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Crane Wilbur Pondering the Potentate of Prison Pictures


                                       Crane          Pond s, from
                                                             ring The Pe urals
                                                                                  f Pri e to
                                                                           ntat Paulin
                                                                    e Po rils of

                                                     Pictur     Police        ker
                                                                                        t    Wal

                                       n 1914, Pathé’s 20-chapter The Perils of Pauline gave birth to the cinematic

                               I       serial while making a star out of its heroine, Pearl White. Pauline director
                                       Louis J. Gasnier enjoyed a lengthy career as a Hollywood journeyman, high-
                                       lighted on the backside with the “Potsploitation” quickie Tell Your Children,
                                       aka Reefer Madness (1938). Paul Panzer, Pauline’s hissable villain, continued
                               as a silent film nemesis, and later as a Hollywood bit player (including roles as a bus

50   noir citY i SPrinG 2011 i
                                                                       adapted The Last Mile [1932]), Brown Holmes (I Am a Fugitive
                                                                       From a Chain Gang [1932], 20,000 Years in Sing Sing [1933], La-
                                                                       dies They Talk About [1933]), Richard Brooks (Brute Force [1947])
                                                                       and Virginia Kellogg (Caged [1950]). However, none of them pro-
                                                                       duced the volume of prison pictures, nor put in the personal up-the-
                                                                       river legwork, as did Crane Wilbur—who is deserving of his place as
                                                                       the true Shakespeare of the Slammer, the Hemingway of the Hoose-
                                                                       gow, the Joyce of the Joint, or (at the very least) the (Erle Stanley)
                                                                       Gardner of the Greybar Hotel.
                                                                          It was the Wilbur-written and -directed Inside the Walls of Fol-
                                                                       som Prison which, when screened at an Air Force base in West Ger-
                                                                       many in 1952, had a profound impact on a 20-year-old Arkansas-
                                                                       born Morse code intercept officer named J. R. Cash. Inspired by
                                                                       the movie, Johnny Cash penned what became an immortal country
                                                                       song, “Folsom Prison Blues.” Sixteen years later, Cash recorded a
                                                                       hit album live at the same Northern California prison depicted in
                                                                       Crane Wilbur’s film.
                                                                          But Crane Wilbur was about more than just prison movies. In
                                                                       fact, his best contributions to crime cinema, as a screenwriter, may
                                                                       be three films set on the “outside:” He Walked by Night, Crime
                                                                       Wave, and The Phenix City Story. In addition, Wilbur also wrote
                                                                       House of Wax, which transformed Vincent Price from a supercil-
                                                                       ious cad into a horror movie star. Assessing Crane Wilbur’s degree
                                                                       of artistry and precise contributions to his films is difficult, since
                                                                       the majority of his work from the mid-1930s forward was made in
                                                                       tandem with producer Bryan Foy. However, Hollywood’s “golden
                                                                       age” was, more than anything else, an era of collaborating crafts-
                                                                       men—and Foy and Wilbur worked together as well as any producer
                                                                       and writer (and sometimes director) ever did.

