Saturday, November 24, 1973: The Crimson Canary (1945) / The Phantom of Crestwood (1932)

Synopsis: Danny Brooks (Noah Beery, Jr.) plays the trumpet with a jazz band that tours steadily but is still looking for its big break. Singer and manipulative goodtime girl Anita Lane (Claudia Drake) has been trying to worm her way into the band, but Danny tells her she’s been sowing dissension between the guys — implying that she’s been sleeping with more than one of them — and is not welcome. Anita then tells him that she and drummer Johnny (Danny Morton) are engaged. Danny insists that he won’t allow her to travel with the band, regardless of who she is or isn’t engaged to. She replies that she might call Danny’s girlfriend Jean (Lois Collier) and tell her some old “bedtime stories” about her and Danny. Angry, Danny walks out. As a result of this snub, Anita gives Johnny the cold shoulder, which greatly upsets him. Johnny goes to the bar at the club and begins drinking heavily.

During their set at the club, Danny’s trumpet gets a stuck valve, and he goes to the back room to get a replacement. He resumes playing, but Johnny is soon so drunk he can’t carry on, and staggers off to the back room by himself.

When the band finishes their set, they find Johnny unconscious in the back room, and Anita dead a few feet away, bludgeoned to death by Danny’s trumpet. Unsure of what to do, the band decides to leave immediately for their next tour date and pretend they never saw the body.

A jazz-loving homicide detective (John Litel) is assigned to the case, and he immediately suspects that Danny’s band was involved. The band finds their tour dates have been preemptively cancelled. Johnny decides to turn himself in to the authorities, but Danny argues that someone at the club that night committed the murder and is trying to let Johnny take the fall. He also believes that he knows how to prove that no one in the band was the guilty party….

Comments: Universal’s ambivalence about The Crimson Canary’s subject matter is plain to see on the poster: below the lurid promise of “Rhythm Cults Exposed!” is a blandishment for jazz stars Coleman Hawkins and Oscar Pettiford, as well as guitarist Josh White, all of whom are featured in musical numbers during the film.

Big band and swing had been the popular music forms of the war years, but now that the war was over things were changing. Small groups were in fashion, and they were playing new styles of jazz. Bebop was a more challenging, less accessible form of music, pioneered by Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and others. Jump blues borrowed riffs and hooks from the traditional blues. These forms of jazz were fast-paced and full of nervous energy, well-suited to a nation that was eager to move on after the war years.

The establishment wasn’t ready for these new styles of jazz, just as it wouldn’t be ready for rock n’ roll a decade later. The provocative rhythms and the permissive lifestyles of those who partook in them were seen as suspect. Like rock n’ roll, the racial makeup of the trend-setting artists were problematic as well.

“Race records”, as they were called, had limited appeal to white audiences, and for that reason the black faces delivering the new sound would inevitably be pushed aside by the record companies in favor of white ones. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that in The Crimson Canary Danny Brooks and his jazz musician friends are all white — in fact, we never see any black musicians or patrons in the club they work at. It is only in later scenes, when they are on the lam and stop at a jazz club in a different city, that they watch the performances of the black jazz musicians promoted on the movie poster. But these scenes are carefully quarantined from the movie’s plot, presumably so they could be excised from prints playing in the American south — a frequent practice at the time.

The jazz performances from Coleman Hawkins, Oscar Pettiford and Josh White are decent, though not of stellar quality; but their music is much better than that recorded for Danny’s band. While I don’t know much about jazz, these numbers aren’t really bebop, sounding more like Dixieland. In any case, it isn’t great music, and the actors don’t try very hard to synch their fingering with the music, presuming they tried at all.

As to the plot — well, Danny’s crew runs from the scene of the crime and then wanders around, wondering what to do. They sneak up to the hotel room of the detective who’s been assigned to the case (Johnny is going to confess) but hear through the door the sound of the very number they recorded live the night of the murder. This gives Danny an idea that the record they made can exonerate them, but their plan comes to nothing when Danny drops the record and breaks it.

There’s a lot of this sort of running around to little effect, and it’s apparently meant to eat up time. It’s not much of a mystery, as it turns out, but Noah Beery, Jr., whom we last saw in the similarly-titled The Cat Creeps, is quite likable as Danny. This is a rare starring role for him, and he makes the most of it, playing Danny as a guy whose first love has always been music, and who never quite grew up.

Lois Collier also appeared in The Cat Creeps (her seductive pout in the posters of both movies looks quite similar, in fact) and she isn’t any more memorable here than she was in that film.

Claudia Drake is convincing enough as a lure for the guys in Danny’s band, but her obsession with them doesn’t make sense. Why would a relatively sophisticated woman work so hard to worm her way into the good graces of a struggling bunch of jazz musicians? Why not seduce some successful artists instead?

Well, I don’t know much about music, and even less about love. But I do know a little about horror films, and this barely qualifies; but it’s passable fare, and I imagine that those who tuned in to Horror Incorporated on that November night so many years ago were pretty happy with what they saw.

The Phantom of Crestwood

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.

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