Eve Arden does an able turn as Hildegarde Withers.
In 1972, during one of the high points of American TV crime-drama production, the ABC network considered the idea of launching a “wheel series” called The Great Detectives. Similar programming rotations had been tried before--some successfully (The Name of the Game, The Bold Ones, and The NBC Mystery Movie), others less so (Four in One). But all of those had been broadcast on rival NBC. Executives at Universal Television, which was behind this venture, were confident that ABC could do equally well, if given the right material.
The idea was to exploit the popularity of classic literary sleuths, without committing the “Alphabet Network” to weekly series about any of them. Frank Price, then a producer and writer at Universal (later to become the company’s president), was quoted in the Los Angeles Times in February 1972 as saying the rotation format “gives us such flexibility. We have the whole field of great detectives to deal with clear back to Edgar Allan Poe.” Specifically, he suggested that Poe’s “thinking machine,” C. Auguste Dupin, and Wilkie Collins’ mid-19th-century “sensation novels” might provide future fodder for The Great Detectives. Closely following the model of the Mystery Movie (another Universal enterprise), Price hoped to build a variety of alternating shows around well-known actors and actresses who frequently eschewed TV commitments, but might accept roles as sleuths that obligated them to work on only a few episodes per year.
Hoping to convince ABC of this concept’s potential, Universal fashioned three pilots for prospective Great Detectives elements, which the network ran as “movies of the week.”
First to reach the airwaves was The Hound of the Baskervilles, which was shown on February 12, 1972. One in a succession of adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1902 novel of the same name, this small-screen Victorian thriller featured former English romantic lead Stewart Granger as a white-haired Sherlock Holmes, with Bernard Fox as Dr. John H. Watson. Also among the cast were ex-Star Trek headliner William Shatner and Anthony Zerbe (later to join the cast of Harry O). Robert E. Thompson, who’d previously worked on episodes of Have Gun--Will Travel, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Mission: Impossible, penned the screenplay, while Barry Crane--perhaps best remembered as a producer on The Magician and Mannix (and for having been murdered in 1985)--directed the teleflick. Despite all that talent behind it, this pilot for an American Holmes serial turned out to be ponderous, lackluster, and creakily staged. (The film isn’t yet available on DVD, but if you’d like to watch it, you can do so here.)
Eight days later--on February 20, 1972--viewers were offered The Adventures of Nick Carter, starring Robert Conrad (formerly of The Wild Wild West and The D.A.). Handsome Nick Carter was first introduced back in September 1886 in the pages of a “dime novel” penned by John Russell Coryell. The character was a “scientific detective” and master of disguise, who didn’t have to solve crimes by the use of force and fists alone. However, Carter changed over the decades, becoming more of an action-adventurer.
Right: Shelley Winters and Robert Conrad in Nick Carter.
ABC’s 1972 pilot was set in New York City, circa 1912, and had the private investigator probing the murder of a colleague, while simultaneously trying “to locate the missing wife of a wealthy ‘robber baron’ playboy.” Because Conrad had prospered on the boob tube playing an Old West tough guy, Secret Service agent James T. West, he sought to recapture a bit of that “manly appeal” in his Carter role. But his timing was unfortunate. Television was then under public attack in the States for its proliferating violence, and The Adventures of Nick Carter proved an easy target for detractors. Neither guest performances by Shelley Winters, Broderick Crawford, and Neville Brand, nor Brooke Bundy’s appearance as Carter’s quite charming assistant, Roxy O’Rourke, could save Conrad’s pilot. (In the fall of that year, he starred instead as an undercover U.S. intelligence operative in ABC’s short-lived Assignment: Vienna, part of yet another “wheel series,” this one titled The Men.)
And then there was A Very Missing Person.
That 90-minute film, aired on March 4, 1972, featured Hildegarde Withers, a retired New York City schoolteacher (originally from Boston) “who wears inherited hats and likes to play at being a detective when the police department isn’t looking.” At least that’s how she was limned in the teleflick. Mystery-fiction fans might have known her better as the protagonist created by author-screenwriter Stuart Palmer in his second novel, 1931’s The Penguin Pool Murder.
Described as “tart of tongue and sharp of eye,” and cited by critic Anthony Boucher as “one of the first and still one of the best spinster sleuths,” Hildy Withers would go on to appear in several short-story collections as well as more than a dozen novels, including Murder on Wheels (1932), Murder on the Blackboard (1932), and The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan (1941). Six entries from Palmer’s series were made into films, the best of them starring Edna May Oliver. In the 1950s, Agnes Moorehead--whom novelist Steven Saylor, a Palmer fan, says “might have made a marvelous Hildegarde”--was hired to star in a TV pilot, The Amazing Miss Withers, but that pilot was either never shot, or has since vanished.