                                                                       Theatrical Roots
                                                                            Erwin Crane Wilber (he changed the spelling later) was born No-
                                                                       vember 17, 1886, in Athens, New York—a small farming community
                                                                       on the western banks of the Hudson River about 30 miles south of
                                                                       Albany. His father Henry Wilber made his living building and repair-
                                                                       ing yachts for the well-to-do families who resided in tony mansions
                                                                       along the banks of the Hudson. Crane’s mother Carrie Crane was a
                                                                       former actress who came from a theatrical family. Crane’s aunt was
passenger in Dark Passage and a merry-go-round bystander in Strang-    stage actress Edith Crane, wife of the well-known actor Tyrone Power,
ers on a Train).                                                       Sr. (Edith indirectly contributed to noir by dying prematurely in 1912,
    Far more interesting, however, was the unorthodox career path      which led her husband to remarry and produce a son by his second
taken by the man who played Harry Marvin, the stalwart hero in         wife. Tyrone Power, Jr.’s later success as a Fox box office star enabled
The Perils of Pauline—Crane Wilbur. As he rescued Pearl White each     him to make a vanity piece entitled Nightmare Alley.)
week from one dangerous predicament after another, Wilbur could            At age six, Crane experienced the first of several personal traumas
scarcely have imagined that his labyrinthine career would one day      when his father Henry committed suicide by hanging. Wilbur later
see him reap a reputation as Hollywood’s potentate of prison mov-      recalled that the conservative farming community never looked at his
ies. Yet, over a 25 year period, Crane Wilbur wrote no less than a     family—already under suspicion because of their theatrical connec-
dozen movies all or partially set in the Big House (five of which he   tions—the same way again. Crane made his stage debut as an actor
also directed): Alcatraz Island (1937), Over the Wall (1938), Crime    in 1902, and steadily progressed into larger and larger parts. Despite
School (1938), Blackwell’s Island (1939), Hell’s Kitchen (1939),       this, Wilbur always had more passion for writing than acting.
Roger Touhy, Gangster (1944), Cañon City (1948), The Story of              Wilbur wrote his first play at age 15 or 16. It was called Willie
Molly X (1949), Outside the Wall (1950), Inside the Walls of Fol-      Live, and told of a young man who investigates a gang of grave rob-
som Prison (1951), Women’s Prison (1955), and House of Women           bers who are stealing bodies at night and ferrying them to their hide-
(1962), along with several others dealing with parole and probation.   out, where the cadavers are rolled from a truck down a coal chute.
    Other writers soared to arguably more exalted heights with mov-    The hero takes the place of one of the corpses. He then tumbles
ies set behind bars: among them Frances Marion (The Big House          down the chute and is accosted by the thieves, who demand his iden-
[1930], Academy Award winner for Best Adapted Screenplay), Se-         tity. “I am Willie Live!” comes the reply. Though he produced better
ton I. Miller (Oscar-nominated for The Criminal Code [1931], also      works in later years, it is obvious that the teenage Crane Wilbur

                                                                                  i SPrinG 2011 i noir citY   51
In only his third movie, 26-year-old John Garfield starred in Blackwell’s Island (Warner Bros.,1939), from a story and screenplay by Crane Wilbur

already had both a taste for the macabre and an interest in the inner                  productions—which he soon began writing and directing, as well.
workings and methodology of criminal organizations.                                    However, still less than sanguine about his own acting skills—and
    While the 20-something Wilbur acted on Broadway and in stock,                      about motion pictures in general—Wilbur relocated to Oakland,
he also continued to hone his writing craft. A 1909 review of Wilbur’s                 California, in 1918, to operate his own theater and set up a film
musical-comedy-drama Fritz the Wandering Musician said the four-act                    studio. During this period he experienced more personal pain. His
play by the “rising young playwright,” was “…clean, clever and bright,                 22-year-old second wife, Arleene Archibald, died in 1916, and three
and holds the interest of the audience from the rise of the curtain until              years later his infant son (by third wife Florence Dunbar) suffocated
its final fall on the last act.” However, it was as an actor, not a writer,            in his sleep. Fleeing the devastation, Crane Wilbur abandoned film-
that the handsome Crane Wilbur made his motion picture debut in the                    making in 1920 and relocated to New York, to again work as a stage
summer of 1911, with the American Pathé company of New Jersey. Wil-                    actor and playwright.
bur soon proved a capable leading man, although he claimed to never
be that impressed with his own acting skills. At Pathé, Wilbur teamed                  The Mysteries Begin
up with actress Pearl White for a number of short films prior to their                    Wilbur’s first Broadway offering as a playwright, 1920’s The
breakthrough with The Perils of Pauline, which put Wilbur briefly into                 Ouija Board, was a murder mystery set against the backdrop of
the realm of top mid-teens leading men. For his part as hero in a series of            bunko spiritual mediums. Though only a modest success, it paved
death-defying escapes (and hands-on work with live rattlesnakes, lions                 the way for a 1922 Wilbur-penned follow-up called The Monster,
and rats), Wilbur made about $125 per week—a decent salary for 1914,                   which featured a mix of humor, mystery, and horror. Set in an insane
if not on Chaplin or Pickford levels.                                                  asylum, The Monster ran for over 100 performances, and was op-
    In 1915, the Lubin company of Philadelphia lured Crane Wilbur                      tioned by producer-director Roland West for a 1925 movie version
away from Pathé to make the serial The Road of Strife. Later that                      starring Lon Chaney.
same year, Wilbur headed west to California to work at David Hors-                        Through the rest of the ’20s, Wilbur continued on Broadway, bal-
ley’s Centaur studios, where in 1916 he began making feature-length                    ancing acting with the production of his plays, such as the comedy

