While Oscar and Hildegarde are attending a Broadway show, a press agent is shot in an actress' dressing room and an actor is murdered onstage in full view of the audience. Oscar and Hildegarde are on the case.
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When the body of Violet Feverel is discovered on the Central Park bridle path, Inspector Oscar Piper is about to declare her death accidental from a thrown horse, until his friend and amateur detective Hildegarde Withers locates the horse and discovers blood on the horse. The coroner deems it a murder when the cause of death is shown to be by a blunt instrument on the victim's head. The suspects include Violet's ex-husband, Don Gregg, who she jailed for nonpayment of alimony, but who was just released by a forged court order; Latigo Wells, the manager of Violet's stables and who had an argument with her that morning; and Eddie Fry, who had quarreled with Violet over his seeing her sister, Barbara Foley, and who was about to elope with Barbara. At Don's Long Island home, Hildegarde and Oscar meet his sickly father, Patrick, the caretaker, Chris Thomas, and his crippled son, Joey. After Patrick is murdered, Hildegarde snoops around and discovers clues which pinpoint the murderer, who is... Written by
Arthur Hausner <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Underrated series entry with sophisticated Broderick
The underrated fourth entry in the six film series drawn from Stuart Palmer's "Hirdegarde Withers" mysteries ironically has as its greatest strength its greatest weakness: delightful lead Helen Broderick.
The idea to replace the perfect Withers, the arch and tightly corseted Edna May Oliver with the sophisticated, spiritually if not literally uncorseted Broderick would seem to have been grounded in the wonderful wise cracking relationship Withers had with James Gleason's much put-upon Inspector Oscar Piper, and to that extent it works.
Broderick, the beloved sophisticate of the Fred Astaire films TOP HAT and SWING TIME, gets off some good ones ("Oh, I have some influence with Inspector Piper; we used to room together in college!"), but it's hard to picture her as the prim school teacher that Palmer's Miss Withers says she is.
The film has the further drawback for some modern audiences in incorporating some of the racist stereotypes of the era in Willie "High Pockets" Best's excellent performance as the slow but steadfast stable boy who may be near the center of the mystery. In 42 films from 1934 to 1947 (just to consider the ones reviewed in the New York Times - some, like HIGH SIERRA and CABIN IN THE SKY, genuine classics), Best took the work Hollywood offered and made his characters shine - whatever limitations Hollywood may have placed on the casting of black actors.
MURDER ON A BRIDLE PATH has a good cast all around (among the series regulars, James Gleason's Piper, James Donlan's comic detective and Gustav Von Seyffertitz's police doctor are some of their best performances), and boasts an excellent mystery at the core. The OBSERVANT viewer even has an honest chance to beat Withers and Piper to the solution despite some delicious red herrings along the way.
Radio Pictures had clearly moved the series to a back burner when Oliver left (no more "name" producers and even Max Steiner's musical contributions went uncredited this time), but at least with Broderick finding the clues and lending a major hand with the comedy, the quality stayed high.
Later in the year, the studio would turn to Zasu Pitts for two final "Miss Withers" films, and while she would return the unsophisticated primness to the character and (in small doses) Pitt could be a brilliant diffident comedienne, the quality of the writing and the chemistry between Hildegarde and Oscar never regained the level it had maintained with Edna May Oliver and Helen Broderick.
It's a pity, because the franchise was one of the more enjoyable creations of the 30's when the "cozy" mystery was at its peak and every studio seemed to be trying their hand at popularizing distinctive detectives from Philo Vance and Nick & Nora Charles to Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto. Miss Withers is missed.
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