Thirty-five years after the release of the final Hildegarde Withers theatrical mystery--Forty Naughty Girls (1937), which gave the lead role to that colorfully monikered performer, ZaSu Pitts--Universal Pictures finally resurrected Palmer’s spinster sleuth in A Very Missing Person. This time, the part of Hildy went to Eve Arden, an American actress who’d begun her film career in the 1930s, before emerging as a high-school English teacher in the TV sitcom Our Miss Brooks (1952-1956) and then co-staring with Kaye Ballard in The Mothers-in-Law (1967-1969). James Gregory, who had gained attention playing a Prohibition-era cop in the series The Lawless Years (1959-1961) and guested on numerous small-screen series, played Inspector Oscar Piper, the amateur detective’s friend and onetime romantic interest, and her best contact among the homicide detectives of the New York Police Department.
A Very Missing Person was based on Hildegarde Withers Makes the Scene (1969), the last Hildy novel, completed after Palmer’s death in 1968 by fellow crime-fictionist Fletcher Flora. Kirkus Reviews, in critiquing the book, described its plot this way:
Miss Withers is called out of retirement again to check on the whereabouts of young Leonore Gregory who has disappeared in the direction of Hippyville. Miss Withers finds her on a yacht, the Karma, bending over a dead captain who had planned to take his assemblage of the kooks and the committed on a peace mission to Hanoi.The teleflick, backdropped by the sounds and scenes of 1970s Manhattan, dropped the Hanoi mission aspect. Instead, it found Miss Withers enlisting the aid of a young neighbor, Vietnam War vet Aloysius “Al” Fister (Dennis Rucker), to track down Lenore [sic] Gregory (Skye Aubrey), “a mixed-up flower child who absconded with her own [inherited] money” and has joined a seemingly benign cult intent on establishing a “New Eden” in the West Indies.
As Saylor writes, the story “jarringly places Hildegarde among California hippies.” However, the screenplay--composed by Philip H. Reisman Jr. (who’d previously worked on East Side/West Side and The Trials of O’Brien, and scripted the 1968 George Peppard picture P.J.*)--lacks the “mean-spirited edge” that Saylor insists marred the novel. Instead, it’s a clever, if not especially challenging little whodunit that plumbs broad humor from Miss Withers’ dealings with a generation younger, more liberated, and far less respectful of proper English grammar than her own. (That the solution to the murders committed in this pilot rests in part on the issue of correct semicolon use should tell you how lighthearted it can be at times.) With a mouthful of wit and withering observations, Arden--supported by a profusion of eccentric chapeaux--seems right at home in the Hildy Withers role. Although this picture is rather corny and certainly dated, it is worth watching for Arden’s performance alone. Former Catwoman Julie Newmar guest stars as the cult leader’s spacey spouse, with Pat Morita playing an opportunistic cultist. Vic Mizzy provided the bouncy score.
Opinions of Arden’s pilot have varied widely. Some reviewers dismiss it as “no great shakes.” However, Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times was slightly more generous; in a 1972 critique, he described A Very Missing Person as “somewhat less than riveting but ... a serviceable launching pad for a series that hopefully will take off.”
In the end, ABC didn’t add The Great Detectives to its fall 1972 lineup. Which is too bad, because although Conrad’s Nick Carter was a non-starter, and Granger’s Sherlock Holmes was disappointing, Arden’s Hildegarde Withers could have been joined in a modified series rotation by other classic crime-solvers, perhaps Travis McGee, Ellery Queen, and even the aforementioned Parisian, “Purloined Letter”-finder C. Auguste Dupin. If not ground-breaking, the show could certainly have been entertaining.
But followers of the astute Miss Withers, and of TV crime-fiction pilot films from the past, can still view A Very Missing Person for themselves. Not long ago, I found the movie--divided into eight parts--on YouTube. The opening segment is embedded below, while the whole set has been gathered here for your enjoyment.
* In an obvious hat tip to P.J., Reisman’s script for A Very Missing Person has Hildegarde Withers reasoning that the “New Eden” sought by the captain and crew of the Karma is St. Crispin. That was also the fictional Caribbean island where an important episode in P.J. took place.
READ MORE: “Murder on the Blackboard, Part I” and “Murder on the Blackboard, Part II,” by Brian Abbott (The Poisoned Martini); “Recently Watched: Hidegarde Withers,” by Stacia Jones (She Blogged by Night).