Murder on the Blackboard (1934, George Archainbaud)

As its title suggests, Murder on the Blackboard concerns a murder in a school, specifically an elementary school. Only one student appears; Blackboard concentrates on the rather shady goings-ons of the staff. There’s a drunk janitor, a lecherous principal, not to mention a love triangle between teachers. And, one mustn’t forget, Edna May Oliver’s Ms. Withers.

Blackboard is the second in the Withers and Piper (James Gleason) series, though it’s not a direct sequel to the first. Here, Oliver and Gleason bicker and flirt in their charming and funny cantankerous people of a certain age way, but without any relationship development.

Willis Goldbeck’s script has a great structure, which makes Blackboard sail along–ably assisted by the aforementioned bickering. It’s a full ten minutes before Oliver even appears, as Blackboard establishes not just the suspects, but the possible victims, and then it’s a real-time investigation for a while once Gleason shows up. Archainbaud’s direction is okay, though he apparently didn’t give Archie Marshek enough material for smooth cutting. Nicholas Musuraca’s photography–Blackboard almost entirely takes place in the school–is real nice.

There supporting cast is competent, but they don’t make much impression after those first ten minutes. Bruce Cabot, Gertrude Michael and Barbara Fritchie are the teacher love triangle; Cabot’s easily the best of the three. Tully Marshall’s amusing as the principal, particularly opposite Oliver.

Oliver, Gleason and Goldbeck produce an excellent diversion. They distract from the mystery’s lack of mysteriousness for nearly the entire running time.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Archainbaud; screenplay by Willis Goldbeck, based on the story by Stuart Palmer; director of photography, Nicholas Musuraca; edited by Archie Marshek; music by Bernhard Kaun and Max Steiner; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Edna May Oliver (Hildegarde Withers), James Gleason (Inspector Oscar Piper), Bruce Cabot (Ad Stevens), Gertrude Michael (Jane Davis), Barbara Fritchie (Louise Halloran), Tully Marshall (Mr. MacFarland), Frederick Vogeding (Otto Schweitzer), Regis Toomey (Detective Smiley North), Edgar Kennedy (Detective Donahue) and Jackie Searl (Leland Stanford Jones).


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