Monday, March 25, 2013

The Phantom of Crestwood - 1932





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Director:                               J. Walter Ruben
Screenplay:                          Bartlett Cormack
     From a story by:              Bartlett Cormack  and J. Walter Ruben
Cinematography:                  Henry W. Gerrard
Film Editor:                           Archie F. Marshek
Art Direction:                        Carroll Clark
Musical Director:                   Max Steiner
Associate Producer:              Merian C. Cooper
Executive Producer:              David O. Selznick

Cast
Gary Curtis                          Ricardo Cortez
Jenny Wren                          Karen Morley
Esther Wren                         Anita Louise
Faith Andes                          Pauline Frederick
Priam Andes                        H.B. Warner
Dorothy Mears                     Mary Duncan
Pete Harris                           Sam Hardy
Allen Herrick                         Tom Douglas
Eddie Mack                          Richard “Skeets” Gallagher
Mrs. Wolcott                         Aileen Pringle
Mr. Vayne                             Ivan Simpson
The Cat                                George E. Stone
Herbert Wolcott                     Robert McWade
Carter                                   Hilda Vaughn
Will Jones                             Gavin Gordon
Frank Andes                         Matty Kemp
Bright Eyes                           Eddie Sturgis
Graham McNamee               Himself (uncredited)
Tall Man - Detective              Robert Elliott (uncredited)
Priam’s Secretary                 Bess Flowers (uncredited)

76 minutes.
Released:  October 14, 1932.







This post continues my foray into discussing some of the less well known films of the early 1930’s (see “Supernatural”), of which “The Phantom of Crestwood” is one of my favorites.  It is a sturdy little whodunit with a swirl of Pre-Code flavor mixed in.  It contains a solid cast, an intelligent script, atmospheric sets and interesting photography.

Oh yes, and it has gowns!  and tuxedos!

The plot revolves around an old mansion filled with people who don’t want to be there and can’t leave because a rainstorm has blocked the road –à la “The Old Dark House” and countless films since then.  The only thing we are missing is the reading of a will at midnight, but we do have a blackmailing femme fatale who meets a fatale fate at the hands of one of the motley crew of suspects, most of whom had excellent reasons for wanting to get rid of her.  The yarn is well told, the murderer is not immediately obvious and there are a few sub-plots which are germane to the overall story. 

Additionally, this movie had an unusual twist in the form of a unique publicity campaign.  Beginning in August 1932, the NBC radio network broadcast “The Phantom of Crestwood” as a serial once a week for six weeks.  The plot unfolded on the radio, but the murders were unsolved at the end of the final program.  As you see from the above clip, RKO Radio Pictures held a contest in which people were encouraged to write their own solution to the mystery story and submit it to the producers.  The radio audience had to go see the movie in order to find out who the murderer really was.  Cash prizes totaling $6000 were offered for the best endings.  It was made clear that the winning entry would not necessarily be used in the film, and I’m sure that it wasn’t.  But it was a clever gimmick:  The movie made a neat $100,000 profit for RKO.
I just noticed something about this poster.  The fourth name on the cast list is "Eric Linden".  He was a  young actor who had appeared on Broadway and had several film roles in the 1930s.  However, he does not appear in this movie.  Perhaps he had a role in the radio version? Perhaps he was cast in the film, but then a change was made for whatever reason?  Perhaps he had been cast as the young lover, a part that was played by Matty Kemp.  We may never know.  


Unfortunately, that $100,000 profit was just a drop of black ink in the sea of red in which RKO was swimming that year. 

The studio’s complicated history started with a string of nickelodeons in Milwaukee in 1909, which grew to become a large chain of theaters under the name Keith-Albee-Orpheum (KAO).  After a series of mergers and acquisitions over the years with various companies including Joseph P. Kennedy’s Film Booking Offices of America, the Radio Corporation of America , and Mutual Film Corpration, the dust settled in 1928 with the formation of Radio-Keith –Orpheum (RKO).  This new corporation had considerable producing, distributing and exhibiting capabilities. 


However, over-extension led to shaky finances and the company was thrown into receivership in 1933.  In spite of this, movie production continued under the RKO label.  It’s output included “Cimmarron” (1931), “King Kong” (1933), “Top Hat” (1935), “Bringing Up Baby” (1938), “Gunga Din (1939), “Citizen Kane” (1941), “The Best Years of Our Lives” (released by RKO in 1946),  and so many, many, many, many more that I’m starting to hyperventilate just looking at the list and trying to decide which ones to mention.

RKO is still in the film releasing business with “A Late Quartet” from 2012 which stars Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener.  

