The Phantom of Crestwood (1932)

‘Take it easy, bright eyes; you’re taxing your brain.’

A gold-digger decides to turn over a new leaf when a young suitor commits suicide after finding out she was only after his money. However, a new life takes cash, so she makes blackmail demands of four prominent citizens at a weekend house party. Unfortunately, one of the guests has murder in mind…

Dreary, implausible ‘old dark house’ mystery that can claim to be the world’s first multi-media entertainment project. The story was launched as a radio serial on NBC’s ‘Hollywood of the Air’ slot in Autumn 1932, and the show finished with the mystery unresolved. The audience was then invited to submit their own solutions, with prizes on offer for any used before the official answers arrived via this RKO feature film.

This unique approach to storytelling is explained at the film’s start, direct-to-camera, by NBC’s Graham McNamee. He also introduces our main characters. Jenny Wren (Karen Morley) is quite the girl about town, bestowing her favours on one rich man after another. Ultimately, however, she decides to quit the life after young Allen Herrick (Tim Douglas) throws himself off a cliff when she reveals her true nature.

But quitting takes money, so she blackmails bank manager Priam Ames (H B Warner) to set up a weekend party at an isolated ranch with some of his wealthy friends, who just happen to be some of her old boyfriends. These include senator-in-waiting Herbert Walcott (Robert McWade) and lumber merchant Will Jones (Gavin Gordon), who is about to marry into high society. To complicate matters, Warner’s young nephew, Frank (Matty Kemp), has fallen in love with Morley’s sister, the nieve and innocent, Esther (Anita Louise).

Early on, there are some warning signs that her scheme may not go quite to plan. For a start, Warner has invited the sinister Mr Vayne (Ivan F Simpson) along to the party, and the mysterious Mr Farnes Barnes (Ricardo Cortez) is also hanging around outside. So when Morley is suddenly menaced by a strange figure that resembles her dead lover, it’s no surprise it turns out to be the prelude to her murder. With the road washed out and a house filled with suspects, it’s Cortez who investigates the killing. He’s not a cop, by any means, but a pretty rough crew of comrades comes with him, so he has no difficulty assuming the necessary authority.

As is evident from the title, there are hints of the supernatural running all through director J Walter Ruben’s picture, but the events and resolution of the mystery have their feet firmly on the ground. The spooky elements are rather crowbarred into the narrative, much in the same way as Cortez’s character. Is he supposed to be a private detective? The way he refers to himself makes him sound more like a minor criminal, and his reasons for being on-site and tackling the mystery are thin at best. If the story or characters were engaging, these contrivances could be forgiven, but the plot is mundane and the characters one-note. The cast members do their best, but most of them have very little to work with, although Morley makes the most of what she’s given.

One of the most notable aspects of the production is the presence of Max Steiner as head of the music department, which, in effect, means he chose the music for the film from the studio library. He’d been at RKO since 1929 but had found his time there largely unproductive. He was even in discussions about leaving to take alternative work in both Moscow and Peking. But, after intervention by producer David O Selznick, he stuck around and, after this assignment, landed the gig writing the music for ‘King Kong’ (1933), the film that made his name. In subsequent years, he became one of Hollywood’s most celebrated composers, winning three Oscars and scoring ‘Gone With The Wind’ (1939), ‘Now, Voyager’ (1942), ‘Casablanca’ (1942), ‘Mildred Pierce’ (1945), ‘The Big Sleep’ (1946), and ‘White Heat’ (1949), among many others.

There is no evidence that legendary producer Selznick was directly involved with this film, aside from his ‘executive producer’ credit, although the multi-media concept smacks of his type of showmanship. The film was released in mid-October 1932, by which time Selxznick’s contract with the studio was about to expire, and he was considering an offer from his father-in-law to return to MGM to head up his own film unit. He was also a brand new father, with his first prestigious film project, ‘A Bill of Divorcement’ (1932), new in theatres on the last day of September. So it’s unlikely that he had all that much input into such a minor thriller. Still, it’s possible that the radio-movie tie-in and attendant publicity campaign was his idea.

Convoluted, unconvincing mystery, remarkable only for its unique presentation over two separate entertainment formats.

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