Crane Wilbur, writer for the film Roger Touhy, the Last Gangster

In 1914, Pathé’s 20-chapter The Perils of Pauline gave birth to the cinematic serial while making a star out of its heroine, Pearl White. Pauline director Louis J. Gasnier enjoyed a lengthy career as a Hollywood journeyman, highlighted 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 I SPRING 2011 I NOIR CITY 51 passenger in Dark Passage and a merry-go-round bystander in Strangers on a Train).
Far more interesting, however, was the unorthodox career path taken by the man who played Harry Marvin, the stalwart hero in The Perils of Pauline—Crane Wilbur. As he rescued Pearl White each week from one dangerous predicament after another, Wilbur could scarcely have imagined that his labyrinthine career would one day see him reap a reputation as Hollywood’s potentate of prison movies.
Yet, over a 25 year period, Crane Wilbur wrote no less than a dozen movies all or partially set in the Big House (five of which he also directed): Alcatraz Island (1937), Over the Wall (1938), Crime School (1938), Blackwell’s Island (1939), Hell’s Kitchen (1939), Roger Touhy, Gangster (1944), Cañon City (1948), The Story of Molly X (1949), Outside the Wall (1950), Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951), Women’s Prison (1955), and House of Women(1962), along with several others dealing with parole and probation.
Other writers soared to arguably more exalted heights with movies set behind bars: among them Frances Marion (The Big House [1930], Academy Award winner for Best Adapted Screenplay), Seton I. Miller (Oscar-nominated for The Criminal Code [1931], also adapted The Last Mile [1932]), Brown Holmes (I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang [1932], 20,000 Years in Sing Sing [1933], Ladies They Talk About [1933]), Richard Brooks (Brute Force [1947]) and Virginia Kellogg (Caged [1950]). However, none of them produced the volume of prison pictures, nor put in the personal up-theriver legwork, as did Crane Wilbur—who is deserving of his place as the true Shakespeare of the Slammer, the Hemingway of the Hoosegow, 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 Folsom Prison which, when screened at an Air Force base in West Germany in 1952, had a profound impact on a 20-year-old Arkansasborn 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 supercilious 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 craftsmen—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 November 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 repairing 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 stage actress Edith Crane, wife of the well-known actor Tyrone Power, Sr. (Edith indirectly contributed to noir by dying prematurely in 1912, which led her husband to remarry and produce a son by his second wife. Tyrone Power, Jr.’s later success as a Fox box office star enabled him to make a vanity piece entitled Nightmare Alley.)
At age six, Crane experienced the first of several personal traumas when his father Henry committed suicide by hanging. Wilbur later recalled that the conservative farming community never looked at his family—already under suspicion because of their theatrical connections—the same way again. Crane made his stage debut as an actor in 1902, and steadily progressed into larger and larger parts. Despite this, Wilbur always had more passion for writing than acting.
Wilbur wrote his first play at age 15 or 16. It was called Willie Live, and told of a young man who investigates a gang of grave robbers  who are stealing bodies at night and ferrying them to their hideout, where the cadavers are rolled from a truck down a coal chute.
The hero takes the place of one of the corpses. He then tumbles down the chute and is accosted by the thieves, who demand his identity. “I am Willie Live!” comes the reply. Though he produced better works in later years, it is obvious that the teenage Crane Wilbur already had both a taste for the macabre and an interest in the inner workings and methodology of criminal organizations. While the 20-something Wilbur acted on Broadway and in stock, he also continued to hone his writing craft. A 1909 review of Wilbur’s musical-comedy-drama Fritz the Wandering Musician said the four-act play by the “rising young playwright,” was “…clean, clever and bright, and holds the interest of the audience from the rise of the curtain until its final fall on the last act.” However, it was as an actor, not a writer, that the handsome Crane Wilbur made his motion picture debut in the summer of 1911, with the American Pathé company of New Jersey. Wilbur soon proved a capable leading man, although he claimed to never be that impressed with his own acting skills. At Pathé, Wilbur teamed up with actress Pearl White for a number of short films prior to their breakthrough with The Perils of Pauline, which put Wilbur briefly into the realm of top mid-teens leading men. For his part as hero in a series of death-defying escapes (and hands-on work with live rattlesnakes, lions and rats), Wilbur made about $125 per week—a decent salary for 1914, if not on Chaplin or Pickford levels.
In 1915, the Lubin company of Philadelphia lured Crane Wilbur away from Pathé to make the serial The Road of Strife. Later that same year, Wilbur headed west to California to work at David Horsley’sCentaur studios, where in 1916 he began making feature-length productions—which he soon began writing and directing, as well.
 However, still less than sanguine about his own acting skills—and about motion pictures in general—Wilbur relocated to Oakland, California, in 1918, to operate his own theater and set up a film studio. During this period he experienced more personal pain. His 22-year-old second wife, Arleene Archibald, died in 1916, and three years later his infant son (by third wife Florence Dunbar) suffocated in his sleep. Fleeing the devastation, Crane Wilbur abandoned filmmaking in 1920 and relocated to New York, to again work as a stage actor and playwright.
The Mysteries Begin
Wilbur’s first Broadway offering as a playwright, 1920’s The Ouija Board, was a murder mystery set against the backdrop of bunko spiritual mediums. Though only a modest success, it paved the way for a 1922 Wilbur-penned follow-up called The Monster, which featured a mix of humor, mystery, and horror. Set in an insane asylum, The Monster ran for over 100 performances, and was optioned by producer-director Roland West for a 1925 movie version starring Lon Chaney.
