Screen

Snooping Ladies Sensibly Solving Mysteries

We really should have had a mystery series featuring a sensible lesbian couple by now. Something like two Miss Marples sharing a sensible home and sensibly solving extremely–some might even say overly–complicated murders together. One wakes the other up when she turns on the nightstand lamp to do a crossword puzzle, her favorite occupation when she is trying to crack a case. It helps her think. There should have been something based on a series of books written in the 1920s and 1930s, just after the War–either one. It should have been written by female author with three names and set in a quaint village outside London, the kind of village with many corpses in the shrubbery. Or maybe set in the city, with someone like Miss Fisher, but including the women she has had affairs with. Her dressing table or mantle featuring suggestive photos of the detective on holiday in Malta or visiting Paris with Josephine Baker, Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, Djuna Barnes and even, possibly, Garbo herself. Our detective’s tux would be divinely tailored.

Yes, we could have them now, a retro 1930s correcting the oversights of the past. But we should have already had these drawing room mysteries long ago. They should have played on Masterpiece Theater, A&E and the various BBCs. They should be so prevalent that there are Sesame Street parodies teaching children how to count or the letter “L” or the word “sensible.” Old mystery and film fans should patronizingly explain to us that Zasu Pitts or Theresa Harris, Margaret Rutherford or Maude Eburne, in fact, performed in the first film versions of these films back in the day. “The earliest performance of this character dates back to Sarah Bernhard,” a random pedant would interject*.

I realized this terrible loss in the very same moment I saw it almost presented to me in Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate (1971) and its spin-off series, The Snoop Sisters. The Snoop Sisters ran as part of NBC’s Mystery Movie from 1972 to 1974. Though it stars two sisters, aunts to a police officer, I think it will be hard to read them as anything but a married couple in the future. I discovered The Snoop Sisters while watching old, made-for-tv mysteries and thrillers with the Gutter’s own Beth Watkins. We watched one where Barbara Stanwyck’s house is probably possessed and another where someone is trying to drive her mad. One where a theater troop re-enacts a murder to get a confession. One where Shelley Winters’ passion for Debbie Reynolds gets the best of her, demonstrating that there is something very much the matter with Helen. Another called, A Very Missing Person (1972) in which Eve Arden plays Hildegard Withers, a character who was variously played by ZaSu Pitts, Edna May Oliver and Helen Broderick in a series of 1930s films based on the novels of Stuart Palmer**. Ms. Withers is an ex-schoolteacher with an intriguing taste in hats and another good candidate for sensible lesbian detective. And we watched Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate starring Helen Hayes, Mildred Natwick, Myrna Loy and Sylvia Sydney. They are retired women who occupy their time with luncheons, amazing outfits and creating the profile of a much younger woman for a computer dating service. Unfortunately for them, their profile attract a serial killer. Unfortunately for him, these ladies have moxie. Watching the movie, I realized that I would love to see these women solve a mystery every week. Apparently someone at NBC felt the same, because while the movie was not picked up as a series, it is somewhat reprised The Snoop Sisters, with Mildred Natwick taking on Myrna Loy’s role as Helen Hayes’ sister. It is the snazziest Mildred Natwick has ever been in a film, as she plays the fashionable Gwendolyn Snoop-Nicholson, “G.” for short. It is one of the only times I can think of that Mildred Natwick has outdressed nearly everyone else on the screen. Helen Hayes plays mystery novelist, Ernesta Snoop. And now both are instigators.

The Snoop Sisters has the things people like in 1970s made-for-tv mysteries—women in their 60s and 70s, magicians, Roddy McDowell, switcheroos and twists. The Snoops solve mysteries, scoop the police—led by their own nephew Lt. Steven Ostrowski—and charmingly prove what everyone thinks is happening is not what’s happening at all. Except, that yes, Alice Cooper is happening, and so is a fist fight between Vincent Price and Roddy McDowell. Also, classic film star Joan Blondell is a medium, Bernie Casey wears pants no one should be able to successfully look handsome in and Steve Allen hosts Ernesta Snoop on his television program. There are so many outfits—fantastically printed caftans and ties; wide lapels; loudly patterned suits; sweaters with ring pulls. And there is a lot of decor—including Gloria Hendry’s amazing octagonal waterbed.

Sadly, there were only five episodes produced, but fortunately they have been collected in a dvd set.In “The Female Instinct,” the Snoops solve the murder of an old Hollywood icon Norma Treet (Paulette Goddard) while Barney tries and fails to keep them out of trouble. There is a sweet screening of one of Goddard’s films, The Ghost Breakers (1940), presented as one of Treet’s. Their nephew***, police Lt. Steven Ostrowski (Lawrence Pressman) as their nephew, Lt. Ostrowski sets Barney, a retired cop played by Art Carney, to keep the ladies out of trouble. But no one, not even Art Carney—an Art Carney who does a stunt—can stop the Snoops from doing what they want to do. And they want to write mysteries, solve mysteries, meet amazing people, and disguise themselves as anything from “stuffed animal fluffers” to exterminators and a bowling team.

And they wear amazing outfits. G.’s wardrobe is very much from the 1970s, including a beautiful coat I covet. Ernesta’s much more turn of the Twentieth Century. I will also note that Ernesta is butch, but hers is a butchness leaning towards Gertrude Stein but with a fondness for ridiculously feathered hats. It’s from a when wearing a certain cut of jacket was more meaningful in gender coding than wearing a skirt. In this case, most of Ernesta’s skirt suits are “mannish” in the parlance of the thirties and forties. And I am pretty sure she is straight up wearing men’s or boy’s gray striped flannel pajamas.