The movie starts with a prologue.  A studio orchestra backs the announcer, Graham McNamee, as he explains the contest.  It’s a strange moment in a way, as it takes us into the land of 1930’s radio as we are watching a movie.  McNamee’s name and voice would have been very familiar to the audience as he was a popular radio personality in the 1920’s through the 1940’s.  He was what today is called a sports “color commentator”, and in 1925 he was voted the country’s favorite announcer.  He was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2011.


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After the credits, we see a handsome gent (Ricardo Cortez) shadowing a chic blonde (Karen Morley).  When the blonde makes a stop at her bank, perfect strangers point her out and whisper, “That’s Jenny Wren!”  If you were paying attention to the contest you know that Jenny Wren will be the murder victim, so I’m not really spoiling anything. 
Karen Morley and Ricardo Cortez
                              
Along the way, handsome picks up a shadow of his own in the form of a detective.  The cop seems to recognize him as a gangster and warns him to behave himself while in Los Angeles.  Handsome tells the cop he is mistaking him for someone else, that his name is "Farnsbarns". 
Ricardo Cortez:  "Farnsbarns."
Robert Elliott:  "How do ya spell it?"
Cortez:  "The same way you pronounce it."

Jenny takes something from her deposit box, and then goes upstairs to pay a call on the bank president, Priam Andes.  All the while she is being followed by handsome, and her name brings knowing looks from strangers.
"That's Jenny Wren!"


She is obviously famous.   Famous for what?  And why is a gangster following her?

When she enters the office of Priam Andes, much is explained.
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So, evidently Jenny has been on intimate terms with Priam and the other gentlemen and is going to blackmail all of them to get enough money to “retire” to Europe.  Maybe I’m slow, but I still don’t understand why she is so famous.

Jenny returns to her luxurious apartment and we meet her maid, Carter.  The blackmail scheme is being discussed when the doorbell rings.  The apartment manager has brought our handsome friend, "Mr. Farnsbarns", to see the apartment.
(L-R)  Karen Morley, Clarence Wilson, Ricardo Cortez, and Hilda Vaughn

When Jenny shows them the bedroom, Farnsbarns sees the letters Jenny had removed from her deposit box and he gets the tip that she will be spending the weekend at Priam Andes place, Crestwood.  So, evidently he is after the letters for some reason. 

We also meet Jenny’s little sister -- sweet, naive Esther just home from finishing school and her fiancé Frank Andes, nephew of Priam. Jenny tells Frank that he may have a hard time with his very upright family when they find out who he is marrying.  When she mentions that she has been invited to Crestwood for the weekend, Frank has the inspiration to invite Esther and himself along.  We know that this is not really a good idea. 
Anita Louise as Esther Wren, and Karen Morley

That evening we meet the other weekend guests at Crestwood.  They include:  Mr. and Mrs. Wolcott – he hopes to be elected Senator very soon if he can avoid a scandal of course;  rich guy Will Jones and his fiancée Miss Mears; drunk social climber Eddie Mack; and a "Mr. Vayne of Boston".  As introductions are being made, Jenny makes a pretty dramatic entrance and immediately Wolcott, Jones and Mack look like something unpleasant is hitting the fan and heading in their direction. Which of course, it is.
Three very uncomfortable gentlemen.
(L-R) Richard "Skeets" Gallagher as Eddie Mack, Robert McWade as Wolcott,
and Gavin Gordon as Jones. 

Priam Andes’ sister Faith shows up next.  She is the strong sibling, family honor is paramount to her and she objects strongly to a marriage between Frank and the unsuitable Esther.
H.B. Warner as Priam Andes and Pauline Frederick as Faith Andes.

During dinner, Jenny takes great, secret pleasure in subtly hinting that she has met the gentlemen before.  And Mr. Vayne just can’t seem to stop staring at her.  The plot is thickening.

In Priam’s study Jenny finally confronts her four “chiselers” as she calls them, and makes her monetary demands.

They realize they have no choice but to pay her blackmail or face social ruin.  They would also like to kill her.  Priam tells Jenny that "Mr. Vayne" is there because he saw Jenny at the bank and was instantly smitten with her.  Jenny tells them that she is done with all that, and explains why.  She was involved very recently with a young man who committed suicide after Jenny found out that he would not inherit the family millions if he married her, so she dumped him.  After she relates the story, Carter arrives with a package which was delivered to the apartment.  Jenny is shocked to open it and find the fraternity pin which the boy had given her.  Where could it have come from?  Who could have sent it? 

