Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Tonight's Movies: The Westland Case (1937) and The Lady in the Morgue (1938)

Preston Foster stars as Detective Bill Crane in THE WESTLAND CASE (1937) and THE LADY IN THE MORGUE (1938).

These are the first two of a trio of Bill Crane "B" mysteries released by Universal. The series, which concluded with THE LAST WARNING (1938), was based on novels by Jonathan Latimer.

The Crane mysteries were part of a larger Universal mystery series known as "Crime Club" films. For additional background, please visit The Crime Club website.

The first film, THE WESTLAND CASE, was directed by Christy Cabanne and filmed by Ira Morgan.

Foster's Bill Crane is a perpetually sleepy, hard-drinking fellow who sometimes wakes up sufficiently to solve a crime. He's aided in that endeavor by his pal Doc Williams (Frank Jenks).

In this case he's got to solve the murder of a woman found in a locked room in order to free a man from a death row sentence.

Unfortunately this 62-minute movie was like a vapor, present for a while but then vanished, not leaving much of anything behind. My chief impressions: 1) Preston Foster doesn't have his typical mustache. 2) Ward Bond plays a death row inmate. 3) This continued my recent Selmer Jackson Film Festival; Jackson plays the prison warden.

The supporting cast includes Carol Hughes, Astrid Allwyn, and Barbara Pepper. Thomas E. Jackson plays a police detective, which he reprises in the next title.

I'd read that THE WESTLAND CASE was the weakest of the trilogy; it was hard to imagine a mystery could be more dull so I quickly moved on to THE LADY IN THE MORGUE which was, indeed, better -- though still nothing particularly notable.

Otis Garrett directs this 67-minute film with much more energy than the previous movie, utilizing interesting editing to help move the story, and it was filmed by the great Stanley Cortez.

Bill Crane (Foster) is called in when a young woman's body disappears from the city morgue. The dead woman was possibly involved with a couple different gangsters, and she's also got well-off young Chauncey Courtland (Gordon "Wild Bill" Elliott) inquiring after her whereabouts.

The plot is rather convoluted but I found it a better watch than the first film, not least because I enjoyed watching the young Elliott. Patricia Ellis, Barbara Pepper, Roland Drew, and Morgan Wallace costar.

I've found "treasure hunting" among Foster's more obscure titles to be a lot of fun. Some of his lesser-known films, like DOUBLE DANGER (1938), NIGHT IN NEW ORLEANS (1942), or TWICE BLESSED (1945), provide very enjoyable entertainment. Other titles, such as the Crime Club films reviewed here, leave something to be desired. Making discoveries and finding the "good stuff" makes wading through the disappointing films worthwhile for me, and even the lesser films usually have reasons to watch, such as seeing Bill Elliott in a good-sized role before he was a cowboy star.

I'll be reviewing the final movie in the Bill Crane trilogy, THE LAST WARNING (1938), at a future date.

Like so many Universal films of the era, these movies aren't easily available to viewers, who must settle for poor YouTube or public domain type prints. These might not be the most scintillating films ever released by Universal Pictures, but they're part of our national film heritage and, like so many other films, should be more easily available to viewers.

A Preston Foster postscript: In my 2015 tribute to Foster, I wrote that he was one of the first people to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, as part of an initial demonstration project which began in 1958.

Here are two photos I took on Hollywood Boulevard earlier this month. The first, at Hollywood and Highland, commemorates the location of the demo project and lists his name:

And here is his permanent star:

It's interesting to note that Foster's star is for TV, rather than film; as far as I can find, it's his only star on the Walk of Fame. Foster's longest-running TV work was starring on WATERFRONT from 1954-55. While he did other TV work, including the short-lived GUNSLINGER (1961), his main claim to fame is unquestionably his film career. It would be interesting to know how he ended up with a TV set rather than a movie camera on his star!


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