Nancy Drew is Still My Gal: Carolyn Keene’s Sleuth on Screen

MAY / JUNE 2012: BY PATTI GARDNER

nancy

WHEN IT COMES to literary women, one name has been on my lips since I was eight years old: Nancy Drew.

Brought to life by the pen of Carolyn Keene (the pseudonym under which several different authors wrote the series), the titian-haired sleuth came into my life when I was in the third grade, and by the time I had reached the fifth grade, I had read all but about five books in the series. I lived and breathed Nancy Drew during those years, bought new books for my ever-growing collection every chance I got, put longed-for titles on all my gift lists, talked “Nancy” with my fellow mystery-lovin’ friend Claudia and even tried to write my own series of mystery stories.

The end of elementary school didn’t find me leaving her behind, though. On the contrary, the brainy girl detective went on to middle school with me. Even while other girls were reading more mature literature, Nancy Drew was still my obsession. I reread my favorite stories and discovered new ones as they were published. To be honest, I have never lost my love for the delightful Nancy (or her friends Bess and George and her boy-friend Ned); even as a 30-something adult when I was in the mood for easy (yet interesting) reading, I occasionally sought out my old pal Nancy. She has been a beloved friend for over four decades now, so imagine my pleasure when I discovered my love of her could be “married” to my love of classic films.

In the late 1930’s, a series of four Nancy Drew films was made—Nancy Drew, Detective; Nancy Drew, Reporter; Nancy Drew, Trouble-Shooter; Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase. All four films, which were directed by William Clemens, feature Bonita Granville as Nancy, John Litel as her father, and Frankie Thomas as her boyfriend, Ted (Ned in the books). As in the books, Nancy lives with her single-parent lawyer father and their housekeeper in the town of River Heights. Also in keeping with the books, Nancy is brave, smart, resourceful, and utterly determined.

In Nancy Drew, Detective the school she attends has been promised a $250,000 donation from wealthy Mary Eldridge. But before the endowment is given, it is discovered that the benefactress has left with no explanation as to her whereabouts or why she has gone away, other than that she was in need of a rest. While some in her circle believe Mrs. Eldridge is an eccentric woman who never had any intention of bequeathing a sum to the school, Nancy is certain she did and vows to discover her whereabouts.

While following Mrs. Eldridge’s manager in her convertible, Nancy witnesses the kidnapping of the town’s doctor. He’s not held long, though… just long enough to treat the shoulder of an elderly woman… a woman he believes is being held against her will. Sure Dr. Spires was treating Mrs. Eldridge, Nancy questions him about the location of the house to which he was taken; although he had been blindfolded and didn’t know exactly where he was, the doctor does know the house was in the country and was about an hour’s drive away, plus he remembers that the driver of his car muttered the word “bluebells” to the gatekeeper. Although these clues are minimal, Nancy remains determined to solve the mystery of Mrs. Eldridge’s disappearance.

A bit later, a neighbor pops by the Drew home to show off a pigeon that landed at his house. Nancy and Ted realize it is a carrier pigeon and when they read the note he’s carrying, they discover a wonderful new lead. “Shoulder okay, Bluebell,” is all the note says, but the words are enough to convince them that the pigeon just might lead them to Mrs. Eldridge. All they have to do is follow it and the mystery will be solved… right?

Sort of… but things don’t go quite as Nancy and Ted expect. For one thing, the people holding the elderly lady aren’t going to go down without a fight… and certainly not to a perky teenage girl. Eventually, though, her determination leads to the arrest of the gang and the release of the wealthy widow.

This particular film was based on The Password to Larkspur Lane (book #10 in the series, originally published in 1933). While it’s not an identical retelling, I immediately recognized the theme of bluebells, carrier pigeons, and a kidnapped elderly woman, Mrs. Eldridge. That title was always one of my favorites in the series so I was thrilled to see it brought to life in film.

Bonita Granville is quite delightful as Nancy. She plays the part to perfection and even looks exactly as I imagine Nancy looking. She definitely exhibited the spunk and resourcefulness typical of Carolyn Keene’s heroine. John Litel (Carson Drew) and Frankie Thomas (Ted) played their parts well too, and the chemistry between each of them and Miss Granville was great. The only negatives I have are that Mr. Drew called his housekeeper an idiot. I don’t feel it is ever acceptable to call someone an idiot and it’s something the kind and very proper Carson Drew would never have done. Also, Nancy fainted when confronted with a gun, something totally out of character for the always-courageous detective. Those things aside, I found the Nancy Drew films enjoyable. There is enough mystery to make them entertaining and interesting for adults, yet not so much suspense that children would be frightened. Definitely, fans of the Nancy Drew series of books ought to quite enjoy these films.

My love of Nancy Drew remains. While I may not have read a single book in the series for the past couple of decades, Nancy is and always will be one of my favorite literary women. Now, through these engaging movies, I can enjoy her on my TV screen as well. ♥

mayjune2012

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