Jenny steps outside for some air and sees what looks like the ghost of the dead boy.  Is she being haunted?  Is "Mr. Vayne: who he seems to be?  Is her number up?  The plot is now thick enough to stand a spoon up in, and the game is afoot!

During the night, a man enters the quiet house.  It’s “Mr. Farnsbarns”.  While he is sneaking around the house, Jenny stumbles down the staircase and into his arms, dead. “Mr. Farnsbarns” tries to make a get-away, but the road is blocked by a landslide, so he returns to the house and has no choice but to come clean about who he is and why he is there.  His name is Gary Curtis and he had been hired by another of Jenny’s former paramours to retrieve letters from her.  Mr. Curtis also introduces “the boys”, gangster colleagues who have come along on the job.  Knowing that the police will arrive eventually, will recognize him and try to pin the murder on him, Curtis takes on the role of detective.

From then on it is a pretty standard murder mystery with an amateur sleuth trying to identify the killer.  Relationships are revealed, false names are shed, alibis examined and motives are discovered in flashbacks.  Curtis does solve the mystery, of course, and all is right in the end.
(L-R) George E. Stone, Sam Hardy and Ricardo Cortez -- the gangster detective and some of "the boys".
Ivan Simpson (Mr.Vayne) with Cortez.

  

I love this movie for several reasons.  The first reason is the tight plot and how it moves along with almost no flagging.  At seventy-six minutes many characters are introduced and a rather complicated plot unfolds.  The dialogue is mature, believable, brisk and to the point.

The characters are, for the most part, not simply cardboard one-dimensional props.  The two exceptions are the young lovers, Esther and Frank.  Frank is a standard issue juvenile hero and the actor is alright but pretty forgettable.  Esther is also without too much depth, but Anita Louise does manage to put a bit of spark into one of her scenes.

Karen Morley is simply terrific as the conniving courtesan, Jenny Wren.  She struts her stuff oozing sex appeal but playing it down just enough to keep it classy.  She is tough, but she is also smart, sophisticated and witty—this is no floozy.  Jenny seems young to be so cynical and world-weary, but as played by Ms. Morley we know instinctively that she has been through the wringer a few times and has earned her cynicism.

And yet, Jenny possesses another side – one which is gentler and more vulnerable.  When Vayne confronts Jenny in her bedroom about his lust for her, her rejection is firm but honorable.  She asks him if he isn’t just a bit ashamed of himself:

             Vayne:  "Love, Miss Wren, does fantastic things to all of us."
             Jenny:  (Sarcastically)  "Yes, I've read about that."
             Vayne:  "And love makes us do fantastic things too."
              Jenny:  (Wistfully)  "And have those things done TO us."

During the flashback about Jenny and her suicidal young lover, she is tender and understanding about his puppy love.  When she realizes that she will not earn his family’s fortune by marrying him, she cuts the cord quickly.  Her words to him are matter of fact but not cold, she is trying to be as kind as she is able.  Calling him “Goldilocks” she tells him that although she is fond of him he should “stay away from hungry mama bearsin the future.  He is dazed by her sudden honesty and she is genuinely shocked by his violent reaction.  His suicide and her disgust at what her life has become are what compel her to give up her profession. 

I can’t help liking Jenny. She isn't the villain of the piece.

I suppose one reason that this movie is not better known is that it has no “big stars”.  Ricardo Cortez and Karen Morley were fine actors, but neither really became a superstar.  In the case of Karen Morley that is hard to believe.  I’ve never seen her in a movie where she is less than genuine, even in the adventure pot-boiler, “Mask of Fu Manchu” (1932). 
Morley, with Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu.

Ms. Morley was born Mabel Linton in Ottumwa, Iowa in 1905.  She started acting with the Pasadena Community Players (where Gloria Stuart was discovered), and then got into film in the 1930s.  She was the understanding and very forgiving wife in “Dinner at Eight” (1933) and the hard-boiled moll in “Scarface” (1932).  She returned to the stage in the 1940’s but her career was derailed when she became a victim of the communist hysteria of the late 40’s.  She was active throughout her life in left wing politics and was named by stool-pigeon right-wing actor Robert Taylor when he was before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.  Ms. Morley took the fifth when she was before the witch-hunters and her career was over, for the time.  In 1954 she ran on the American Labor Party ticket for lieutenant governor of New York, but lost.  She had a few bit movie roles after that, and in the 1970’s had several TV parts.  She died in 2003.  She was an excellent and underrated actress.