52      noir citY i SPrinG 2011 i
                                                                                            lice procedurals. After all, for a future writer of crime docudramas, could
                                                                                            there have be a better opportunity to experience the look and feel of a
                                                                                            successful syndicate (without being either a criminal or an undercover
                                                                                            cop) than by performing in the headquarters of the Chicago Outfit? Para-
                                                                                            mount made a 1938 film version of On the Spot retitled Dangerous to
                                                                                            Know, with Anna May Wong reprising her role, but with Akim Tamiroff
                                                                                            in place of Wilbur (and the character’s Italian ancestry de-emphasized).
                                                                                            Though he wasn’t the original writer, Wilbur later developed a treatment
                                                                                            for an unsold television series based on the Wallace play.
                                                                                                For the next several years, Wilbur stuck to Broadway as an actor and
                                                                                            playwright (with three of his plays, Border-Land, Halfway to Hell, and
                                                                                            Are You Decent?, produced during 1932–34). Then, in 1934, Wilbur’s
                                                                                            agent Ivan Kohn arranged a meeting with the man who would become
                                                                                            the single most important person in Wilbur’s professional life: Bryan Foy.

                                                                                            Collaborators in Crime
                                                                                                Ten years younger than Wilbur, Bryan Foy came from a similar
                                                                                            theatrical pedigree. He was the oldest of seven children who had
                                                                                            famously appeared on vaudeville in their comedian father’s act—
                                                                                            known collectively as Eddie Foy and the Seven Little Foys. “Brynie”
                                                                                            entered motion pictures in the 1920s as a writer. Joining Warner
                                                                                            Brothers, Foy produced and directed the studio’s first all-talking film
                                                                                            The Lights of New York in 1928. Though primitive and creaky by
                                                                                            today’s standards, Foy’s film gave movie audiences their first aural
                                                                                            dose of what a movie gangster sounded like, including a line of dia-
                                                                                            logue that would become one of the most frequently repeated gang-
                                                                                            ster movie clichés of all time: “Take him for—a ride.”
                                                                                                By 1934, Foy had departed Warners and established Bryan Foy
Wilbur provided the story and screenplay for this pairing of Bogart and the Dead End Kids   Productions. That year, Foy put Crane Wilbur back in the director’s
                                                                                            chair (for the first time since 1917) on two films written by the pro-
Easy Terms (1925) and the musical The Song Writer (1928), featur-                           vocative African American novelist (and Harlem Renaissance figure)
ing Wilbur’s soon-to-be fifth wife Beatrice Blinn (later an actress in Three                Wallace Thurman, though all-Caucasian casts were featured. The first
Stooges two-reelers). In 1930, the prestigious MGM studios—transition-                      was called Tomorrow’s Children (year1934), concerning the highly-
ing to the new medium of talking pictures—hired Crane to write a dia-                       charged subject of forced sterilization. Thurman also covered another
logue continuity script for the musical Lord Byron of Broadway, and to                      hot-button issue—teenage pregnancy—in the second, High School
polish the adaptation of his own play The Song Writer (being produced                       Girl (year1934). Wilbur also acted in both, and co-wrote the screen-
as Children of Pleasure). These two films were the first screen credits for                 play for Tomorrow’s Children. Over the next three years, Wilbur plied
writer “Crane Wilbur” in 13 years. There was no small irony in the fact                     his trade as a triple threat director-writer-actor on Poverty Row, mak-
that an actor who, in the silent era, had helped create some of the most                    ing films that ranged from melodramas about human smuggling (Yel-
iconic hand-wringing melodrama clichés (courtesy the influential The                        low Cargo [1936]) to musicals (The Devil on Horseback [year1936]).
Perils of Pauline) was now a hoity-toity Broadway hired-gun, summoned                           Bryan Foy returned to Warner Bros. in 1937, as production chief
to the coast to script sophisticated dialogue for Hollywood.                                of the studio’s B picture unit, and quickly summoned Crane Wilbur
    In the fall of 1930, Wilbur returned to Broadway as the star of                         to join his staff as a writer. Wilbur gladly left his acting career behind
Edgar Wallace’s play On the Spot—a thin-veined melodrama based                              forever. Wilbur also directed a series of short subjects (many of them
on America’s number one gangster, Al Capone. Wilbur played a Scar-                          in Technicolor) depicting important moments in American history.
face-doppelganger named Tony Perrelli, with Anna May Wong—an-                               These films included The Man Without a Country (1937), nominated
other former silent star—as Perrelli’s Chinese mistress. The play was                       for a Best Two-Reel Short Subject Academy Award, and The Dec-
a hit in New York, and Wilbur, Wong, and company next headed to                             laration of Independence (1938), which won an Oscar in the same
Capone’s own home turf, Chicago. After opening in the Windy City,                           category the following year.
Crane Wilbur recalled that Scarface himself requested a command                                 In 1937, Wilbur also wrote the feature that forever typed him as a
performance at Capone headquarters. As Wilbur later told it:                                prison expert: Alcatraz Island. It was a modest production, shot entirely
    There must have been forty or fifty gangsters there at the time.                        at the Warners’ studio by B unit director William McGann. The plot,
Capone said, “These are nice boys.” I said, “I know they are, but I                         concerning a society racketeer (John Litel) who ends up on “the Rock”
didn’t even think of it.” However, I did the whole play for them. I                         after an income tax evasion rap, shows the obvious headline influence of
played all of the parts. I told them scene by scene what was happen-                        the man for whom Crane Wilbur once gave a command performance—
ing. I never had such an audience.                                                          Al Capone. Bryan Foy recalled that this film was the one that started his
    In retrospect, Wilbur’s meeting with Capone and his gang was em-                        and Wilbur’s cycle of prison movies, largely due to its box office success.
blematic of the research Crane would soon be doing as a purveyor of po-                     “It was what we call a ‘sleeper,’” said Foy in 1951, “and it made a lot of