Through the rest of the ’20s, Wilbur continued on Broadway, balancing acting with the production of his plays, such as the comedyEasy Terms (1925) and the musical The Song Writer (1928), featuring Wilbur’s soon-to-be fifth wife Beatrice Blinn (later an actress in Three Stooges two-reelers). In 1930, the prestigious MGM studios—transitioning to the new medium of talking pictures—hired Crane to write a dialogue continuity script for the musical Lord Byron of Broadway, and to polish the adaptation of his own play The Song Writer (being produced as Children of Pleasure). These two films were the first screen credits for writer “Crane Wilbur” in 13 years. There was no small irony in the fact that an actor who, in the silent era, had helped create some of the most iconic hand-wringing melodrama clichés (courtesy the influential The Perils of Pauline) was now a hoity-toity Broadway hired-gun, summoned to the coast to script sophisticated dialogue for Hollywood.
In the fall of 1930, Wilbur returned to Broadway as the star of Edgar Wallace’s play On the Spot—a thin-veined melodrama based on America’s number one gangster, Al Capone. Wilbur played a Scarface-doppelganger named Tony Perrelli, with Anna May Wong—another former silent star—as Perrelli’s Chinese mistress. The play was a hit in New York, and Wilbur, Wong, and company next headed to Capone’s own home turf, Chicago. After opening in the Windy City, Crane Wilbur recalled that Scarface himself requested a command performance at Capone headquarters. As Wilbur later told it: There must have been forty or fifty gangsters there at the time. Capone said, “These are nice boys.” I said, “I know they are, but I didn’t even think of it.” However, I did the whole play for them. I played all of the parts. I told them scene by scene what was happening. I never had such an audience.
In retrospect, Wilbur’s meeting with Capone and his gang was emblematic of the research Crane would soon be doing as a purveyor of policepolice 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? Paramount  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 dialogue that would become one of the most frequently repeated gangster movie clichés of all time: “Take him for—a ride.”
By 1934, Foy had departed Warners and established Bryan Foy 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 provocative African American novelist (and Harlem Renaissance figure) Wallace Thurman, though all-Caucasian casts were featured. The first  was called Tomorrow’s Children (year1934), concerning the highlycharged subject of forced sterilization. Thurman also covered another hot-button issue—teenage pregnancy—in the second, High School Girl (year1934). Wilbur also acted in both, and co-wrote the screenplay
for Tomorrow’s Children. Over the next three years, Wilbur plied his trade as a triple threat director-writer-actor on Poverty Row, making films that ranged from melodramas about human smuggling (Yellow Cargo [1936]) to musicals (The Devil on Horseback [year1936]).
Bryan Foy returned to Warner Bros. in 1937, as production chief of the studio’s B picture unit, and quickly summoned Crane Wilbur to join his staff as a writer. Wilbur gladly left his acting career behind forever. Wilbur also directed a series of short subjects (many of them in Technicolor) depicting important moments in American history.
These films included The Man Without a Country (1937), nominated for a Best Two-Reel Short Subject Academy Award, and The Declaration of Independence (1938), which won an Oscar in the same category the following year.
In 1937, Wilbur also wrote the feature that forever typed him as a prison expert: Alcatraz Island. It was a modest production, shot entirely at the Warners’ studio by B unit director William McGann. The plot, concerning a society racketeer (John Litel) who ends up on “the Rock” after an income tax evasion rap, shows the obvious headline influence of the man for whom Crane Wilbur once gave a command performance— Al Capone. Bryan Foy recalled that this film was the one that started his and Wilbur’s cycle of prison movies, largely due to its box office success.
“It was what we call a ‘sleeper,’” said Foy in 1951, “and it made a lot of money so I was always looking for another one like that.” Months later in 1938, Foy produced two more prison films: Over the Wall and Crime School, followed by a second pair in 1939: Blackwell’s Island and Hell’s Kitchen. Crane Wilbur had a hand in all the screenplays.
Wilbur had a reputation as a fast-worker, which is probably why Foy employed him for so many years. He was meticulous in his preparation and research, particularly on subjects with a non-fiction bent. However, once it was time to write, Wilbur got down to business and got the job done, never brooding over the work. He once explained his writing modus operandi:
“I write it in my mind first. The idea comes to me. Perhaps it will be one situation that will suggest something exciting. It will be something attractive, different. I build from that. But, I don’t write anything for myself at all. It’s all in the head. I don’t write the story as a story. I write it as a script, as a thing that is ready to shoot.”
Wilbur temporarily left films in 1941 for another medium—radio—to write and produce episodes of the CBS dramatic program  “Big Town,” starring Edward G. Robinson as a crime-fighting newspaper editor. Wilbur was good company: among the program’s other writers were Daniel Mainwaring and Maxwell Shane.
In 1942, Wilbur rejoined Bryan Foy (now ensconced at 20th Century–Fox) to begin work on a biopic about Irish Chicago gangsterRoger Touhy. Framed by rival Al Capone for a kidnapping he didn’t commit, Touhy has been sent to Illinois’ Stateville Prison in Joliet.
On October 9, 1942, Touhy and several other inmates staged a prison  break, which made headlines and spurred Bryan Foy to action. Foy secured the cooperation of the Governor of Illinois to restage the jailbreak at the spots where it took place, with a few prison guards playing the escaped convicts—while the real prisoners were on full lock-down. The resulting film, Roger Touhy, Gangster, was released in 1944 with Preston Foster in the lead. It also included an epilogue with Stateville warden Joseph E. Ragen explaining the effectiveness of solitary confinement. Touhy sued Fox for defamation of character, and later won a five-figure judgment. During this period, Crane Wilbur returned to Warner Bros. to direct several wartime patriotic shorts. One of them, I Won’t Play (1944) starring Dane Clark, won another Academy Award for Best Two-Reel Short Subject. Wilbur also directed the short It Happened in Springfield (1945), a thoughtful look at classroom racial integration in a Massachusetts town.

