D: William Clemens / 68m
Cast: Bonita Granville, John Litel, Frankie Thomas, Dickie Jones, Mary Lee, Larry Williams, Betty Amann, Jack Perry, Thomas E. Jackson, Olin Howland, Sheila Bromley
When she takes part in a newspaper contest, headstrong Nancy Drew (Granville) doesn’t like the assignment she’s given, so instead she swipes another reporter’s assignment: to cover the inquest of a woman, Kate Lambert, who was recently found dead. At the inquest, it’s revealed that Mrs Lambert was poisoned by a photographic chemical, and suspicion falls on her companion, Eula Denning (Amann). Protesting her innocence, and stating that whoever killed Mrs Lambert would have left fingerprints on the tin the poison came in, Eula is still remanded in custody for trial.
Also at the inquest is a man with a cauliflower ear (Perry) who hits Nancy’s bumper as he leaves the courthouse. She follows him to the Lambert house where he tries to gain entry, but Nancy and a guard stop him. She tells her father, well-known and respected lawyer Carson Drew (Litel), all about it but he warns her to leave well alone. Instead, Nancy gains the help of her neighbour, Ted Nickerson (Thomas) and together they visit Eula in jail. She tells them the tin must still be in the house and gives them a clue as to where to find it. At the Lambert house, Ted distracts the guard while Nancy sneaks inside and finds the tin. But the man is also there, and tries to grab the tin but Nancy gets away from him. She takes the tin to the police station, but before she can hand it over, the man’s girlfriend (Bromley) steals it from her.
Nancy discovers that the man is a boxer, Soxie Anthens, and she also discovers the gym where he trains. She and Ted go there and further learn that Soxie’s girlfriend is called Miss Lucas. They track her down to the Beldenburg Hotel, where they also find out that she’s gone to the Mandarin Cafe. Nancy and Ted head over there, and find Soxie’s girlfriend in the company of Miles Lambert (Williams), the son of the murdered woman. Alerting Soxie to their being together, he causes a scene when he arrives at the cafe. During the altercation, Nancy learns enough about the tin and the murder to set a trap for the killer.
The second of four movies made in 1938-9 by Warner Bros. and based on the character created by Edward Stratemeyer, Nancy Drew… Reporter is a fast-paced comedy whodunnit that has time to pause for a musical interlude, and adds two young “whippersnappers” in the form of Ted’s younger sister Mary (Lee) and her friend in mischief Killer Parkins (Jones) to the mix as often as it can. It has a certain degree of innocent charm, and is largely inoffensive, but beneath the irreproachable content of the plot and storyline, the movie is surprisingly subversive.
When Nancy steals the reporter’s assignment, she later justifies her actions by stating that a good reporter should always do what it takes to get the story. It’s the best example of the lying and manipulation that Nancy displays throughout the movie in her efforts to catch the killer. She hoodwinks Ted on more than one occasion, traps her father into defending Eula thanks to a fait accompli, and blatantly lies in order to get the newspaper to print a fraudulent headline in order to flush out the killer. In her quest to uncover the truth it seems that Nancy will bend or break the rules in whatever way she needs in order to do so. And it’s noticeable that she rarely – if ever – apologises.
With its heroine proving almost as devious and deceitful as the bad guys, the movie carries on as if it hadn’t noticed at all that Nancy was so duplicitous, and of course, she wins the newspaper contest (though, to be fair, she declines the cash prize, but accepts the accompanying medal). There’s too much of this ironic counterpoint for the movie to be an entirely comfortable watch, with its moral compass being so broadly compromised. Of course, Nancy isn’t the only character in the movies to behave in such a way, but this is a character who was intended to encourage young girls to read more; what message are they meant to be getting when Nancy behaves as if the usual rules don’t apply to her?
Away from the dubious character of Nancy, there’s the small matter of the plot, which is very basic to say the least, and which advertises the villains straight away at the inquest. Usually, the killer is revealed in the final reel, but here anyone will be able to work out their identity well in advance, and this helps to dilute whatever drama or tension is inherent in the plot. In fact, there are times when the plot is so lightweight it’s almost gossamer thin. But the cast are entertaining to watch, with Granville and Thomas proving a good pairing, while Litel is kept firmly in the background, aside from an uncomfortable moment when he carries Granville off to bed and sings an awkward lullaby to her while also tucking her in.
Series’ director Clemens maintains a loose feel throughout and gives his cast enough room to indulge themselves when appropriate, and this happy-go-lucky approach makes the movie seem smarter and more energetic than it actually is, and despite the best efforts of screenwriter Kenneth Gamet. A mention too for editor Frank DeWar whose skill in the cutting room means the movie contains very little fat, and has a freshness to it even now, over seventy-five years since its release.
Rating: 6/10 – allowing for its (probably) unintentionally crafty heroine, Nancy Drew… Reporter is still an interesting, if flawed, take on the teen sleuth genre; bolstered by good performances, though with a mystery that even a blind person could work out, the movie is nevertheless a minor treat for fans of this type of movie, and of Granville in particular.