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The Crime of Doctor Crespi  /  The Drums of Jeopardy

The Crime of Doctor Crespi (1935)
March 22, 2015 - 3:00 pm
Scott MacQueen, head of preservation, UCLA Film & Television Archive

Restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding provided by The Packard Humanities Institute

The Crime of Doctor Crespi  (1935)

As a travesty of Edgar Allan Poe, The Crime of Doctor Crespi occupies a certain niche between Universal’s earlier literary deviancies (The Black Cat, 1934; The Raven, 1935) and American International’s abundant market-driven liberties in the 1960s (House of Usher, 1960; The Conqueror Worm, 1968 et al).  Summarily dismissed by Winfield Sheehan while directing Walking Down Broadway at Fox in 1933, Erich von Stroheim was forced to subsist by cadging pennies on Poverty Row in thankless roles for Monogram and Invincible.  Hungarian émigré John H. Auer summoned him to New York for The Crime of Doctor Crespi, a ragtag riff on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Premature Burial,” filmed on a shoestring in the Bronx.   It’s plot shares sexual peccadilloes with two superior horror pictures released in July, ahead of Crespi’s October bow.  Eschewing the heady romanticism of Bela Lugosi’s Dr. Vollin in The Raven and the Krafft-Ebing aspect of Peter Lorre’s Dr. Gogol in Mad Love (1935), von Stroheim’s equally ruthless mad doctor appears superficially more practical.  Likewise motivated by sexual desire, Crespi removes obstacles to his carnal objectives with brutal determination, savoring the sadistic destruction of his rival while offering sly solace to the conquered wife.

Independently produced by director Auer, it was the first film to be released under the Republic Pictures brand and Auer would remain with Republic right up to the company’s demise in the 1950s.  With von Stroheim’s megalomaniacal surgeon indulging his audience persona as “The Man You Love to Hate,” Crespi also accommodates homage high and low.  It rekindles the grotesqueries of The Wedding March (1928) and nods to Carl Th. Dreyer and Universal monster movies with a Vampyr-inspired cemetery trek and the casting of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) sidekick Dwight Frye as an unorthodox hero.  An unprepossessing actress named Jeanne Kelly has a forgettable bit role as the desk nurse; who would guess that, rechristened Jean Brooks, she would make an indelible impression as Jacqueline, the doomed devil-worshipper of Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim (1943)?  —Scott MacQueen

Director:  John H. Auer.  Production: JAH Productions, Liberty Pictures Corp.  Distribution: Republic Pictures Corp.  Producer: John H. Auer.  Screenwriters: Lewis Graham, Edwin Olmstead, John H. Auer.  Based on the short story “The Premature Burial” by Edgar Allan Poe.  Cinematographer: Larry Williams.  Art Direction: William Sualter.  Editor: Leonard Wheeler.  Cast: Erich von Stroheim, Harriet Russell, Dwight Frye, Paul Guilfoyle, John Bohn.  35mm, b/w, 63 min.

Restored from the incomplete original nitrate picture and track negatives, reels of a 35mm nitrate French dupe negative, reels of a 35mm acetate fine grain master and an original 16mm reduction print.  Laboratory services by The Stanford Theatre Film Laboratory, Audio Mechanics, DJ Audio, Simon Daniel Sound.  Special thanks to: David Shepard—Film Preservation Associates, Inc.; Academy Film Archive; Greg Luce—Sinister Cinema.

Restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding provided by The Packard Humanities Institute

The Drums of Jeopardy  (1931)

The Drums of Jeopardy is the best Fu Manchu movie Warner Oland never made.  No sooner had Oland finished playing Dr. Fu Manchu in two pictures for Paramount than little Tiffany Pictures grabbed him along with Fu Manchu scenarist Florence Ryerson and set them about a new rendering of Harold MacGrath’s venerable melodrama The Drums of Jeopardy, previously filmed with Wallace Beery in 1923.

In the Paramount films Oland was a brilliant Chinese doctor who vows to destroy the entire Petrie family when his wife and child are killed in the Boxer Rebellion; here, as the brilliant Slavic chemist Dr. Boris Karlov, he vows to exterminate the Petroffs, a family of White Russians whose black sheep son is responsible for the compromise and death of his daughter.  The formula is adhered to precisely, handsomely produced by Phil Goldstone and directed by George Seitz (an old hand at Pearl White serials and later factotum of the Andy Hardy features for MGM).

The Drums of Jeopardy is a final showcase for Oland’s ethnic diversity before Charlie Chan would claim him forever.  Karlov’s rabid Bolshevik leanings are limned by a gleeful sadism (awaiting torture, a stoic Petroff assures Karlov that he will make no outburst while Karlov cheerfully admonishes him, “But I want you to cry out!”).  Oland’s nemesis is Clara Blandick, the heroine’s bulldog spinster aunt, and seeing Auntie Em spar with and hold her own against Dr. Fu Manchu is worth the price of admission alone.

Tiffany productions are an especially endangered species.  Reissued as The Mark of Terror then sold briefly to early television, The Drums of Jeopardy film elements eventually deteriorated to the brink of total extinction.  The restoration has been serendipitously cobbled together from six different sources.  —Scott MacQueen

Production: Tiffany Productions, Inc.  Distribution: Tiffany Productions, Inc.  Producer: Phil Goldstone.  Director: George B. Seitz.  Screenwriter: Florence Ryerson.  Based on the novel The Drums of Jeopardy by Harold McGrath.  Cinematographer: Arthur Reed.  Art Direction: Fay Babcock.  Editor: Otto Ludwig.  Cast: Warner Oland, June Collyer, Lloyd Hughes, Clara Blandick, Mischa Auer.  35mm, b/w, 65 min.

Restored from two reels of the original nitrate picture and track negatives, two reels of 35mm nitrate composite print and three original 16mm reduction prints.  Laboratory services by The Stanford Theatre Film Laboratory, Audio Mechanics, DJ Audio, Simon Daniel Sound.  Special thanks to: Greg Luce—Sinister Cinema; Karl Thiede; Rita Belda—Sony Pictures Corporation; the Library of Congress; The British Film Institute.