She also has the spunky spirit we would expect from Nancy.  But she is neither as calm, even-keel, sophisticated, or mature as the Nancy we would expect from the books.  Granville's Nancy is more short-sighted and less resourceful than Benson's Nancy, and we have never seen a Nancy so manipulative. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it helps the movies along at a fast clip and keeps them entertaining.

Nancy Drew... Reporter
Nancy, already a detective, now tries her hand at reporting.  Entering into a newspaper contest for youngsters, Nancy is dissatisfied with her "assignment" and indignant that the editor so quickly dismisses the potential of the "kiddies." You can bet she'll show him!

Overhearing the editor give instructions for an absent reporter to get over to the courthouse right away, Nancy steals his assignment and leaves her own behind in its place (this is also a  less scrupulous Nancy). When the inquest she attends concludes with the indictment of a woman Nancy believes to be innocent, Nancy is off to prove the innocence of the accused.  She gets into a bucket-load of trouble, dragging Ted and her father into it behind her.   

Her shenanigans include:
- instructing Ted to smuggle his camera into jail and illegally take pictures
- getting Ted into the boxing ring with a professional heavyweight 
- repeatedly breaking into a house secured by police

Here's a sampling

Nancy Drew... Trouble Shooter
This time Nancy and gets out of River Heights for a mystery involving an old family friend falsely accused of murder.  Carson Drew intends to take the case without Nancy knowing there is one (yeah right).  He makes up a story about them going to the country for a vacation.  Ellie, no match for Nancy's questioning, spills the beans.  The three of them travel to the Sylvan Lake, where Ted is also vacationing, and get into a terrific mess.  Nancy and Ted end up trapped in old barn, chased by a bull, up in an airplane with no pilot, and exploring the ghostly scene of the crime with Apollo, the superstitious hired hand.  Nancy even has trouble at home when father Carson takes in interest in Edna, a neighbor (Nancy has no patience for this romance).  And all the while Ted only wants to build his boat.  

It's another whirlwind of trouble and adventure for the crime-solving bunch!

Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase
The only of the four movies to be expressly based on a Nancy Drew book, this last of the four films was also the best. A pair of elderly sisters has been inhabiting their home for decades.  They wish to donate it to be transformed into a much needed hospital, but, due to their father's kooky will, can only do so after they have spent every night in the house for twenty years.  With only two weeks remaining before the mansion is officially theirs to give, it looks as if the sisters will be able to fulfill their promises, that is, until their chauffeur turns up murdered and the sisters believe they are being visited by a nightly intruder.

Nancy is determined to put the sisters' minds at ease, so she tricks Ted into writing a fake suicide note and plants it near the scene of the crime.  But Ted is too busy with his job delivering ice to help Nancy, so she calls him out on fake jobs, gets him to fire a Luger in a no shooting zone, plants him in the basement to catch the intruder, and gets him into all kinds of situations that cause him to be arrested and ultimately fired.  Poor Ted.  

The suspenseful ending has Nancy and Ted trapped in a secret passageway underneath the mansion, with the killer and rising water. 

Each of these films is a fun and entertaining way to spend and hour.  Though we see a Nancy not quite like the one in the books, it is not hard to suspend your expectations and let Granville charm you, or trick you, into going along.  Have fun!
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April said...

Hi Priscilla! Popped over to see your Doris Day tribute and found this post :) I LOVED Nancy Drew growing up! Over half of the series was rewritten during the 60's (if memory serves right) by Harriett Adams. She was so obsessed with the Nancy Drew persona that I have read she even insisted that people refer to her as Nancy! I have a number of the really old copies of the books and they are significantly different (and better in my opinion) that the re-writes. Did you ever read the Dana Girls? Only got my hands on a couple from that series, but I liked it. Tried to like the Bobbsey twins and Hardey Boys, but they just couldn't hold a candle to Nancy! Love your blog, missy :)

Priscilla said...

Thanks for stopping by, April. I hope you will come back and see my newly published Doris Day page, which I did not have up earlier.

Nancy Drew is just fantastic. Have you ever played the Nancy Drew computer games? I enjoy them as much as the books, the original books that is. I never cared for any of the later follow-up series and mod Nancy stuff. Yes, the series was re-written, and it is interesting to look into the details of what was changed. There are some great blogs and sites on the web about that.

The originals are such a treasure - you better hang on to them!

I agree with you about the Bobbseys and Hardeys, and I do believe I have one of the Danas, The Clue in the Ivy. Nothing is quite the same as Nancy, though.

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