Hey, it’s Graham McNamee! The voice of so many old baseball clips and fight films, including the Dempsey-Tunney long count. A radio old-timer, even by 1932, having burst on the scene covering the 1923 Democratic National Convention. Later he hosted N.B.C. radio programs for stars such as Ed Wynn and Rudy Vallee, but it’s really those sports clips from the roaring ‘20s that I recall him from.
With an orchestra playing behind him, McNamee steps up to the microphone to seemingly deliver a big fat spoiler asking, “Who killed Jenny Wren?”
Thanks a lot. But wait, this movie seems to have a little extra back story in its production cycle. McNamee says that we have listened to the final chapter of the radio program with the mystery still unsolved. Have we? He mentions a hundred prizes totaling over six thousand dollars have been offered and warns that the winning entries need not be the same as what has actually been used.
”The Phantom Killer of Jenny Wren is still at large. Who is that killer? We take pleasure on behalf of RKO Radio Pictures in presenting to you The Phantom of Crestwood. Graham McNamee, signing off.”
See you at the fights, Graham!
I was drawn to The Phantom of Crestwood because it stars two favorites, Ricardo Cortez and Karen Morley, previously discussed together when I took a look at MGM’s Flesh from a little later in ‘32. By the way, Morley’s performance blew me away in that one.
The Phantom of Crestwood opens up with the Cortez character tailing Morley. A man sidles up to Cortez and pesters him with a few questions that pretty plainly reveal him as a law officer and Cortez as a man with a criminal past.
“What is your name?” he asks Cortez.
Cortez says, for the first of a few times, “Farnesbarnes,” stretching out the overlong, completely made-up moniker that had me rolling every time he said it.
“How do you spell it?” the detective asks.
“Same way you pronounce it,” replies Cortez, always his best when super smug as he’s going to be in The Phantom of Crestwood.
So Cortez, or Farnesbarnes if you prefer (and I do), tails Morley inside a bank. Morley turns heads on her way through the lobby with one man telling another, her notoriety implied by his tone, “Jenny Wren.”
Wait. What the—McNamee! What have you done?
Other than the silliness of Farnesbarnes all I’m thinking at this point is “Who killed Jenny Wren?” thanks to McNamee’s intro.
So yup, our lead actress is going to die. And her ending isn’t too far off. But thanks to a series of dizzying flashbacks occurring when Cortez grills a house full of suspects, we do get to see Miss Morley a few more times.
Morley’s Jenny Wren is a woman of easy virtue, ready to make her exit from that life by way of a blackmail plot involving four of her past lovers. With Cortez hiding in the halls she meets with bank president Priam Andes (H.B. Warner), one of the four, and arranges a farewell party in her honor at his Crestwood estate. She insists on the other three men as guests.
Back at her apartment Jenny is attended to by her maid, Carter (Hilda Vaughn), when Farnesbarnes pays a visit on the pretense of renting it but in fact using this opportunity to discover that Jenny will be heading out to Crestwood that night. This is the only scene in which Morley and Cortez, the two stars, actually exchange dialogue.
Moments after Farnesbarnes departs the buzzer rings again and Jenny’s younger sister, Esther Wren (Anita Louise) arrives with her fiance, Frank Andes (Matty Kemp). Frank’s uncle is Priam Andes, the banker Jenny had previously visited to set up the Crestwood party. Esther invites herself and Frank to the party as well.
When Esther worries that she has nothing to wear to a party her sister offers her use of her clothes.
“Oh, I don’t like those black things you wear,” Esther says.
“What a shame. A lot of other people have.”
Cocktails at Crestwood. A grand time gossiping and throwing darts. Very long darts. A large group of familiar character actors and aging silent stars are all gathered together on the Andes estate.
Walcott (Robert McWade), who’s running for Senator, is there with his wife (Aileen Pringle). Eddie Mack (Skeets Gallagher) is wisecracking and tying one on, as expected. Will Jones (Gavin Gordon) drinks with Walcott and Mack, while his intended, Dorothy Mears (Mary Duncan), talks with the other women, including Esther Wren. Andes comes in and introduces creepy Boston banker Mr. Vayne (Ivan F. Simpson) to the others and is soon alerted that his sister, Faith (Pauline Frederick), has arrived.
The guests are startled by the appearance of Jenny Wren at the top of the stairs.
“Isn’t this a bit indiscreet, Priam?” Jones asks Andes.
Jones is one of the three, along with Walcott and Eddie Mack, who Jenny insisted Priam invite to the party. Until she had asked, Andes had no idea that Jenny was also consorting with any of his society acquaintances.
An uncomfortable dinner passes before Jenny takes Priam aside and instructs him to gather her other conquests in the Library. There she explains the reason she’s called this gathering.
“I’m retiring. I’m quitting early, gentleman, before I’m on the rummage counter. I’m sailing out at high tide and I’m taking enough cold cash with me to ensure me of a comfortable old age.”