Ricardo Cortez was born Jacob Krantz in 1899, in Vienna and died in 1977.  At the age of three his family came to New York.  As a boy he sold newspapers and later was a runner on Wall Street.  After becoming an actor he spent some time on stage, and was discovered in the 1920’s by Paramount and signed on for movies.  This was the era of megastar Rudolph Valentino (“The Sheik” 1921) when every studio was searching for their own Latin Lover.  Actors such as Antonio Moreno, Rod LaRocque, and Ramon Navarro (he had a name change but at least he really was of Mexican heritage) were contenders for Valentino’s romantic throne.  The name Jacob Krantz had to go.  He was rechristened Ricardo Cortez and was groomed by Cecil B. DeMille for stardom.  He was publicized as having “bedroom eyes”.  Hot-cha-cha!!
Ricardo Cortez and his Bedroom Eyes.


In 1926 he had a break playing Greta Garbo’s lover in her first Hollywood film, “The Torrent”.  Physically the part, but with somewhat limited range, he never really broke through to consistent star roles, and when the talkies came in it was no longer possible to hide the fact that underneath the exotic façade he was plain ole’ American, Jacob Krantz.  From New York, no less.  He was typecast as smooth talking villains and gangsters for the most part, though he did play Sam Spade in the first version of “The Maltese Falcon”, 1931.
With Una Merkel in "The Maltese Falcon", 1931.

He played an unsympathetic gangster in “The Walking Dead” in 1936, opposite Boris Karloff.  Character roles followed, and later he turned to directing.  He eventually left show business and returned to Wall Street, this time as a successful broker.  His first wife was beautiful silent movie actress Alma Rubens.  She died tragically of pneumonia as a result of heroin addiction, at the age of thirty-three.

Probably my next favorite performer in this film is Gavin Gordon, playing the relatively small part of Will Jones.  He was born in Chicora, Mississippi in 1901.  After some stage work he got his big break in 1930 as Greta Garbo’s love interest in the film “Romance”.  In spite of his good looks and resonant, fluid velvet baritone voice his lack of charisma relegated him to second leads and other minor parts for the rest of his career.  In 1933 he was a lovesick secretary to Ruth Chatterton’s hard-driving industrial magnate in “Female”.   In that same year he was the murder suspect/rich playboy who doesn’t get the girl in the end, in “Mystery of the Wax Museum”.  As he matured he played character roles, such as the medical examiner in “Suspicion” (1941 – uncredited.  Even behind unflattering makeup and thick glasses, that voice was unmistakable.)  In 1959 he was the avuncular detective in the Vincent Price film, “The Bat”. 


However, Gavin Gordon’s most familiar role was probably as the flamboyant Lord Byron (he of the endlessly rolling R’s) in the prologue of 1935’s “Bride of Frankenstein”.
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An actor I find very interesting is Hilda Vaughn, who portrayed the maid Carter.  She played many roles during the 1930's, often as domestics and possibly is remembered best as Jean Harlow's blackmailing maid in "Dinner at Eight".  In "Charlie Chan in the Wax Museum" she played a vengeful widow.  No matter what role she played she was a magnificent scene stealer, you just can't not watch her.  It is a pity she didn't have a longer career; like Karen Morley, she was a victim of the Red-baiting House Committee on Un-American Activities and was blacklisted in Hollywood.



Another good actor who is not well known today, George E. Stone played one of the gangsters, The Cat, and had only a few lines.  He was born Gerschon Lichtenstein in Lodz, Poland in 1903.  As George Stein he worked as a song and dance man in vaudeville, and in his teens entered films.  Short, slight and dark featured he stood out, even in the background.  In over two hundred movies, he often played mobsters and other tough guys -- "Runyonesque characters".  In fact, he was a close friend of writer Damon Runyon.  He was memorable in "The Vampire Bat' (1933) and in "The Dragon Murder Case" (1934).
George E. Stone (R), with Edward G. Robinson in "Little Caesar" (1931)


Faith Andes, the matriarch of the family, was a typical role for actress Pauline Frederick.  She had been a very successful stage leading lady who made a smooth transition into silent films and then into sound.  With her beautiful, expressive face and subtle talent she often played mature, formidable women and sacrificing mothers.   She was born Beatrice Pauline Libbey in 1883, and started out in show business as a chorus girl at the age of nineteen.


Once voted "Hollywood's Most Beautiful Actress", Anita Louise (Esther Wren) was born in 1915 and entered films at the age of eight.   She was the fairy queen Titania in the 1935 film version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream".
Anita Louise as Titania with the Changeling Prince (Kenneth Anger) in "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

One complaint I do have about "The Phantom of Crestwood" is with the actor playing Eddie Mack, Richard "Skeets" Gallagher.  Like George E. Stone, he started out in vaudeville as a song and dance man, and went on to comedy in films.  However, here his character is the funny drunk who mis-quotes Shakespeare.  I'm not a fan of drunk acts, and this one is pretty annoying.  
Richard "Skeets" Gallagher and Aileen Pringle.


