Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Crime Club Mystery Films from Universal in the 1930s

In the late 1930s, Universal made a deal with book publisher Doubleday to use the publisher's The Crime Club imprint for a series of 8 Crime Club mystery films. The history of this series has been misreported in various sources, including the AFI Catalog of Thirties films, with 10, and sometimes 11 films attributed.

Each film was based on a popular mystery novel that had been published in hardcover under Doubleday's Crime Club imprint. You could buy Crime Club books at bookstores or get them in the mail as a subscriber. Beginning in 1928, Crime Club released four books per month. One book each month was designated the "Crime Club Selection," and that book was automatically sent to subscribers, just like the Book of the Month club.

Danger on the AirNumerous Crime Club books were made into movies before the Universal series: Murder by the Clock (1931 Paramount), The Mystery of Mr. X (1934 MGM), and While the Patient Slept (1935 Warner Brothers) were all adapted from best-selling Crime Club novels. The '30s novels of  The Saint were all published by Crime Club, as were many Bulldog Drummond and Fu Manchu novels, and obviously all of those characters had multiple screen appearences.

Reportedly, Universal licensed the rights to the novels but farmed out production of the movies to Starr, who brought them in on a cost-plus basis and was given access to Universal's salaried technicians and contract players, to keep production costs down. The series was produced by Irving Starr (with an uncredited assist from Matty Fox) under the auspices of Crime Club Productions, Inc., releasing through Universal.

There were eight films in the Universal Pictures series of The Crime Club, four released in the 1937-38 season and four in the 1938-39 season. In order of release they were:
  • 1937 The Westlake Case (based on Jonathan Latimer's "Headed for a Hearse")
  • 1938 The Black Doll (based on William Edward Hayes novel of same title)
  • 1938 The Lady in the Morgue  (based on Jonathan Latimer's novel of same title)
  • 1938 Danger on the Air (based on "Xantippe" novel, "Death Catches Up with Mr. Kluck")
  • 1938 The Last Express  (based on the Baynard Kendrick novel of same title)
  • 1938 The Last Warning (based on Latimer's "The Dead Don't Care")
  • 1939 The Mystery of the White Room (based on James G. Edwards' "Murder in the Surgery")
  • 1939 The Witness Vanishes (based on James Ronald's "They Can't Hang Me")

The four 1937-38 pictures were later reissued theatrically by Walter Futter through Astor Pictures. They were also made available to 16mm rental libraries beginning in 1948. On these four there must have been a financial arrangement similar to that of the first six Hopalong Cassidy pictures, which were financed independently and later sold off separate from the later films produced with Paramount money. It's thought that Matty Fox owned the controlling interest in the first four Crime Clubs, and that he made the deal with Futter.

The second group of four remained under Universal control. Most likely they were financed directly by Universal, with Irving Starr producing for a straight salary. When M-G-M bought rights to Baynard Kendrick's novels featuring blind detective Duncan Maclain (two of which the studio made into "B" movies starring Edward Arnold), they got The Last Express too -- which is why that film has not been seen since its original theatrical release.

Three of the Universal Crime Club films, The Last Warning, The Mystery of the White Room, and The Witness Vanishes, were packaged for TV as Shock! by Screen Gems, who syndicated Universal films until MCA took over.

The following films are generally confused for Crime Club pictures because they, too, were produced by Irving Starr for Universal release in the same basic time period. But they were not based on Crime Club novels and don't belong to the series.

1938 The Gambling Ship
1939 Inside Information
1939 House of Fear

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