Synopsis: Jenny Wren is a professional gold-digger who has grown tired of her racket and has decided to retire. Her disillusionment stems from the recent death of Tom Herrick (Tom Douglas) a penniless young man whose marriage proposal Jenny turned down. Despondent, Tom threw himself off a cliff and Jenny has been haunted by his death ever since.
She plans to leave her lavish Los Angeles apartment behind and sail away to Europe. A prospective buyer for the apartment appears unannounced, a man who goes by the name of Farnsbarnes (Ricardo Cortez). In fact, the man is a career criminal named Curtis who is looking for incriminating letters in Jenny Wren’s possession.
Jenny needs a retirement nest egg, so she visits bank manager Priam Andes (H.B. Warner) and instructs him to throw her a farewell party at Crestwood, the Andes family retreat, and to bring along three of his business associates –Eddie Mack (Richard “Skeets” Gallagher), William Jones (Gavin Gordon) and Senator Herbert Walcott (Robert McWade) — each of whom is on the list of her wealthiest clients.
When the men arrive — not suspecting a shakedown — Jenny demands that they pay her a total of $750,000 as a farewell gift. The men balk, insisting that they are unable to raise that kind of money. But Jenny is undeterred. They will find a way, she says — because if they don’t, she will release enough evidence of their indiscretions to ruin them all.
Curtis arrives at Crestwood with a few of his henchmen. At just about the same time a ghost appears — the ghost of poor Tom Herrick. And Jenny ends up dead, the back of her neck punctured by one of the hefty steel darts used in the game room.
Now Curtis and Jenny’s sister Esther (Anita Louise) must team up to find out who killed Jenny Wren, and unmask the Phantom of Crestwood….
Comments: Today’s movie has a fairly unusual provenance. Before it was released in theaters, a version of The Phantom of Crestwood was broadcast as a radio drama on NBC, as part of the Hollywood On the Air anthology series. By design, the show ended before the Big Question — who killed Jenny Wren? — was answered. Listeners were invited to submit their own ideas for how the mystery should be resolved. Once the movie came out, fans of the radio show would (theoretically) flock to the theaters to see if their ending was picked!
Since listeners were cautioned that the final ending might not be one submitted by fans, we can assume that this was nothing more than a marketing ploy (a successful one, it should be noted — The Phantom of Crestwood was a solid moneymaker for RKO). To carry the marketing tie-in further, the movie actually opens with the radio show’s announcer, Graham McNamee, wearing a tuxedo and standing at an NBC microphone, a radio orchestra playing behind him. McNamee reminds us of the radio drama and tries to wring as much excitement out of the “Who Killed Jenny Wren?” question as possible. At this point, the opening credits start and the movie proceeds like any other.
I wasn’t expecting much from The Phantom of Crestwood, but to my surprise we have a pretty good movie on our hands, once the clumsy marketing gimmick is dispensed with. It’s a well-paced combination of the murder mystery and old dark house genres; and in an unusual turn, Jenny Wren herself isn’t done away with until about halfway through the film. This gives us time to get to know her, and like a number of women in pre-code Hollywood films, we grow to like her as well.
Heretofore Jenny has traded on her body to secure the lifestyle she enjoys. Now she has turned to extortion for one last score, plotting to brazenly take her four benefactors for nearly three-quarters of a million dollars. This is presented in such a way that we are cheering for her to succeed. After all, a young woman has few options in 1932 — even women as strong and intelligent as Jenny. We see her not as a strumpet but as someone using every advantage she has in order to get what she wants. By contrast, the four older, married businessmen who have been renting her services are seen as the villains – they are cads and hyprocites, men who are unjustly lauded as paragons of earthly virtue.
Like many films of the early Depression era, The Phantom of Crestwood focuses on the world of the upper class, allowing moviegoers an escape into a world of wealth and glamour. Appropriately, the only people who weren’t born into this world are Jenny, her sister Esther and Curtis, and they are depicted as “real” people navigating a world of phonies. This immediately puts the audience on their side. Karen Morley carries the first third of the movie herself, and she a delightfully strong and self-assured woman in an era when female leads were usually trembling flowers of the Gloria Stuart variety.
Ricardo Cortez is also quite effective in this movie, transitioning smoothly from thuggish pennyboy to heroic leading man as the circumstances at Casa del Andes change. And Anita Louise gives a winning performance as kid sister Esther, as pure and innocent as Jenny is world-weary and corrupt. Jenny wants Esther to have the life she couldn’t — to be able to say yes to the boy who loves her in the way Jenny herself wishes she could have done. It’s a relationship between sisters that actually comes across as believable. That was a hard trick to pull off in 1932 — it still is today.