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 young man whom Jenny had strung along — until she discovered that his wealthy father had disowned him because of their relationship. Jenny dumped Tom on the spot, telling him that the only thing she’d been interested in was his money. 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 has been dispatched to find incriminating letters known to be 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 $150,000 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. Moments later Jenny ends up dead, the back of her neck punctured by one of the hefty steel darts used in the game room.
Now Curtis, fearing he’ll be accused of the crime, must play detective in order to find out who killed Jenny Wren, and unmask the Phantom of Crestwood….
Comments: I’ve never seen a TV print of The Phantom of Crestwood, so I don’t know if it included the original pre-credits sequence featuring the NBC radio orchestra and announcer Graham McNamee. It would make sense if the scene were deleted; TV viewers in the 1970s wouldn’t have heard of McNamee, the radio drama referenced, or the contest connected with both.
The contest was a marketing gimmick applied to the theatrical release of The Phantom of Crestwood when it premiered in 1932. NBC radio had broadcast a version of this old-dark-house thriller, but without an ending. Listeners were encouraged to send in their own ideas for how the mystery should be resolved. The winning entry, it was promised, would get a cash prize. The studio hoped that this would get listeners excited about going to see the movie and find out if “their” ending was picked.
The movie turned a solid profit for RKO, and probably would have done so regardless of the marketing campaign. The Phantom of Crestwood is a ripping good yarn, one that actually works better with the gimmick set aside.
Like a lot of pre-code Hollywood movies, this one seems particularly daring because films became so tame after the Hayes Office was established. The script here is fairly explicit in identifying Jenny Wren as a top-dollar escort, and when she demands that Priam throw her a farewell party at Crestwood, his scandalized look is priceless. We are given to understand that Jenny has been to parties at Crestwood many times before — but always as the entertainment, never as a guest. Now she will be there as an equal to Priam and the other men who had rented her affections, drinking their wine and rubbing elbows with their wives.
Jenny’s decision to turn the tables on the wealthy bankers and politicians who had been using her no doubt struck a chord with Depression-era audiences, who would have enjoyed seeing the high rollers sweat it out for a change.
Karen Morley leads a very strong cast here. Morley’s character is killed about a third of the way through, but that doesn’t cut significantly into her screen time; she appears in numerous flashback sequences as each murder suspect describes their last interaction with her. Ricardo Cortez, who played a lot of mobbed-up types in his career, is very engaging as Curtis, the smart and dogged gangster who missed his calling — he would have made a great homicide detective. Pauline Frederick is appropriately starchy as the Andes family matriarch, and Anita Louise is quite convincing as Karen Morley’s kid sister. Louise was still a teenager when she appeared in The Phantom of Crestwood, and her career was a long one, stretching from the silent era into the age of television; she went on to play the mother on the series My Friend Flicka in the 1950s, and was doing guest shots on TV well into the 1970s.