Jenny demands $50,000 from Jones; twice that from Andes; only $25,000 from Eddie Mack because she knows he’s broke. And from would-be Senator Walcott, she names a sum of $250,000. The threat is exposure to wives and newspapers, whichever is more damaging. There’s no doubt that Jenny is going to get her money.
“It would give me great pleasure to kill you,” Jones says to Jenny’s amusement.
3 am. Farnesbarnes slips into the house. He’s distracted by a figure upstairs. Jenny Wren stumbles to the stairway, utters her final words, and falls dead into Farnesbarnes’ arms.
He exits the house just before the others come down to discover Jenny’s body. A landslide outside cuts off any possible exit or access to Crestwood. Ricardo Cortez must go back inside where we discover he’s not Farnesbarnes at all, but the plainly named Gary Curtis.
Accompanied by his gangster pal, Pete (Sam Hardy), and Pete’s henchmen, Bright Eyes (Eddie Sturgis) and The Cat (George E. Stone), our former Farnesbarnes knows that it is up to him to solve the murder of Jenny Wren, otherwise he is the one most likely to burn. Or as Pete corrects, hang in this state.
Ricardo Cortez as Gary Curtis is now in the same position as the many Americans who have listened to The Phantom of Crestwood unfold over a series of broadcasts on 58 NBC radio stations since August 26, 1932. As noted in Film Daily, “This is the first time in the history of show business that a direct, interlaced tie-up of the two leading media has been effected.”
The trade paper first announced The Phantom of Crestwood in a May issue claiming that it “will be backed up with the greatest exploitation in show history.” The weekly broadcast finished by inviting listeners to write in with a 500 word solution answering the question, “Who killed Jenny Wren?” $6,000 in prizes were offered for the best responses. Miss Grace Morris Price of Pittsburgh claimed top prize of $1,500.
The idea became all the rage before The Phantom of Crestwood’s final chapter even released to theaters. In September it was reported that Fox planned a radio tie-in for Chandu, the Magician and Majestic the same for Phantom Express. Reliance wasn’t going to stop at radio for their Joe Palooka, naturally they were going to get the comics involved as well. Columbia wanted to top them all with Mike, a radio story that they claimed opened itself up to a variety of exploitation possibilities.
The Phantom of Crestwood was profitable drawing in over $430,000 at the box office at a cost of just $187,000. But the predicted cycle of tie-in movies did not catch on.
A straight mystery at heart with Old Dark House elements providing some chills The Phantom of Crestwood includes several little shockers throughout and overall fine acting by a large ensemble of mostly familiar faces. Often humorous dialogue with plenty of pre-code shading courtesy of Jenny Wren’s background.
J. Walter Ruben directed this for RKO under Merian C. Cooper during David O. Selznick's reign at the studio. It runs 76 minutes, though I’m not sure if that time includes the McNamee introduction or not.
Filmed by Henry Gerrard just after completion of The Most Dangerous Game and prior to the first of the Hildegarde Withers mysteries, Penguin Pool Murder (both 1932), The Phantom of Crestwood offers many visual surprises, some that feel ahead of their time, others just startling flashes that will have you rewinding your first time through. Gerrard would finish his working days photographing more literary fare, such as Little Women (1933) and Of Human Bondage (1934) before his death in 1934 at just age 35.
The Phantom of Crestwood does not boast any major star to aid in recommending it today, but at the time Ricardo Cortez was continuing a strong comeback from controversy caused early the year when estranged wife Alma Rubens had died. Karen Morley, on loan here from MGM, was on the ascent after strong roles in Arsene Lupin and Scarface earlier in 1932. She brings a lot of Poppy’s attitude from Scarface to this one as Jenny Wren.
The supporting cast is highlighted by H.B. Warner as Priam Andes; former silent star Pauline Frederick as his sister, Faith Andes, who has come to meet her nephew’s fiance with hopes of protecting the Andes name; Ivan F. Simpson as Mr. Vayne, whose unabashed interest in Jenny Wren absolutely disgusts the young golddigger; and Sam Hardy as Pete Harris, gangster and old chum of Cortez’ Gary Curtis.
None of the others have much to do but are their always pleasant selves. Anita Louise seems a bit green in spots. She’s only 17 but has been working in films since she was just 6. Whatever you may think of her performance she definitely gets to deliver the howler of this movie when amid all of the chaos she declares, “This is a fine graduation party! I graduated all right, all at once!”
Recommended for all and easily accessed today thanks to its release on DVD-R by the Warner Archives. I viewed a copy recorded off of Turner Classic Movies and am left wondering if the Warner DVD-R release also includes the McNamee introduction.
If so, I think The Phantom of Crestwood may be better served by lopping it off of the front of the film as it is at best historical curiosity and at worst giving away too much. While I was fascinated by the radio tie-in, it really is not necessary for the modern viewer to enjoy The Phantom of Crestwood and may do more harm than good by preceding the film.
It’d be a great extra though.