A VERY MISSING PERSON (1972) – This made for tv movie was the pilot for an unsold series that was meant as another rotating slot in the ______Night Mystery Movie offerings from the networks back then.
Eve Arden starred as Hildegarde Withers, the now-retired schoolteacher turned amateur sleuth in a series of novels and short stories by American author Stuart Palmer. Hildegarde first appeared in Palmer’s 1931 novel The Penguin Pool Murder and was obviously inspired by Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.
The last Withers mystery completed by Stuart Palmer during his lifetime was published in 1954, but he left behind an unfinished novel titled Hildegarde Withers Makes the Scene. Fletcher Flora used Palmer’s notes to finish the novel, which finally saw print in 1969.
Six movies had been made in the 1930s featuring the supposedly aged Miss Withers. (To show how standards change, in the 1931 novel a third party describes Hildegarde as a “spinster … age thirty-nine years old.”) The many, many other Hildegarde novels and short stories were ignored for this telefilm, which jumped straight to the 1969 work.
Hildegarde Withers Makes the Scene was presumably selected because it had been set in the 1960s and was promoted with the tag line “Hildegarde finds murder among the hippies.” The story and dialogue would not need updated, so what better tale to try out as a pilot? If it sold as a series, then the effort could be made toward adapting the older stories.
Under the title A Very Missing Person, this 73-minute production hit the airwaves on March 4th, 1972. Eve Arden is her usual brilliant self as the detective whose gimmick is the unusual hats she wears in public. Arden’s Hildegarde was, in my opinion, warmer and more human than the 1930s big screen versions.
Miss Withers is called in to consult on a case by the NYPD’s Oscar Piper (James Gregory). Piper has a grudging respect for Hildy’s investigative abilities since she has helped him out on previous homicide cases.
As a favor, he asks her to look into a missing persons case that the whole department is being leaned on about because the teenage girl who disappeared has incredibly wealthy parents. Withers does so, and traces the young lady – Lenore Gregory (Skye Aubrey) – to a “back-to-nature” cult planning to launch a commune.
Before Hildy can even determine if Lenore is still with the cult, the leader (Ray Danton) is murdered in front of her – poisoned by hemlock slipped into his wine. Now that there’s a homicide, Inspector Piper can become officially involved, albeit with Miss Withers looking over his shoulder.
Among the suspects we find the cult leader’s widow (Julie Newmar herself), who claims to have been cool with the various hippie girls her late husband slept with in his cult. There’s also the leader of a rival cult, plus a veteran bitter about being ripped off by the cult and a jealous disciple who was furious about the missing Lenore Gregory replacing her in Ray Danton’s fleeting affections.
Though Hildy proves capable of defending herself by striking would-be assailants with her purse that’s weighed down with birdshot, she also uses an Archie Goodwin leg man of sorts in this story. That leg man is Dennis Rucker as … Fister.
His full name is Al Fister, but evolving slang expressions make the script’s references to “Fister” as unintentionally funny as the “grand old pussy” soliloquy in that one Agatha Christie novel. The Vietnam vet Al handles a brawl with multiple hippies at once late in the film.
The chemistry between Eve Arden and Dennis Rucker has a certain charm to it, especially when the feisty Hildy doesn’t bat an eyelash at riding along in Al’s motorcycle side car to get around NYC.
Despite their bickering, Miss Withers and Inspector Piper seem pretty fond of each other, and in one of the 1930s tales he even proposed marriage to her, but they called it off.
There’s also Pat Morita of all people as one of the cultists, plus Dwan Smith and Sherry Bain as other disciples who had oinked and boinked with Danton. I won’t spoil the mystery for first time viewers.
Nothing brilliant in this telefilm, but if you enjoy reruns of those old, comfortable detective shows like MacMillan and Wife, McCloud or The Snoop Sisters, you would likely enjoy A Very Missing Person, too. Purists may object to the birdshot-loaded purse replacing Hildy’s usual umbrella as her weapon of choice, but that’s very minor.
As for the overlooked Hildegarde Withers’ other screen appearances:
THE PENGUIN POOL MURDER (1932) – Edna May Oliver starred as Hildy in this tale of a murder that takes place in the New York Aquarium.
MURDER ON THE BLACKBOARD (1934) – A music teacher is found murdered near her classroom and Hildy (Edna May Oliver again) “helps” Inspector Piper investigate.
MURDER ON A HONEYMOON (1935) – When Hildy takes a trip to California, one of her fellow airplane passengers is murdered and turns out to be a witness in a gangster’s trial. Rather than turn the case over to schoolteachers in that jurisdiction, Miss Withers begins investigating the murder herself. Oliver’s final film as the detective.
MURDER ON A BRIDLE PATH (1936) – Helen Broderick played the regenerated Hildegarde Withers in this flick, and even though Edna May Oliver may have resembled William Hartnell, Broderick looks nothing at all like Patrick Troughton. (I’m kidding!) Hildy solves a murder involving horse riders in Central Park.
THE PLOT THICKENS (1936) – Zasu Pitts takes over the role of Hildegarde Withers in this film which is remembered as “The one where she fights the Russian boxer.” (Again, kidding.) Two seemingly unconnected murders are tied together by Hildy.
FORTY NAUGHTY GIRLS (1937) – Pitts … Zasu Pitts, was back for the final big screen appearance of Hildegarde Withers. The title may sound like it’s from a tawdry Women in Prison flick, but it actually involves a murder that takes place on stage when Hildy and Inspector Piper attend a Broadway show.
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7 responses to “A VERY MISSING PERSON (1972)”
That actually looks pretty good.
Yes, it’s like visual comfort food.
39! So over the hill! 😬😬😬
Ha! Yeah, so ancient!
Yea, Pat Morita, who also starred in “I Kung King” under his previous stage name, Bruce Lee. Pat was one of the several entertainers I always felt should have received wider acclaim, seriously. Eve Arden, “Our Miss Brooks”(?) I barely remember, but James Gregory (“Barney Miller”) stands out though not adequately recognized at large for his performances – who can forget his performance in “To Kill a Mocking Bird”? -though many do, mistakenly thinking that was Greg Peck.
You need a rest. You must certainly be slap worn out. Nobody can do as much research as you do. You have a team? Are you Federally supported?
Swell work. Astounding, as ever.
Thanks for the kind words! I’m a one-man operation here as it turns out. I’m a Pat Morita fan, too. I wish his detective series Ohara had lasted longer. And for sheer weirdness I always remember him as the villainous drug kingpin Kaine in Andy Sidaris movies. When Morita didn’t want to appear anymore they recast Kaine with Roger Moore’s son (I’m not joking) and pretended it was still the same guy (Kaine was the archenemy of the good guys in Sidaris’ flicks for a while.)
Eve Arden I always remember from reruns of The Mothers in Law.