                                                                                                        i SPrinG 2011 i noir citY   53
money so I was always looking for another one like that.” Months later      Roger Touhy. Framed by rival Al Capone for a kidnapping he didn’t
in 1938, Foy produced two more prison films: Over the Wall and Crime        commit, Touhy has been sent to Illinois’ Stateville Prison in Joliet.
School, followed by a second pair in 1939: Blackwell’s Island and Hell’s    On October 9, 1942, Touhy and several other inmates staged a pris-
Kitchen. Crane Wilbur had a hand in all the screenplays.                    on break, which made headlines and spurred Bryan Foy to action.
    Wilbur had a reputation as a fast-worker, which is probably why         Foy secured the cooperation of the Governor of Illinois to restage the
Foy employed him for so many years. He was meticulous in his                jailbreak at the spots where it took place, with a few prison guards
preparation and research, particularly on subjects with a non-fiction       playing the escaped convicts—while the real prisoners were on full
bent. However, once it was time to write, Wilbur got down to busi-          lock-down. The resulting film, Roger Touhy, Gangster, was released
ness and got the job done, never brooding over the work. He once            in 1944 with Preston Foster in the lead. It also included an epilogue
explained his writing modus operandi:                                       with Stateville warden Joseph E. Ragen explaining the effectiveness
    “I write it in my mind first. The idea comes to me. Perhaps it          of solitary confinement. Touhy sued Fox for defamation of charac-
will be one situation that will suggest something exciting. It will be      ter, and later won a five-figure judgment. During this period, Crane
something attractive, different. I build from that. But, I don’t write      Wilbur returned to Warner Bros. to direct several wartime patriotic
anything for myself at all. It’s all in the head. I don’t write the story   shorts. One of them, I Won’t Play (1944) starring Dane Clark, won
as a story. I write it as a script, as a thing that is ready to shoot.”     another Academy Award for Best Two-Reel Short Subject. Wilbur
    Wilbur temporarily left films in 1941 for another medium—               also directed the short It Happened in Springfield (1945), a thought-
radio—to write and produce episodes of the CBS dramatic program             ful look at classroom racial integration in a Massachusetts town.
“Big Town,” starring Edward G. Robinson as a crime-fighting news-
paper editor. Wilbur was good company: among the program’s other            The Height of Noir
writers were Daniel Mainwaring and Maxwell Shane.                              After directing and writing one of the earliest films (if not the
    In 1942, Wilbur rejoined Bryan Foy (now ensconced at 20th Cen-          earliest) to take on the new postwar “menace” of hot rodding, The
tury–Fox) to begin work on a biopic about Irish Chicago gangster            Devil on Wheels (1947), Wilbur again rejoined the peripatetic Foy,