Bess Flowers, who plays Priam Andes' secretary, has to be the least well known actress of the bunch.  However, I would bet any amount of money that she is the one you have seen the most.  She was known as "The Queen of the Hollywood Extras" and appeared in over seven hundred films.  If you have seen ANY movie made between 1926 and 1964, you've seen her.  Most often uncredited, she was frequently in the background of a society party or in a theater audience -- the tall, elegant matron with the white hair.  Early in her career she played bit parts like this one, or the editor's secretary in "It Happened One Night" (1933).  She was the lady who congratulated Eve Harrington for her award ("I'm so happy for you, Eve".) at the end of "All About Eve" (1950).  Look her up, she had a pretty remarkable career -- everything from The Three Stooges to Alfred Hitchcock.   


I don't often talk about the associate producer of a film, but this one bears mentioning.  Merian C. Cooper was a flyer in WWI and after that worked in journalism.  He met fellow writer and photographer Ernest B. Schoedsack who had filmed battle scenes while in the Signal Corps.  Together they made the documentary "Grass" (1925) which followed the lives of nomad tribesmen in Persia, and "Chang" a docu-drama set in the jungles of Thailand.  The two men eventually went to RKO and were a very successful producer/director team.  Their most well-known film has to be "King Kong" (1933) which Cooper said he got the idea for while filming in the Far East.

At the top I mentioned the interesting photography in this movie.  The flashback scenes are transitioned by using a technique called a "swish pan" or "whip pan".  This is when the camera moves very rapidly along the horizontal, making the images an indistinct blur.  It has been used innumerable times and still is today, often in action movies.  It looks pretty routine now, but it may have had its very first use here in "Phantom of Crestwood".   

Another choice that the director made which I like is the camera placement in many scenes.    When several actors are in one room, the camera is placed behind some of them and moves around them, making it feel as if the camera is another character in the room.  This is another touch which makes the movie feel natural, and not as stage-bound and artificial as some of the other early sound films.

I'm disappointed that the characters of Gary Curtis and his helper Pete Harris didn't appear in any other films.  The two gangsters ("Mister Harris and his men perhaps.  I'm of the old school." Gary corrects the guests when he is called a 'gangster') make a great team.  Curtis has the brains and Pete is the gentle giant and mild comedy foil.  It seems like a natural to make a series of mysteries for them to get tangled up in.
Holmes with his Watson.
I believe Turner owns the RKO and Warner Brothers libraries, so they own "The Phantom of Crestwood".  At any rate, the dvd is available through Turner Classic Movies.  Now at least I can give my home-made VHS copy a well deserved rest.
The 'Phantom' strikes again!


ADDENDA

1.     Is the name Gary Curtis uses as an alias, 'Farnsbarns', or 'Farnesbarnes', or 'Farnsbonds'?  It's very hard to tell from his pronunciation.  However it is pronounced, the name seems to be a running gag throughout the film.  
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Farnsbarns?


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No, Fondsbarnes.


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Farndsbarnds?  No, Fondsbonds.

The question was asked of The Guardian at guardian.co.uk, "Who was Charlie Farnes-Barnes?"  Several answers from readers followed, with no consensus attained.  The name was either,
a  used to refer to someone who's name you did not know, e.g. "whatshisname".
b  a character from a British radio comedy from the 1940's, "Much-Binding-on-the-Marsh"
c  don't really know
d  all the above.

(I have to give credit to Cliff Aliperti at the site immortalephemera.com for doing the legwork here.)

According to author Nigel Rees in his book Phrases and Sayings (Bloomsbury Reference), -- 1997, Bloomsbury pub.:
  "A twit whose name one can't remember....Charlie is a name given to an ordinary bloke, 'Farnsbarns' has the numbing assonance needed to describe a bit of a non-entity."

The name was also used as an alias in another 1931 flick, "The Public Defender".  
Go figure.  But where did it come from for our movie?  


2.    And one more mystery wrapped inside an enigma for you to chew on:
If you watch the film, ask yourself later -- 
   So just WHERE WAS Mrs. Wolcott if she wasn't in their room when Mr. Wolcottt went to bed???



Have a comment about this post?  Please, be my guest.  Indulge yourself.  I would love to hear from you.  Click on “Comments” below.  Thanks!
  


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