The Height of Noir
After directing and writing one of the earliest films (if not the earliest) to take on the new postwar “menace” of hot rodding, The Devil on Wheels (1947), Wilbur again rejoined the peripatetic Foy,left his post as Eagle-Lion’s head of production (T-Men and Raw Deal were made on his watch) to form a new independent production company. Wilbur and Foy’s next collaboration was yet another topical movie about a prison break. On December 30, 1947, 12 prisoners escaped from the Colorado State Prison and terrorized the countryside. Exactly six months later, on June 30, 1948, Cañon City was released. Bryan Foy had actually met Colorado State Prison warden Roy Best when he was making Roger Touhy, Gangster, and called in a favor from Best that allowed him to shoot the film at  the prison before the escapees were even rounded up (Best ended up playing himself in the movie). Crane Wilbur headed to Cañon City in full journo mode, getting every inch of the story down on paper. “I spent a lot of time there,” Wilbur later said. “I knew practically every one of those inmates, even the warden’s dogs.”
The success of Cañon City firmly established Wilbur and Foy as major players in the new trend of crime procedurals. Their next effort in that vein was one of the best—He Walked ByNight (1949). (Not coincidentally, the quality of both films was heightened by the contribution of another fast-working collaborator, cinematographer John Alton.) This time Wilbur wrote the story, and collaborated with John C. Higgins
on the screenplay. Higgins had authored most of Anthony Mann’s noirs (including T-Men), and Mann himself directed (uncredited) some of the film, though longtime Fox director Alfred L. Werker (Walk East on Beacon, [1952]) got the sole screen director’s credit. He Walked By Night, the story of a manhunt for a cop killer played by Richard Basehart, was a meeting of major players in the crime docudrama genre, past and future. Besides the work of Werkerthe Foy-Wilbur and Mann-Higgins teams, there was also “additional dialogue” by Harry Essex (Kansas City Confidential).