54     noir citY i SPrinG 2011 i
Richard Basehart in He Walked by Night                                Con June havoc surrenders to the law (Charles McGraw) in Molly X

who’d left his post as Eagle-Lion’s head of production (T-Men and     and the Foy-Wilbur and Mann-Higgins teams, there was also “ad-
Raw Deal were made on his watch) to form a new independent pro-       ditional dialogue” by Harry Essex (Kansas City Confidential). Essex
duction company. Wilbur and Foy’s next collaboration was yet an-      also wrote the 1954 feature version of the radio/TV program that
other topical movie about a prison break. On December 30, 1947,       took procedurals to a new level—Jack Webb’s Dragnet. And Webb
12 prisoners escaped from the Colorado State Prison and terrorized    has said that he got the idea to create his famous show from his ex-
the countryside. Exactly six months later, on June 30, 1948, Cañon    perience on He Walked By Night, where he played a police chemist.
City was released. Bryan Foy had actually met Colorado State Prison   One wonders how much influence Crane Wilbur’s commitment to
warden Roy Best when he was making Roger Touhy, Gangster, and         “the facts” had on Jack Webb.
called in a favor from Best that allowed him to shoot the film at         In 1949, Wilbur temporarily parted ways with Bryan Foy to di-
the prison before the escapees were even rounded up (Best ended       rect and write two films for producer Aaron Rosenberg at Universal-
up playing himself in the movie). Crane                                                              International. The first was one of Wil-
Wilbur headed to Cañon City in full                                                                  bur’s more interesting projects, and it
journo mode, getting every inch of the                                                               may be his best work as a director. The
story down on paper. “I spent a lot of                                                               Story of Molly X is, on the surface, a
time there,” Wilbur later said. “I knew                                                              women’s prison procedural, set at the
practically every one of those inmates,                                                              California Institute for Women in Te-
even the warden’s dogs.”                                                                             hachapi. However, the film is chiefly
    The success of Cañon City firmly                                                                 the study of the rehabilitation of one
established Wilbur and Foy as major                                                                  female criminal, played masterfully by
players in the new trend of crime pro-                                                               June Havoc. Unlike most women-in-
cedurals. Their next effort in that vein                                                             prison films, the protagonist is neither
was one of the best—He Walked By                                                                     a naïve innocent jailed by mistake, nor
Night (1949). (Not coincidentally, the                                                               a girl starting on the wrong path who
quality of both films was heightened by                                                              gets imprisoned on a penny-ante shop-
the contribution of another fast-work-                                                               lifting charge. Molly X is a seasoned
ing collaborator, cinematographer John                                                               criminal who takes over as leader of
Alton.) This time Wilbur wrote the sto-                                                              her husband’s heist gang after he’s
ry, and collaborated with John C. Hig-                                                               murdered. When she discovers that her
gins on the screenplay. Higgins had au-                                                              husband’s killer was a member of her
thored most of Anthony Mann’s noirs                                                                  own gang, she guns down the offend-
(including T-Men), and Mann himself                                                                  ing party. Convicted for a robbery (but
directed (uncredited) some of the film,                                                              not the murder), she’s sent to a ground-
though longtime Fox director Alfred L.                                                               breaking new prison exclusively for
Werker (Walk East on Beacon, [1952])                                                                 women (Tehachapi was indeed the first
got the sole screen director’s credit. He                                                            of its kind in California). However,
Walked By Night, the story of a man-                                                                 Molly’s rehabilitation is jeopardized
hunt for a cop killer played by Richard                                                              by the incarceration of her murder vic-
Basehart, was a meeting of major play-                                                               tim’s moll (Dorothy Hart), who’s out
ers in the crime docudrama genre, past                                                               to get her own revenge (echoing an ele-
and future. Besides the work of Werker                                                               ment from Alcatraz Island, which fea-

                                                                                   i SPrinG 2011 i noir citY   55
                                                                                                             is laid on thick in the Wilbur-penned
                                                                                                             film, with Frank Lovejoy playing Cvet-
                                                                                                             ic. Yet, if the Commie spies in the story
                                                                                                             had been replaced by syndicate mob-
                                                                                                             sters, this film could have easily fit into
                                                                                                             the cycle of Kefauver hearing-inspired
                                                                                                             racket-busting films then in fashion. For
                                                                                                             Crane Wilbur, however, it was definitely
                                                                                                             a step away from the reality-based work
                                                                                                             of many previous films—which made
                                                                                                             it particularly ironic when this movie
                                                                                                             (though based on Cvetic’s memoirs, it’s
                                                                                                             a 100% shot-in-the-studio fictional film)
                                                                                                             was nominated for an Academy Award
                                                                                                             as Best Documentary of 1951.

