Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Phantom of Crestwood ( 1932 )

Who Killed Jenny Wren? 

That is the question listeners were asked to solve as The Phantom of Crestwood unfolded over a series of NBC radio broadcasts across the nation, beginning in August 26, 1932. After the final cliffhanger episode aired, audiences were invited to submit a 500-word solution to the question. Over $6,000 in prizes were awarded to the authors with the best responses, with Miss Grace Morris Price of Pittsburgh winning the $1,500 grand prize for her witty answer. This was a unique audience participation event and it garnered loads of publicity for the upcoming feature film release of The Phantom of Crestwood in 1932, one of the first of the old-dark-house mysteries.

RKO Radio Pictures cast one of their most popular contract players, Ricardo Cortez, as the leading character, Gary Curtis, a former criminal who volunteers to don the deerskin hat and solve the murder of the young woman at a secluded cliff-side estate. 

The victim - golden-haired call-girl Jenny Wren ( Karen Morley ) - had invited four of her former paramours to Crestwood, a sprawling manor, to celebrate her retirement and blackmail a fortune out of each one of them. Her lovers were a group of rich lecherous old men, including three financiers ( H. B Warner, Gavin Gordon , Skeets Gallagher ) and a prominent politician ( Robert McWade ). 


Also invited to the jolly gathering were the unsuspecting wives of these playboys, Wren's younger sister Esther ( Anita Louise ), and Esther's baby-faced fiancee ( Matty Kemp ). Each one of these characters become a suspect in her murder. However, a sudden landslide traps them all into remaining at Crestwood for the night and before the day breaks two more guests are unexpectedly murdered!

"It will give me great pleasure to kill you...."

This brisk little thriller was directed by the same man who had penned its clever story plot for the radio series - J. Walter Ruben. It was only his fourth outing as a director; he had found greater success as a screenwriter typing the scripts to many standard studio productions of the late 1920s and early 1930s. 

The "old dark house" formula had been born less than a decade earlier and films such as The Cat and the Canary ( 1927 ), The Bat Whispers ( 1930 ), and The Old Dark House ( 1931 ), proved just how successful it could be. The formula peaked in the 1940s and later, during the 1960s, producer William Castle revived the genre and also brought back the gimmick-driven publicity stunts to boost theatre attendance. 

Had The Phantom of Crestwood been released a few years later, it may not have been able to pass the stringent requirements of the Hayes Production Code, which oversaw the moral rules of motion pictures. Even though the Hayes Code was in effect since 1930, many studios simply ignored it. The only elements of The Phantom of Crestwood that may have run the risk of being dismissed were the innuendos regarding the Jenny Wren's shady past and the leering looks she receives from a rather creepy old man, portrayed by Ivan F. Simpson. 


Rounding out the cast is a number of familiar character actors, a handful of aging silent stars, and actresses Aileen Pringle, Pauline Frederick, and Mary Duncan. 

The Phantom of Crestwood has a number of interesting elements that make it stand out from the crowd : cinematographer Henry Gerrard, who would film the first of several Hildegard Withers mysteries, The Penguin Pool Murder, later that same year, had utilized a fast-panning effect to demonstrate a flashback; and Graham McNamee, a popular sports radio announcer, gives the film a suitable introduction for those unfamiliar with the radio hype of the past few months.


Upon its release, The Phantom of Crestwood must have pleased its radio fans for it drew in a profitable $430,000 in film sales at the box office. As Film Daily noted "This is the first time in the history of show business that a direct, inter-laced tie-up of two leading media has been effected". On the heels of its success other rival studios quickly announced plans of their own radio-film tie-ins, but none of these came to fruition and the novel publicity ploy was quickly forgotten. Such a shame, for a good many films could have benefited from this technique. 

Thanks to the recent Warner Archives DVD release, The Phantom of Crestwood can be enjoyed anew and the studio has done a marvelous job restoring the picture. 

This post is our contribution to The Pre-Code Blogathon being held by Shadows and Satin and Pre-Code.com. Be sure to head on over to their sites to check out all the great posts on pre-code films! 

14 comments:

  1. This sounds very good. Thanks for your review. Must try and get it.

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    1. Glad to have introduced you to a "new" film, Vienna.

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  2. What a fascinating publicity stunt. I know I would have lapped it all up. Mystery fans love a challenge. Sounds like a dandy. Wonderful and interesting selection for the blogathon.

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    1. Wouldn't it have been great had they had more radio/film tie-ins? I would still enjoy a publicity stunt like that, although in these times it would probably be an internet/film tie-in. Glad you enjoyed the post, CW!

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  3. I saw this on a local TV station's Shock Theater as a kid. The station, like me, probably thought it was a horror film. I was initially disappointed, but then recall rather enjoying it. As you said, it's stands out from other similar "old dark house" pics.

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    1. The first time we watched The Old Dark House, I was disappointed with that film as well. After the second viewing, I was still disappointed. But with The Phantom of Crestwood my reaction was different....probably because there wasn't any weird ghoul in the house ( there is quite a dandy glowing death mask however ).

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  4. Really enjoyed this fascinating post! (Do you know what the winning answer was for the contest?) I'm a big Karen Morley fan and haven't seen nearly enough of her films -- I will have to check this one out, for sure. Thank you for your contribution to the blogathon!

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    1. Gosh, I'm not sure how to dig up her winning entry, but here is the original announcement from Motion Picture Herald magazine if you want to take a peek at it.

      http://ia802306.us.archive.org/BookReader/BookReaderImages.php?zip=/23/items/motionpictureher109unse/motionpictureher109unse_jp2.zip&file=motionpictureher109unse_jp2/motionpictureher109unse_0881.jp2&scale=4&rotate=0

      Prior to this film, I never even heard of Karen Morley, but after seeing her performance as Jenny Wren I'm a new convert! She has quite a style. We're glad you enjoyed our post, and thank you for letting us take apart in it ( at the last minute! ).

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  5. I'd be interested to see this - you make it sound like a lot of fun. I haven't seen enough old dark house movies!

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    1. Be sure to add And Then There Were None ( 1945 ) to that old-dark-house list, in that case. That is a classic of the genre.

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  6. Wow! That sounds like so much fun. Of course, I now want to see this - thanks to your very entertaining and compelling review. Awesome!!

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    1. The Phantom is an entertaining film and it definitely has the "feel" of a early 1930s pre-code picture. Had it been made a few years later I think the tone of the film would have been a bit lighter and more comical, this way it paralleled The Old Dark House. I hope you get a chance to catch it on the tele!

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  7. What a great pre-release promo! This looks like a treat - fingers crossed the DVD is available in the UK ;)
    And am I correct in thinking that Karen Morley was in Mata Hari?? I watched that just a few weeks ago and was intrigued by her... will have to do some more research.

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  8. Karen Morley is great-- definitely check her out in Arsene Lupin with the Barrymore brothers if you get the chance. I haven't seen this one yet, but you've put it high on my radar. Thanks for participating!

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