Nick Carter, Master Detective (film)

Nick Carter, Master Detective is a 1939 film starring Walter Pidgeon in the title role based on the long-running radio series of the same name. In the heightened tensions prior to World War II, Hollywood developed many films in the spy film genres such as Nick Carter, Master Detective. In this film, Carter investigates espionage at an aircraft factory.

Nick Carter, Master Detective
Directed byJacques Tourneur
Produced byLucien Hubbard
Written byBertram Millhauser
Based onoriginal story by Bertram Millhauser and Harold Buckley
StarringWalter Pidgeon
Rita Johnson
Music byEdward Ward
CinematographyCharles Lawton Jr.
Edited byElmo Veron
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
  • December 13, 1939 (1939-12-13) (New York)
Running time
59 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$456,000[1]

Pidgeon and Donald Meek went on to reprise their roles in two sequels, Phantom Raiders (1940) and Sky Murder (1941). [N 1]


Detective Nick Carter (Walter Pidgeon) boards an airliner with John Keller (Henry Hull), the inventor of a revolutionary new aircraft at the Radex Aviation Company. The pilot makes an unscheduled landing so that his confederates can try to steal Keller's plans, but Carter holds them off, and stewardess Lou Farnsby (Rita Johnson) manages to fly them to safety. Carter, posing as "Robert Chalmers", the new assistant to Hiram Streeter (Addison Richards), the boss of the California factory, has Lou reassigned to the infirmary.

During his investigation, Carter receives the unwanted help of his companion, Bartholomew (Donald Meek). His friend fancies himself an amateur sleuth.

A test flight of the new aircraft ends in disaster; the wings are ripped off during a high-speed dive, and the test pilot is killed. It is found that bolts attaching the wings were cut. Later, Carter finds Keller's body in a running car in a closed garage. Carter suspects Keller was strangled, and the scene staged to look like a suicide.

Finally, Carter notices that each time a part of the blueprints goes missing, a worker has a serious accident and is sent home by company doctor, Dr. Frankton (Stanley Ridges). He surmises that sections of the plans have been photographed, with photos hidden under bandages. He goes to apprehend the Frankton. Unable to leave the factory in time, he has the unsuspecting Lou escort a "patient" home. When Carter arrives, Frankton tells him that Lou will be killed unless the doctor shows up at a prearranged rendezvous soon.

Carter lets him leave, but secretly has the roof of Frankton's car painted with a white cross. This enables Carter to track the doctor in an aircraft to a section of the Los Angeles docks. Frankton, his associates, the complete plans and Lou race to a waiting ship. Carter engages in a firefight with the crew using a Tommy gun borrowed from the police.

Although his aircraft is shot down, Carter prevents their getaway. At the instigation of Bartholomew, a harbor patrol gunboat arrives and the villains are forced to surrender.



The "high speed" aircraft in Nick Carter, Master Detective was a Ryan ST c/n NC17344. Most of the aerial footage was staged in the studio backlots and incorporated into background scenes.[3]


According to MGM records, Nick Carter, Master Detective earned $276,000 in the US and Canada and $180,000 elsewhere, making a loss to the studio of $93,000.[1]

Film reviewer Frank S. Nugent in his review of Nick Carter, Master Detective, wrote in The New York Times, "No, this isn't Nick Carter as we remember him, but it's an amusing fiction for all that, with enough action to compensate for the arch unoriginality of the plot and with pleasantly casual performances all around. ... They [Pidgeon and Meek] make a gay crime-solving combination".[4]

Reviewer Tom Milne in Time Out (magazine), more recently stated, "Tourneur's second film in Hollywood, it's briskly and competently done, but the best thing about it is Donald Meek's performance as Bartholomew, the Bee Man, a mousy little apiculturist who fancies himself as a private eye."[5]



  1. After appearing on Broadway, Walter Pidgeon returned to Hollywood, but was relegated to playing secondary roles in films like Saratoga and The Girl of the Golden West. Taking a leading man role in Nick Carter, Master Detective was an opportunity to build his profile with MGM.[2]


  1. The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study.
  2. Quinlan 2000, pp. 415–416.
  3. Santoir, Christian. "Ryan ST (1934)." Aeromovies, September 9, 2015. Retrieved: June 15, 2019.
  4. Nugent, Frank S. "The screen: 'Nick Carter, Master Detective' belatedly joins the ranks of the Hollywood spy-chasing fraternity at the Miami Theatre." The New York Times, December 14, 1939.
  5. Milne 2004, p. 830.


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