                                                                                                             Back in the Joint
                                                                                                            Next, Wilbur was back in the direc-
                                                                                                        tor’s chair for the fourth in a quartet of
                                                                                                        prison-themed films he directed as well
                                                                                                        as wrote between 1948 and 1951. In-
                                                                                                        side the Walls of Folsom Prison is not
                                                                                                        as dramatically gripping a film as Ca-
                                                                                                        ñon City, nor is it as strong a character
                                                                                                        study as The Story of Molly X. Yet, of
                                                                                                        all the films he directed, Folsom may be
tured Ben Welden as a prisoner seeking vengeance against John Litel).                                   Wilbur’s signature work in terms of its
    For The Story of Molly X, Wilbur followed the now-familiar pro-         influence and its unique presentation. Narration had been a staple
cess he’d used with Foy. He spent time in Tehachapi, where he got to        of procedurals, prison or otherwise, for some time. However, Inside
know a number of the female inmates—one of whom was doing life              the Walls of Folsom Prison is the first film narrated by a prison itself:
for killing a man who kicked her cat. Wilbur said that the inmate who
served as his model for Molly X was not a heist leader, but instead a          I am Folsom Prison. At one time they called me Bloody Folsom—
woman on death row for her part in the murder of an elderly man.               hah! And I earned the name. I’ve been standing here in California
    During his research, Wilbur discovered that Tehachapi had a                since 1878. My own prisoners built me, shutting themselves off
branch of Alcoholics Anonymous. He and his actress wife, Lenita                from the free world. Every block of my granite is cemented by
Lane, attended an AA meeting in Los Angeles to learn more about the            their tears, their pain—and the blood of many men.
organization. A cameraman who knew the Wilburs spotted the couple
there and asked, “Which one of you is the drunk?” Wilbur initially             A little later, the narration asserts: “If I couldn’t break a man’s
fingered his wife, jokingly, until explaining it was all “research.”        spirit, I broke his bones.” However, lest one be led to expect a prison
    Wilbur’s second Rosenberg-Universal film as director-writer was         version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” this
Outside the Wall (1950). It’s the story of a parolee (Richard Base-
hart) who finds work at a sanitarium, determined to go straight. His
resolve is tested, however, when he falls in love with a mercenary
blonde nurse (Marilyn Maxwell), and encounters a former prison
acquaintance (John Hoyt) who’s pulled off an armored car robbery.
Though the first reel features prison sequences that were shot on
location at Philadelphia’s ancient Eastern State Penitentiary, the rest
of the film takes place on the “outside” and is largely studio-shot. It’s
not helped by an overblown music score.
    While Wilbur was at Universal, Foy had re-established ties to
Warner Bros., and in 1951 he summoned his old collaborator to
rejoin him. Crane’s first assignment was strictly as a writer (Gordon
Douglas directed) on Warner’s contribution to the cycle of anti-Com-
munist propaganda then being produced by Hollywood studios. I
Was a Communist for the FBI was based on a series of Saturday
Evening Post stories by Matt Cvetic, which told of Cvetic’s real-life
adventures posing as a Red to get the goods on Communist spies
using a Pittsburgh steelworkers union as a front. The propaganda
                                                                            Steve Cochran is one of the cons Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison

