Friday, January 5, 1973: The Phantom of Crestwood (1932) / The Man Who Lived Twice (1936)

Synopsis: Jenny Wren (Karen Morley) 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 $425,000 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: Back when I wrote the plot synopsis above, I used the term “professional gold digger” to describe the ill-fated Jenny Wren’s occupation. I was really pulling my punches and I shouldn’t have done it. The truth is, Jenny is indirectly but unmistakably identified as a high-class escort, something that would only have been possible in a pre-code film like this one.

While Jenny has some of the attributes of a “hooker with a heart of gold”,  she doesn’t veer too far into that lane. Tom Herrick’s death isn’t the only reason she gives for getting out of the business. She’s keenly aware of how time is working against her. She wants to retire, she tells Priam and his associates, “before I end up on the rummage counter”. The blackmail she’s planned for her upper-crust clients is proof enough that she hasn’t gone soft; moreover, knowing that her marks will inevitably see her death as a favorable outcome, she warns them that her personal assistant Carter will carry out the extortion threat even if she herself can’t.

The film quickly reveals itself to be a whodunit of the Ten Little Indians variety, with the cast trapped in an old dark house, getting bumped off one by one and growing increasingly fearful of one another. Ricardo Cortez’ Curtis is delightful company, even though the task he assigns himself — finding the real killer before the police arrive and pin Jenny’s murder on him  — seems a little implausible. Still, the movie does a good job at keeping us guessing, and Cortez, Karen Morley and Pauline Frederick all stand out. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is quite forgettable; Anita Louise as Esther Wren is particularly bad, doomed by the same sort of tremulous delivery that made Gloria Stuart such a grating performer. It seems to have been a popular acting style for women in the early talkies, but it hasn’t aged well, and Karen Morley is proof that better performances were indeed possible.

 

The Man Who Lived Twice


Synopsis: Hard-boiled criminal Slick Rawley (Ralph Bellamy) has been in some tough jams before, but he’s really done it this time. During a botched bank robbery he killed a cop, and now every badge in America is looking for him. It’s clear that for him, the heat will never be off. He leaves his girlfriend Peggy Russell (Isabel Jewell) in the care of his pal Gloves (Ward Bond) and runs for it.

But getting out of the city proves impossible; the police are seemingly everywhere. Hiding out in a lecture hall at a medical college, he hears Dr. Clifford Schuyler (Thurston Hall) expound on his theory of crime: career criminals, he says, are the victims of a medical defect — namely, small tumors in a certain region of the brain. Remove the tumors, Schuyler says, and the criminal can be permanently cured.

He has tested his theory on vicious dogs and apes, and in all cases the animals become gentle and docile after the brain surgery.

But as much as Schuyler wishes to test this surgery on a human, the criminal justice system won’t allow it.

Rawley follows Schuyler home and offers himself as a test subject. He convinces Schuyler that this might be his only chance to verify his theory, and he asks for only one thing in return: plastic surgery so that he can forever evade detection.

After the surgeries, Rawley (literally) looks like a new man, and he remembers nothing about his past. Dr. Schuyler tells him that his name is James Blake, that he lost his memory in a car accident, and that he has no living relatives.

Blake proves to be an honest, caring and hard-working man — the very opposite of Slick Rawley. Seeing that Blake is inquisitive and fascinated by medical books, Schuyler enrolls the young man in college, and then medical school. Soon Dr. James Blake is a renowned physician and philanthropist, a man of sterling character, dedicated to improving the lot of America’s prison population.

But when Peggy happens to meet Dr. Blake, she begins to suspect that he is her former boyfriend. A dogged police detective begins to think so too. But is Slick Rawley really dead? And if he is, how can Dr. Blake be held responsible for his crimes?

Comments: It’s been a while since we’ve seen this interesting little programmer — more than a year, in fact — and its return is welcome. It’s basically a crime movie with a science fiction spin; but really, the science is just an excuse to set in motion a little thought experiment about moral culpability. Dr. Blake is clearly a better man than Slick Rawley was. He has no memory of Slick Rawley’s life. How then can he be held responsible for Slick Rawley’s crimes?

The movie has already made up its mind on this count, but it’s still an engaging film, helped enormously by Ralph Bellamy’s double role and the presence of Ward Bond as a former boxer who wins back a little dignity by going straight.

If you set aside the mountain of coincidences demanded by the plot (Slick Rawley, with the police in hot pursuit, just happens to hide out in a college lecture hall where a professor just happens to explain in layman’s terms his theory about how criminals can be cured and then just happens to openly lament that the courts won’t let him test his cure on humans) the movie works quite well, and we empathize with Dr. Blake for the predicament he finds himself in through no fault of his own.

It seems foolish to say that Ralph Bellamy is an actor I hold in high esteem, because almost anyone else would say the same thing. He was immensely likable and had a remarkably durable career. In the 1930s and 40s he often played the lead role in B-pictures, as he does here; in A-pictures he had an affable manner that made him a natural pick for the leading man’s best friend or the jilted suitor — the guy who was pleasant but a little dull. As time went on he pivoted to character parts and he worked steadily through the 1980s, usually playing doctors, attorneys or businessmen.

Marian Marsh, whom we’ve seen in Svengali and The Black Room, appears as Janet Haydon, but she isn’t as memorable here as she was in those other films. It’s a rather thankless part. Marsh had a great look about her, though, and she’s always delightful to see. She was quite busy through the 1930s, though her career didn’t last much beyond that. Ward Bond had a lot more staying power; he would play Tom Polhaus in The Maltese Falcon, Bert in It’s a Wonderful Life and was a regular on the Wagon Train TV series in the 1950s.

Isabel Jewell played the brassy, gum-chewing Peggy, and she specialized in just this sort of role: she was invariably cast as the tough girl from the wrong side of the tracks, or the hooker, or the gangster’s moll. Her career in playing low-rent characters was still on the upswing. The following year she would play dying prostitute Gloria in Lost Horizon, and Emmy Slattery in Gone With the Wind in 1939.

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