Nancy Drew and the Silver Screen

Two hidden staircases, separated by 80 years in film

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Nancy Drew and the Silver Screen

I don’t think Nancy Drew hangs out in the same place in our heads as, for instance, Superman or Batman, and yet every American child knows her. No small number of them could tell you exactly the first time they met her, sitting in a prominent place in the school library or peering out from mom and dad’s (or grandma and grandpa’s) bookshelves.

She’s older than those two caped superheroes (Nancy first hit shelves in 1930, eight whole years before Superman and nine before Batman), older even than the mass-market paperback novel as we now understand it. The chunky little books with the smart lettering on them, lined up by the dozen, come from the same publishing mindset as works like The Rover Boys, which first published in 1899. They’re from a different age.

The comics world recently reacted with outrage at news that the character’s 90th anniversary would be commemorated by a comic mini-series in which those fellow junior sleuths who immediately preceded her creation, the Hardy Boys, will be investigating her (alleged) murder. The writer has of course contended that he has not “fridged” Nancy Drew. The current continuity has already killed Frank and Joe Hardy’s father, Fenton Hardy, so on the one hand, it seems the graphic novel is operating at the sort of stakes that leave longtime characters dead.

On the other, faking her death to lure out conspirators or give her Bayport friends a hand from the shadows is exactly the sort of gambit Nancy might have pulled in any of her gutsy iterations across the past century. Readers will need to pay up and find out. What’s clearer than ever, 90 years after her debut, is that Nancy’s not going anywhere. By 1938, the same year two young writers from Cleveland introduced that other enduring American mythological figure, the novels about the spunky 16-year-old daughter of River Heights’ most prominent lawyer were already being adapted into B-movies.

And in 1939, 80 years before another film adaptation of the same story, Warner Brothers cast B-movie actress Bonita Granville for her final portrayal of Nancy Drew in Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase.

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The Hardy Boys debuted in 1927, and it quickly became clear that girls liked them, too. Edward Stratemeyer, creator of the Tom Swift novels and leader of the Stratemeyer Syndicate that owned all those characters, decided there was money to be made selling mystery novels targeting young girls. Writing under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, Mildred Wirt took over after Stratemeyer conceived the sharp, independent young super sleuth, with her first novel debuting in 1930. By 1938, the character was popular enough to be adapted in B-movies—actual B-movies, as in the shorter, cheaper features designed to run alongside the main feature at your local theater.

In 1939’s Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, our Nancy is dressed to the nines, precocious, and completely resolute in her determination to both protect the innocent and pursue the guilty. So resolute, in fact, that it’s kind of a joke.

Nancy’s father, Carson Drew, is in the midst of a strange inheritance case involving two old women, the Turnbull sisters, who must fulfill some arcane provisions about living in their father’s house before they’re able to claim his inheritance. So of course, somebody or something is going to try to drive them off. Nancy is tipped off to this when a large, rude man barges into her house, seeking her father’s forgotten legal papers.

After Ted (Frankie Thomas, playing a character based on Nancy’s boyfriend Ned Nickerson, who wouldn’t appear until much later in the books) saves her from the guy, they pay a visit to the Turnbull sisters, finding that the same man is their chauffeur and that he’s been killed. Determined to figure out who’s behind the murder and make sure the poor old ladies aren’t scared out of their house and thus their inheritance, Nancy presses a hapless Ted into service helping her solve the mystery.

There’s nothing blatantly regressive in the movie, but it’s really telling what sort of things it finds acceptable for a female hero at the tender age of 16. As the brutish chauffeur tosses her house trying to steal her father’s papers, right away you see the difference between 1939’s Nancy and 2019’s Nancy. (More than just 2019 Nancy’s more lived-in wardrobe: My girlfriend’s nine-year-old, upon seeing Granville’s portrayal, exclaimed “THAT’S Nancy Drew?! She looks fancy.”) This 1939 Nancy is certainly brave—she immediately moves to conceal the object of the home invader’s ransacking—but she’s also nearly paralyzed with fear.

Throughout the movie, she’s spunky and bossy, always fearless and inventive, but she’s also demure in the presence of male authority figures, to the point she’ll let the incompetent chief of police shut her down. Even if the narrative plainly establishes stakes that show a 16-year-old girl can’t match a grown adult man in a fight, a movie in 2020 at least has her give it a shot or immediately search for a blunt object to wield as a weapon. (They let Granville bonk the bad guy over the head with her shoe in this one, eventually.) She’s also outrageously irresponsible in a way that’s clearly meant to draw laughs: At one point feeding the Turnbull sisters sleeping pills without their knowledge to ensure they won’t stumble upon her amateur night watch efforts, and cavalierly spending a whole $3 (!!!) for 500 pounds of ice from Ted just to lure him out to a spot where she can use his help to perform a ballistics test.

It’s a running gag that Nancy keeps getting poor Ted arrested or fired for having her help him. Those crazy girls! the movie seems to say. But on the other hand, Carson Drew also trusts his daughter’s detective instincts implicitly and even expects her to drive herself around in her own car with zero paternalistic concern.

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Eighty years pass. Pearl Harbor, the Bay of Pigs, Kent State, and the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall happen. Even the Stratemeyer Syndicate ceases to be: Simon & Schuster bought them out in 1987, and cranks out more Nancy Drew mysteries today. And in 2019, Warner Brothers decide to make another Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, starring Sophia Lillis.

Lillis is introduced to us skateboarding down Main Street with her earbuds in, interrupted because one of her friends is being bullied on social media and she needs to drop everything to get sweet revenge. Some of the same plot points are the same: There’s a disturbance at an old lady’s house and we know, as Nancy suspects immediately, that it’s all part of a greedy land grab. She wins the day with quite a bit more danger and strife, and better game face when she’s in harm’s way. She’s not demure in the least, because in 2019 the perfect girl isn’t.

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But the perfect girl has always been a master of disguise.

It’s still striking to see what’s the same in both versions. Whether in 1939 or 2019, Nancy wins because she’s smart, scrappy, and would die for her beliefs.

In addition to the probably-ongoing-until-the-sun-goes-cold book series, Nancy is starring in an edgy/horny drama series on The CW, and it seems inevitable that at some point she’ll return to the silver screen again. Whether her death in the comics is a ruse to gin up readership or an actual end to one permutation of the character is almost immaterial: Nancy’s coming for you.


Kenneth Lowe was revised and abridged in 1959. You can follow him on Twitter or read more at his blog.

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