56     noir citY i SPrinG 2011 i
                                                                                                  outmoded prison practices is explained via nar-
                                                                                                  ration, which states that this story was set many
                                                                                                  years ago, and didn’t reflect the Folsom of today.
                                                                                                  However, other than the film’s use of vintage au-
                                                                                                  tomobiles, there is nothing to indicate that the
                                                                                                  film doesn’t take place in 1951.
                                                                                                      Wilbur’s increasing familiarity with the pris-
                                                                                                  oners during pre-production nearly resulted in
                                                                                                  a catastrophe, when Folsom’s real warden in-
                                                                                                  formed Crane that an informer had leaked in-
                                                                                                  formation that a group of inmates planned to
                                                                                                  kidnap Wilbur and use him as a hostage in a
                                                                                                  breakout attempt. Several of the prisoners with
                                                                                                  whom Wilbur had become well-acquainted—in-
                                                                                                  cluding a murderer, a robbery-kidnapper and an
                                                                                                  organized crime figure—later told him, individu-
                                                                                                  ally, that each had used his influence to put the
                                                                                                  kibosh on the kidnap plan.
                                                                                                      Despite many positives in performance,
                                                                                                  screenplay and atmosphere, Folsom Prison sports
                                                                                                  occasional clichés, and the feeling that several po-
                                                                                                  tentially dramatic scenes are held back slightly in
                                                                                                  their execution. Wilbur, the director, was perhaps
                                                                                                  not always the best man film his own screenplays.
story makes clear that it is not really the prison structure itself, but                          In retrospect, most of the best noirs with which
instead the men running the institution who are the deciding fac-          Wilbur was involved as a writer—He Walked by Night, Crime Wave
tor. At the crux of the story is a philosophical battle between Fol-       and The Phenix City Story—were piloted by more highly-regarded
som’s ruthless warden (Ted de Corsia)—with his often inhumane              directors. Perhaps Bryan Foy and Warner Bros. had the same opinion,
treatment of the prisoners—and his new college-educated Captain            since Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison proved to be Crane Wilbur’s
of the guards (David Brian), who has what de Corsia dismisses as a         last feature film as a director for eight years.
“society’s to blame” approach. Though Steve Cochran receives top
billing as an inmate who leads the film’s climactic prison break, it is    The Peak, Then Decline
de Corsia who gives the film’s standout performance, bringing nu-              After next writing a pair of non-noir color films for Warners (the
ances to what could easily be a one-dimensional “bad warden” part.         Western The Lion and the Horse [1952], and the religious-themed
Wilbur’s dialogue helps in spots, such as a scene where a reporter         The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima [1952]), Wilbur returned to
quizzes de Corsia’s Warden Rickey about the reasons for some extra         crime with the screenplay for Crime Wave, working from an adapta-
security procedures.                                                       tion by Bernard Gordon and Richard Wormser of a John and Ward
                                                                           Hawkins Saturday Evening Post story. Shot over 13 days in 1952 by
   Warden Rickey: “We lost a warden that way once.”                        André de Toth, mostly in real Los Angeles locations, Crime Wave has
   Reporter: “(A) good warden?”                                            a very similar premise to Outside the Wall—a parolee trying to go
   Rickey: “Not bad—as wardens go.”                                        straight is sucked back into his old life by the sudden appearance of
                                                                           a mortally-wounded former cellmate who’s been involved in a heist.
    Wilbur followed his usual production and writing methodology           However, the results are far different and vastly superior, thanks to
by going to Folsom early, getting to know the warden, guards and           the direction of de Toth, outstanding performances by a cast that
prisoners, and observing their processes. “I went there a couple of        includes Sterling Hayden and “Folsom warden” Ted de Corsia, and
weeks in advance of when I would start shooting. I wanted to round         the atmospheric location photography.
out what I had written. I wanted to see that it was true. I didn’t want        Nevertheless, Crime Wave was inexplicably shelved until 1954,
it all to be a lot of crap, if you know what I mean.”                      while Wilbur, Foy, and de Toth reconvened for House of Wax
    Wilbur integrated several of his experiences into the story, includ-   (1953)—a 3D horror remake of Warners’ original two-strip Tech-
ing a throwaway bit about an old inmate who refused to leave the           nicolor The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1932). Wilbur set the re-
prison, even after his parole was up, because he had become attached       make a bit earlier than the original, giving the story a bit of a “gas
to a dog who didn’t want to leave the prison grounds. The film liber-      lamp” Victorian atmosphere, while downplaying some of the comic-
ally utilized real Folsom locations.                                       relief elements of the earlier version. Thanks in large part to de Toth’s
    Considering the film’s focus on reforming the methods of a ruthless    focus on dramatic tension over 3D effects he couldn’t see with only
and nearly criminal warden (which bears similarities to earlier Wilbur     one good eye, the film was a tremendous hit, launching a second
adapted scenarios such as Crime School and Hell’s Kitchen), it may         career for Vincent Price as a horror star. Flush with success, Bryan
seem surprising that the film was made with the full cooperation of        Foy took his production shingle over to Harry Cohn’s Columbia Pic-
Folsom and California prison authorities. However, the issue of the        tures, for a 1954 follow-up with Price entitled The Mad Magician.

