“Four classic mysteries. One legendary detective.”
The Original Nancy Drew Movie Mystery Collection is a two-disc DVD set featuring the four classic Nancy Drew films, which star the lovely Bonita Granville in the title character. Granville is joined by Frankie Thomas (as Ted Nickerson, known as Ned in the books) and John Litel (as her father, Carson Drew) as well as plenty of great supporting actors.
Debuting in 1930, the Nancy Drew book series is a true classic of juvenile fiction. The original series contains a whopping 175 titles, the most recent being published in 2003. Stories have continued to be published under the “Nancy Drew” umbrella after 2003, including a series of graphic novels. (Wikipedia offers a full list of books featuring the character.)
Released only 8 years after the first appearance of the character in print, these films starring Bonita Granville hold the title of the first film representations of the character. These films were released between December 1938 and November 1939, meaning that every couple of months fans of the young sleuth would be able to enjoy her newest screen story.
Nancy Drew… Detective (1938): Nancy sleuths about to find out what happened to the wealthy woman who was going to make a donation to Nancy’s school before she suddenly disappeared.
This first film in the series solidifies Bonita Granville as a great on-screen Nancy Drew. She’s not a perfect carbon-copy of the Nancy in print, but Granville clearly portrays the determination, curiosity and smarts of the written character right from the beginning of this film. She doesn’t under or overplay the role.
Granville aside, the performances are solid across the board in this installment. The characters themselves are charismatic and lovable, which is only bolstered by the talent of the actors.
The film also wastes no time getting into the thick of the plot, which is a positive since the running time is so short, clocking in at about an hour. The plot itself is a great mystery that gets solved slowly, clue by clue, and Nancy will stop at nothing to get the job done.
It’s certainly no hard-boiler, and the Nancy Drew films shouldn’t be. It’s a smart mix of suspense and fun. The ending is also very well-resolved.
In terms of quality, there is some distortion to the print, but it is far from being unwatchable. Most of it is quite clear and has decent contrast. The sound is also very clear.
Nancy Drew… Reporter (1939): Nancy, determined to win a contest against her fellow journalism students, ignores the orders given to her by the local paper and instead sets off to clear a young woman of murder charges.
The viewer knows immediately that Nancy isn’t going to stick to any fluff piece about a poetry club that the newspaper assigns to her. She wouldn’t be Nancy Drew if she didn’t break the rules!
The audience is clued in from the beginning of the film, but most of the characters are oblivious to Nancy’s sleuthing in this installment – including her father.
Nancy Drew… Reporter again provides a mix of thrills and fun. There’s a lot of zippy dialogue this time around to bring laughs for the viewer, but there are equally tense moments to balance it out.
The quality of this film is comparable to the quality of the first, which appears on the same disc. The picture quality is slightly more clear.
Nancy Drew… Trouble Shooter (1939): The Drew and Nickerson families are both spending the summer in the country, which should mean lots of adventure for Nancy and Ted. But when Nancy’s Uncle Matt is accused of murder, she once again becomes entangled in the mystery as she tries to find the real murderer.
Once again, this film jumps right into the conflict. Mr. Drew tries to pass the trip off as a simple vacation to the country, but he can’t hide the truth from Nancy for long, and within about ten minutes she’s on the case.
In the previous two installments Nancy tackled the case of a missing woman and the case of another wrongly accused person, but this time around the stakes should be higher considering it’s her own family that’s locked up.
But rather than get too serious, this film is probably the fluffiest in the series, spending quite a good chunk of time throughout focusing on the mishaps of living in the country when you’re accustomed to the city, and Nancy’s disdain for a woman she thinks her father has taken a liking to. There are moments of higher drama, but they are few.
And of course, this wouldn’t be a classic Nancy Drew film without the usual friendly bickering and cuteness between Nancy and Ted.
Willie Best makes an appearance here in a role that he frequently portrayed. He’s once again an easily frightened sidekick of sorts, though the gag doesn’t work nearly as well here as it does in films like The Smiling Ghost. Here it seem like a caricature, whereas in The Smiling Ghost he seems like a genuinely jumpy man.
In terms of quality, this film is comparable to those on the first disc. Though a bit fuzzier in some spots than the previous two films, there is no major distortion and the sound is clear.
Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (1939): Nancy and Ted help a pair of sisters who are in fear of losing their family home. Their task is complicated by the fact that the women’s chauffeur is murdered.
The shortest of the four films, The Hidden Staircase clocks in at only 60 minutes. The pace remains fast throughout in order to cram the whole crime-solving cycle into a single hour.
The Hidden Staircase is my favorite of the Nancy Drew book series, and as a result I expected to be more critical of this film, possibly not even enjoying it as much as the others.
But with the fast pace and a fairly high level of mystery (the question of murder vs. suicide, and later the bigger question of how the murder was carried out), this installment is highly enjoyable. Nothing could compare to the novel, but this is still and exciting watch.
A big positive here is that Ted and Nancy both seem very involved in solving the mystery. Usually Ted seems half-willing to take part in Nancy’s charades, often helping her only with reluctance. He still has a bit of that reluctance here, but they both seem invested in getting to the bottom of things.
The quality of this installment is very good. The picture is free of distortion and quite high on contrast, making it more visually appealing than the previous three. The sound is also free of problems, as is a common attribute of this set.
Thoughts on the set as a whole:
This four-film set would make a wonderful addition to the shelf of any classic film fan, comedy-mystery fan or fan of the book series. While all of the films do take liberties with the stories (Hidden Staircase in particular) and the characters aren’t portrayed exactly as they are in the books, but these films are all highly enjoyable pieces of work.
The only downfall of this set is the lack of special features. An original theatrical trailer accompanies each film, but beyond that there is nothing. No commentary, no lobby cards, no mention of the fan club that Warner Bros. set up to promote the series. (Am I the only person who would love to see this sold in a collector’s set with a reproduction of the 1950s Nancy Drew board game?)
The score: 3.5/5*
Packaging: 3/5 – This collection is packaged in a standard plastic snap case, and each disc has its own holder. The cover is quite nicely designed and lists all of the included films, and the back cover includes some small stills from the films. It’s nothing fancy, but it works!
DVD quality: 4/5 – The picture quality isn’t completely perfect on all of the films, but overall it’s very good. There are no problems big enough to distract the viewer while watching.
Special features: 1/5 – The special features do leave a lot to be desired, since trailers are all we get.
*I gave the score a boost from an average of about 2.5 based on the above criteria up to a 3.5, because the films themselves are so enjoyable and I’m glad they’re all available to own together on DVD.