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The Penguin Pool Murder

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The Penguin Pool Murder
Theatrical release poster
Directed byGeorge Archainbaud
Ray Lissner (assistant)
Screenplay byLowell Brentano (story)
Willis Goldbeck (screenplay)
Based onThe Penguin Pool Murder
by Stuart Palmer
Produced byKenneth Macgowan
StarringEdna May Oliver
CinematographyHenry W. Gerrard
Edited byJack Kitchin
Music byMax Steiner
Distributed byRKO Radio Pictures
Release date
  • December 9, 1932 (1932-12-09)
Running time
70 minutes
CountryUnited States

The Penguin Pool Murder is a 1932 American pre-Code comedy/mystery film starring Edna May Oliver as Hildegarde Withers, a witness in a murder case at the New York Aquarium, with James Gleason as the police inspector in charge of the case, who investigates with her unwanted help, and Robert Armstrong as an attorney representing Mae Clarke, the wife of the victim. Oliver's appearance was the first film appearance of the character of Hildegarde Withers, the schoolteacher and sleuth based on the character from the 1931 novel The Penguin Pool Murder by Stuart Palmer. It is the first in a trilogy including Murder on the Blackboard, and Murder on a Honeymoon, in which Oliver and Gleason team up for the lead roles.[1]


Gwen Parker (Clarke) meets her former boyfriend Philip Seymour (Donald Cook) at the local aquarium, and asks him for some money so she can leave her husband, stockbroker Gerald Parker, but Mr. Parker receives an anonymous telephone call tipping him off to the rendezvous. When he confronts the pair, Seymour knocks him out with a punch. As no witnesses see the altercation, he hides the unconscious man in the room behind an exhibit.

Schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers (Oliver) takes her class on a field trip to the aquarium. Shortly after tripping up fleeing pickpocket "Chicago" Lew (though he gets away), she loses her hatpin; one of her students finds it. Then Miss Withers sees Parker's now-dead body falling into a pool housing a penguin. Police Inspector Oscar Piper (Gleason) arrives and uncovers several suspects: the widow and Seymour; Bertrand Hemingway (Clarence Wilson), the head of the aquarium, who had financial dealings with the deceased; Chicago Lew, found near the scene; and even Miss Withers herself, as it is later determined that her hatpin was driven through the man's right ear into his brain. Bystander and lawyer Barry Costello (Robert Armstrong) catches Gwen Parker when she faints, and acquires a client when she is taken in for questioning.

Seymour confesses to protect Mrs. Parker, but Miss Withers does not believe him. She convinces Piper to notify the press that the murder was committed with a thrust through the left ear.

Later, Costello passes along a message from Chicago Lew, in which he claims to know the identity of the killer. When Piper and Miss Withers go to see him at the jail, though, they find him dead from hanging. Costello concocts a way in which Seymour could have escaped from his nearby cell using a duplicate key (which is found), strangled Lew, and hanged him with wire without entering Lew's cell.

At the murder trial of Philip Seymour and Gwen Parker, while questioning Miss Withers, Costello slips up, showing that he knew that Gerald Parker was killed via the right ear. The motive is that he is Gwen Parker's current lover.

When Gwen Parker is released, the waiting Seymour slaps her in the face, to the amusement of Piper and Miss Withers. Piper then unexpectedly asks Miss Withers to marry him. She accepts. (In the sequel, Murder on the Blackboard, they are still single.)


Cast notes


The film received mixed reviews in 1930. In his assessment of the production on December 27, Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times describes it as "a series of hilarious doings in which Miss Oliver has a jolly time."[2] Hall, though, contends that the film's frequent "levity" fails to be counterbalanced by an engaging or even moderately challenging mystery:

"The Penguin Pool Murder" a humorous murder story which stirs up quite a good deal of interest, but scarcely comes up to expectations in its dénouement. However, it is one of those comicalities that possesses a good share of fun and therefore the murder mystery is, to the audience, not of great consequence.[2]


  1. ^ a b "Notes" on
  2. ^ a b "M.H." [Mourdant Hall] (1932). "Two Pictures", reviews, The New York Times, December 26, 1932, p. 26. ProQuest Historical Newspapers; subscription access through The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library.
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