Playing Nancy Drew: Sleuth and Consequences

With 77 years of literary history  --  and millions of readers' expectations  --  to contend with, screen actresses have had a tall order when playing the iconic girl detective, left. Bonita Granville (above, with Larry Williams and Frankie Thomas) made four Nancy Drew films in the '30s. Pamela Sue Martin, below left, took on the task in a 1970s TV version.
With 77 years of literary history -- and millions of readers' expectations -- to contend with, screen actresses have had a tall order when playing the iconic girl detective, left. Bonita Granville (above, with Larry Williams and Frankie Thomas) made four Nancy Drew films in the '30s. Pamela Sue Martin, below left, took on the task in a 1970s TV version. (Warner Bros. / Photofest)
By Jonathan Padget
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 10, 2007

Let us consider the Mystery of the Rock-Bottom Career.

Clue No. 1: She's a onetime Nancy Drew and a "working actress" whose only 2007 credit on the Internet Movie Database is a project called "Soupernatural," a drama about "what happens in a small-town newsroom when it is rumored that the Messiah is serving soup at a local church festival."

Clue No. 2: Her co-"stars" in said film include Lou "The Incredibly Deaf Hulk" Ferrigno, Pat Priest and Butch Patrick (perhaps you know them as Marilyn and Eddie Munster), and Kathy Garver. You know -- Kathy Garver. Riiight. Cissy on "Family Affair"! (Oh, if only Buffy -- well, Anissa Jones, technically -- hadn't OD'd back in '76: the dream cast that could have been . . . )

Clue No. 3: Her spokesman declines an interview request because "this year is really full for her."

What could it all mean? Wait a minute . . . we've got it! Mystery solved: Pamela Sue Martin needs better representation.

Heed this cautionary tale, Emma Roberts. You may soon be riding high in the new big-screen "Nancy Drew." But a few missteps and -- bam! -- it's "Soupernatural: The Second Serving" for you. For as successful as sleuthing icon Nancy Drew has been in books -- volumes upon volumes of literary derivatives for the past 77 years -- history shows that no such degree of invincibility is conferred upon film and TV versions of the character.

Not that Nancy's been an on-screen flop, necessarily, but when you give readers countless chances to delve into her world, everyone gets to create a precise visualization of what Nancy must be like. Bonita Granville in the '30s, Pamela Sue Martin and Janet Louise Johnson in the '70s, Tracy Ryan in the '90s, Maggie Lawson and Emma Roberts in the new millennium -- those Nancy Drews simply may not sync up with the public imagination, and the productions aren't guaranteed the shelf life, so to speak, of the books.

So, how have Nancy Drew's cinematic incarnations (and the actresses involved) fared over the years? Let's investigate further.

Granville was already a busy young performer when she made four Nancy Drew films in 1938 and '39. They've been fodder for Turner Classic Movies and budget DVDs, and they'll soon be released as a DVD compilation, "The Original Nancy Drew Movie Mystery Collection." (If it's journalistic intrigue you want, forget "All the President's Men." "Nancy Drew . . . Reporter" -- that's the film for you.) Granville, who died in 1988, is a lot of fun to watch, as long as you don't mind a Nancy who's really, really high-strung. (Kinda makes you wonder if Judy Garland was the only '30s Hollywood teen getting diet pills shoveled her way by the studios.)

But hey -- it was the Depression, after all. Someone had to be zipping around in a snazzy roadster (one of the period elements that gets a nod in the new film), talking a mile a minute, biding her time until she was old enough to tackle something like the Case of the Rich Bachelor -- precisely what Granville did in real life, in fact, marrying an oil millionaire in the late '40s. She acted regularly, too, into the '50s, and also established herself as a TV producer, bringing "Lassie" to the airwaves.

"I found the [Granville] films really entertaining," says Andrew Fleming, director of the new "Nancy Drew." "I liked the fact that there was this lightheartedness to them and this kind of pace. They made some choices in those that surprised me."

In 1977 and '78, TV viewers had Martin (well into in her 20s then) sleuthing her way through ABC's "The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries," which -- in the era of sexual liberation -- imbued Nancy with quite a sex-kitten vibe. She fits in perfectly with the powerful, intriguing TV beauties of the day -- "Charlie's Angels," "The Bionic Woman," "Wonder Woman" -- saving the world with nary a hair out of place.


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