Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: The teen superhero movie New Mutants, from Fault In Our Stars director Josh Boone, has been postponed again. In its absence, we’re looking back on YA adaptations.
YA detective heroine Nancy Drew has been revived plenty of times in recent years, including a current CW update. But the character made her screen debut not so long after the first novel was published in 1930, with a series of four B-movies released between 1938 and 1939 starring Bonita Granville as the teenage sleuth. Designed to fill out the second half of double bills, they run under 70 minutes apiece, making the series more akin to a short season of TV, at least in terms of length. In terms of style, they’re more like a satisfyingly fleshed-out mystery-of-the-week procedural. Most of them are pretty good, though Nancy Drew… Trouble Shooter takes some unfortunate detours into clueless racism and prop-plane antics. Nancy Drew… Reporter might be the best of the lot.
Warner Bros. supposedly intended the Nancy Drew movies to serve as a sort of junior version of their B-picture newsroom gal Torchy Blane (herself an inspiration for Lois Lane), so it makes sense that Nancy thrives in a journalism environment in Reporter. Disappointed with a puff-piece assignment from a school contest, she steals a juicier lead off an absent reporter’s desk (“I thought reporters always did things like that—at least they do in the movies”) and winds up determined to prove the innocence of a young woman charged with murder. This involves the usual snooping around crime scenes and eavesdropping around adult business, chased with some impromptu babysitting.
This version of Nancy is dizzier than most other interpretations, prone to screaming, comically careless driving, and hilariously cruel manipulation of Ted Nickerson (Frankie Thomas), her neighbor/sidekick/not-quite-boyfriend, renamed from “Ned” in the books. (Here he’s pummeled in an amateur boxing match, among other humiliations.) But Granville and the movie play these qualities with a wink; Nancy is so heedless and determined that it’s sometimes hard to tell whether she charges into situation without thinking or if her mind simply moves too fast to articulate her craftiness. Reporter also features particularly charming scenes between Nancy and her lawyer dad Carson (John Litel), grounding Nancy’s more outlandish behavior with some playful father-daughter testiness.
The old Nancy Drew movies rarely turn on particularly clever crimes; Reporter is a little knottier than some, but the real fun of it is the zippy comic personality it brings to a lot of stock storytelling. “YA” wasn’t really a category in 1939, but Nancy Drew… Reporter fits it anyway: accessible to older kids but not tedious for the fully grown set.