My favorite part is the peek into Ernesta’s creative process as she works on a book while G. takes dictation.

We also get another glimpse of their home life as Ernesta works on her embroidery in bed and Mildred asks to borrow her liniment, after a close call with a potential assassin required that they both run.

By the second episode, “Corpse and Robbers,” there have been some changes. Now Bert Convy plays Steven. And rather than a retired cop, Barney is now a paroled convict doing the lieutenant a favor by watching his aunts. Played by Lou Antonio, Barney is also twenty or thirty years younger than the Snoops and too hobbled by his respect for their ladyness to come close to contending with them. In the episode, Ernesta tries to discover what happened to her dear old friend, and toy-making genius, Franklin Birdwell (Liam Dunn). Ernesta also hopes to prove that she is not imagining that he has called her. The Snoops disguise themselves as “stuffed animal fluffers” to infiltrate a toy factory that specializes in toy dogs that bark and wag their tails, Winnie the Pooh stuffies, and giant devil masks. I assume the factor is one of the Joker’s old hideouts and, in its off hours, the site of many a giallo murder.**** Ernesta and G. also go jogging in knit outfits.

Their activewear.

In “Death Is A Free Throw,” we discover many interesting things, such as that G. is a basketball fan and that their Lincoln limosine’s license plate just happens to be 473 FEM. Oh, and as Ernesta and G. defend a man who has come flying out of the green room for the Steve Allen show, “We warn you, Mr. Bates, we know kung fu.”

Fortunately, fisticuffs prove unnecessary and the Snoops quickly befriend basketball great, Willie Bates (Bernie Casey). Willie wears some amazing outfits that only Bernie Casey could make it seem like a good idea for anyone else to wear. I mean, some other people could look handsome in them, but, seriously, don’t think you could because he could. Meanwhile, everyone has stomach trouble and G. becomes a suspect.

“The Devil Made Me Do It!” might contain the most wonders per hour. The Snoops find themselves the target of a Satanic coven that would very much like its ancient relic back, thank you. Classic film bombshell Joan Blondell appears as a medium, Madame Mimi. And Alice Cooper not only appears as a witch, but sings a song to a very interesting audience at the Frou Frou Club.

But my favorite character is the Honorable Morlock (Cyril Ritchard), the proprietor of an occult shop who specializes in providing New York’s covens with human skulls, in any size and painted in any color you might like. He assures us that Henry Ford had the right idea in only offering one model of car in one color. He blames the government for the rapacious frog bone suppliers. He wears a wig, red eye shadow and stunning ritual magick robes. (The Honorable Morlock definitely spells magic with a K and probably deplores the confusion of stage magic with the Art). And he speaks in rhyming couplets whenever he can. When Barney asks how the Honorable Morlock knows he has a bad back, he declaims: “Lucifer, give me strength! Do you think you’re dealing with kids? Because I’m a pro—that’s how I know!”

He’s a pro!

And if The Snoop Sisters had to go out, at least it went out with an episode featuring both Roddy McDowell and Vincent Price. The episode begins gloriously with Ernesta and G. cosplaying that most romantic of classic horror couples, Frankenstein and the Bride****. Ernesta is the creature, of course. And Mildred Natwick makes a remarkably elegant Bride. They are dressed up to attend the Michael Bastion Film Festival, a revival of classic horror films. That’s right, G. is a horror fan. She’s seen all of Bastion’s films and is excited to meet Bastion himself.

We see among the festival attendees people dressed as vampires, a werewolf, the Metaluna Mutant and a mummy. Bastion and his wife arrive in an old hearse. His wife leaves from the passenger side. Muscle men in silver masks pull a coffin out of the hearse, lean it up and open it to reveal Bastion to his adoring fans*****. There is a fun movie-within-a-tv-movie starring Bastion, and, of course, a murder during the screening. Bastion is the accused and the Snoops investigate. Like Price himself, Bastion is a noted gourmet cook and G. distracts Bastion by taking him up on an offer of a gourmet luncheon. There is a very fine drunken-crepe making scene. And Ernesta wears an indescribable golfing outfit. I do not think I am spoiling anything but informing you that there is also a fistfight between Roddy McDowell and Vincent Price. This is obviously an enticement.

While I willingly admit that the Snoop sisters are, in fact, sisters, no matter how queer coded the relationship and the show seems, The Snoop Sisters does satisfy some of my desire for weird old tv mysteries starring a lesbian couple. Sure we could do something retro now and that would be fun, but it isn’t the same. And it’s a reminder of how much we could have had without prejudices limiting art.

*One must take the good with the bad if one is truly sensible.

**A Very Missing Person also stars Julie Newmar and Pat Morita. Morita plays a hippie, which is so, so worthwhile.

***I will note the long tradition of couples who are coded gay having nieces and nephews. I also suppose that if Steven were Gwendolyn’s son, she would not be considered so free to gallivant around with Ernesta because she would be a Bad Mother somehow to the series perceived audience. Even if Steven’s all grown-up and a police lieutenant now.

***I have been thinking about gialli a lot while watching this made-for-tv mysteries with Beth.

****For my thoughts on calling the creature, “Frankenstein,” and on the poor Bride, please see “The Specter of Frankenstein.”

*****Bastion later arranges to meet someone in the men’s bathroom, but I am resisting the temptation to say anything about that.

Two other queer and queer-ish, made-for-tv movies: The Judge and Jake Wyler starring Bette Davis and Doub McLure; and, What’s The Matter With Helen? starring Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters.

 ~~~

If you need her, Carol Borden will be consulting with the Honorable Morlock.

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