                                                                                       i SPrinG 2011 i noir citY   57
Wilbur again scripted, this time from his own original story. He also
worked in a part for his actress wife Lenita Lane (whom he married
in 1936—a happy marriage lasting until his death). Wilbur also did
some doctoring on Jack DeWitt’s script for Foy’s Women’s Prison
(1955), directed by old Warner Bros. journeyman Lewis Seiler, who
was now getting most of Foy’s directorial assignments over Wilbur.
Though it has its moments, Women’s Prison never quite lives up to
the promise of its tremendous cast—headed by a “rouges” gallery
of noir femme fatales: Ida Lupino, Jan Sterling, Cleo Moore, and
Audrey Totter.
   In 1955, Crane Wilbur broke from Bryan Foy, temporarily, to
work for Allied Artists producers Samuel Bischoff and David Dia-
mond on a film that may be the best “city exposé” ever made: The
Phenix City Story. Crane partnered on the screenplay with his
old “Big Town” radio show comrade Daniel Mainwaring (who as
“Geoffrey Homes” wrote the novel which begat Out of the Past;
later he scripted Invasion of the Body Snatchers). The Phenix City
Story is a tale of syndicate corruption in a tiny Alabama city, where
gambling and prostitution dens cater to the soldiers of Fort Benning,
across the river in Columbus, Georgia. The syndicate operated there
for decades, leaving murders and disappearances in its wake, until a
group of reformers got the ear of respected (and previously neutral)
lawyer Albert Patterson and convinced him to run for state attorney
general on a clean-up campaign. His brazen assassination by mob
hit men on June 18, 1954, took the story to a national level, and
in true “ripped from the headlines” fashion the movie version was
released just over a year later. This hard-hitting film, shot on loca-
tion in Phenix City, bears the unrelenting tension characteristic of
                                                                            Jan Sterling improves the scenery inside Women’s Prison
director Phil Karlson and co-writer Daniel Mainwaring, and the in-
depth factual and procedural research emblematic of Crane Wilbur.           George Raft Story. In the meantime, Crane continued his research.
For maximum impact and audience appeal, Wilbur and Mainwaring               When “Red Light Bandit” Caryl Chessman was executed at San
avoided making the big heroes in the story (reform leaders Hugh             Quentin in 1960, Wilbur said that he was one of the select group
Bentley and Hugh Britton, or martyred Patterson—all middle-aged             that bid goodbye to Chessman before he entered the gas chamber.
men) the lead characters. Instead, Patterson’s son John (Richard Ki-           In 1962, Crane Wilbur made the film that turned out to be his
ley) becomes the protagonist. John, just returned to his hometown           big-screen swan song. Appropriately, it was another Bryan Foy
from law school and optimistically ready to hang out his shingle, has       Production for Warner Bros., and a prison film: House of Women.
a naïve “live and let live” approach (after all, a number of his old        Wilbur was the sole screenwriter, and also directed some uncredited
school chums, even an ex-girlfriend, are now syndicate employees)—          scenes (Walter Doniger was the credited director). It’s unique in de-
until he experiences the full breadth of the syndicate’s evil first-hand.   picting an institution where incarcerated mothers are allowed to live
This gives viewers an unbiased eye as the depth of Phenix City’s cor-       with their children—a situation that leads to tragedy and a prison-
ruption unfolds before John’s (and our) eyes.                               takeover rebellion by the female inmates. House of Women was re-
   Back with Bryan Foy at Columbia, Wilbur penned a fairly rote             leased at the end of the noir and procedural cycle, and the same year
World War II naval saga Battle Stations (1956). Then, for indepen-          Dr. No ushered in the era of secret agents and suave international
dent producer Edward Small, Wilbur collaborated with Anthony                crime capers.

Veiller (The Killers) and Paul Dudley on the adaptation of Monkey              Crane Wilbur, who turned 76 that year, was now out of the game.
on My Back (1957),—the autobiography of boxer and war hero Bar-             He continued writing television pilots and other spec scripts until
ney Ross (Cameron Mitchell), who developed a post-war morphine              the late 1960’s, as he slowly faded out of the business. When he died
habit to mask the pain from battle injuries.                                in his Toluca Lake home on October 18, 1973, at age 86, the Los
   Crane Wilbur returned to the director’s chair for his 1959 ver-          Angeles Times announced “Screen Actor Crane Wilbur Dies,” and
sion of The Bat, starring Vincent Price (with Wilbur’s wife Lenita          spent the first four paragraphs of the obituary covering his status as
again in the cast), but the results couldn’t hold a candle to either of     the first serial hero in The Perils of Pauline, not getting into his writ-
Roland West’s previous versions (in 1926 and 1930). Also in 1959,           ing and directing career (including his prison and procedural films)
Wilbur wrote the story for King Vidor’s Biblical epic Solomon and           until a couple of paragraphs later. As a hyphenate writer-director,
Sheba, with his Monkey on My Back collaborators Veiller and Dud-            Crane Wilbur is hardly someone overdue for latent rediscovery as a
ley penning the screenplay. Wilbur was also one of the writers on a         lost auteur. However, as one of the principal crafters of the “police
1961 version of Jules Verne’s science fiction saga Mysterious Island        procedural” and “semi-documentary” genre, as well as the main ar-
(with Ray Harryhausen special effects), and the same year he also           chitect of the reality-based prison exposé film, Crane Wilbur is very
wrote the screenplay for the Joseph M. Newman-directed biopic The           deserving of a hallowed spot in the crime labs of Noir City. ■

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