Solving the mystery of the Nancy Drew curse


The Scotsman :: June 21, 2007

LET US consider the Mystery of the Rock-Bottom Career. Who are we talking about here? Clue No1: She's a one-time 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 rumoured that the Messiah is serving soup at a local church festival." Clue No2: 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, Cissy on Family Affair. Clue No3: 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 a better agent.

Heed this cautionary tale, Emma Roberts. You may be riding high in the new big-screen Nancy Drew. But a few missteps and - bam! - it could be 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, with worldwide sales of over 200 million - 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 visualisation of what Nancy must be like. Bonita Granville in the 1930s, Pamela Sue Martin and Janet Louise Johnson in the 1970s, Tracy Ryan in the 1990s, 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 highly strung. (It does make you wonder if Judy Garland was the only 1930s Hollywood teenager getting diet pills shovelled her way by the studios.)

But then 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 1940s. She acted regularly, too, into the 1950s, 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 twenties then) sleuthing her way through 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. The show's format devoted some episodes to the Boys - Shaun Cassidy and Parker Stevenson - some to Nancy, and some to the three of them adventuring together. Martin went on to play Fallon on Dynasty in the 1980s, and then, well, did we mention she's having a really full year? Bless her Soupernatural soul.

There's actually another thrice-named actress who got a shot at the Nancy Drew role on the 1970s series: Janet Louise Johnson replaced Martin during the final season, appearing on four episodes before the show went off the air in early 1979. The actress, who was still in her teens when she got the job, swears that she used her middle name for Screen Actors Guild membership reasons (to differentiate herself from another Janet Johnson) - and not because producers were hoping that viewers wouldn't notice the switcheroo with Pamela Sue Martin. Johnson came from a modelling background, and despite her brief stint on the series, "it gave me confidence to pursue acting," she says. She later changed her name to Janet Julian. "These amazing actors were doing the show - Joseph Cotten, Ray Milland, William Schallert. What an opportunity it was to work side-by-side with these people."

Julian describes her subsequent career as "mostly B movies," and she says she gave up the business 11 years ago to raise a family. Professional high points, she says, include the 1990 film King of New York with Christopher Walken, and the early-90s cable TV series Swamp Thing - which she considers her "best work".

Nancy Drew returned to television in 1995 for 13 episodes of a syndicated Canadian series featuring an actress, Tracy Ryan, who has scarcely been heard from since. Let's face facts, though; there are two words that should never, ever appear anywhere even close to an actor's CV: "syndicated" and "Canadian".

Television took another stab at the character in 2002, with Maggie Lawson as Nancy in a two-hour TV movie/pilot episode for ABC that failed to take off. Lawson's current job is in the American TV series Psych.

How will Emma Roberts fare after Nancy Drew? Can the character ever achieve the same popularity on the screen as she has on the page? The books' estimated sales are a staggering 200 million copies. Fleming says that he's aimed for a close connection to Nancy's literary roots: "I really tried to use the books as inspirations, because I think that's what people have latched on to."

• Nancy Drew is released in the UK on 3 August.

• TEENAGE detective Nancy Drew was effectively born in 1930. The character was created that year by Edward Stratemeyer, founder of book publisher the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Stratemeyer only wrote outlines for the first four books, however, and died before they were published. His daughter Harriet took over the business.

• Nancy Drew's "author", Carolyn Keene, doesn't exist, and never has. She is a pseudonym used on all the books, regardless of who wrote them.

• The Nancy Drew books have been in print continuously since 1930, although they have changed in format and style many times over the years, with outdated references to "running boards" or "roadsters" removed.

• Nancy is a spirited and brave teenager with blue eyes and red hair. Her mother died when she was young, so as the only woman in the household she has learned to be highly independent - her boyfriend, Ned, is slightly in awe of her, and follows her around the country, often giving up his own plans to help her solve mysteries. In the early stories Nancy was 16, although she later became 18. In the early days she dressed immaculately, with pearls and high heels; her look later became less formal.

• Memorable titles in the series included The Bungalow Mystery, The Sign of the Twisted Candles, and The Clue of the Whistling Bagpipes. Nancy Drew titles generally involve combinations of the words secret, hidden, mystery, ghost, haunted, phantom and, most frequently, clue or case. Plus an item of clothing, furniture, or a place - an inn or a farm, for example.

Strangest title ever? Possibly The Chocolate-Covered Contest, although The Case of the Twin Teddy Bears gives it a close run for its money.

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