Essex also wrote the 1954 feature version of the radio/TV program that
took procedurals to a new level—Jack Webb’s Dragnet. And Webb
has said that he got the idea to create his famous show from his experience
on He Walked By Night, where he played a police chemist.

One wonders how much influence Crane Wilbur’s commitment to
“the facts” had on Jack Webb. In 1949, Wilbur temporarily parted ways with Bryan Foy to direct and write two films for producer Aaron Rosenberg at Universal-International. The first was one of Wilbur’s more interesting projects, and it may be his best work as a director. The Story of Molly X is, on the surface, a women’s prison procedural, set at the California Institute for Women in Tehachapi.

However, the film is chiefly the study of the rehabilitation of one female criminal, played masterfully by June Havoc. Unlike most women-in prison
films, the protagonist is neither a naïve innocent jailed by mistake, nor
a girl starting on the wrong path who lets imprisoned on a penny-ante shoplifting charge. Molly X is a seasoned criminal who takes over as leader of
her husband’s heist gang after he’s murdered. When she discovers that her
husband’s killer was a member of her own gang, she guns down the offending
party. Convicted for a robbery (but not the murder), she’s sent to a groundbreaking new prison exclusively for women (Tehachapi was indeed the first of its kind in California). However, Molly’s rehabilitation is jeopardized by the incarceration of her murder victim’s moll (Dorothy Hart), who’s out to get her own revenge (echoing an element from Alcatraz Island, which fea-tured Ben Welden as a prisoner seeking vengeance against John Litel).

For The Story of Molly X, Wilbur followed the now-familiar process he’d used with Foy. He spent time in Tehachapi, where he got to know a number of the female inmates—one of whom was doing life 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 woman on death row for her part in the murder of an elderly man.

During his research, Wilbur discovered that Tehachapi had a branch of Alcoholics Anonymous. He and his actress wife, Lenita Lane, attended an AA meeting in Los Angeles to learn more about the organization. A cameraman who knew the Wilburs spotted the couple there and asked, “Which one of you is the drunk?” Wilbur initially fingered his wife, jokingly, until explaining it was all “research.”

Wilbur’s second Rosenberg-Universal film as director-writer was Outside the Wall (1950). It’s the story of a parolee (Richard Basehart) 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-Communist 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 propagandais laid on thick in the Wilbur-penned film, with Frank Lovejoy playing Cvetic.

Yet, if the Commie spies in the story had been replaced by syndicate mobsters,
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 director’s chair for the fourth in a quartet of prison-themed films he directed as well as wrote between 1948 and 1951. Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison is not
as dramatically gripping a film as Cañon 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
Wilbur’s signature work in terms of itsinfluence and its unique presentation. Narration had been a staple of procedurals, prison or otherwise, for some time. However, Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison is the first film narrated by a prison itself: I am Folsom Prison. At one time they called me Bloody Folsom—hah! And I earned the name. I’ve been standing here in California

since 1878. My own prisoners built me, shutting themselves off from the free world. Every block of my granite is cemented by their tears, their pain—and the blood of many men.

A little later, the narration asserts: “If I couldn’t break a man’sspirit, I broke his bones.” However, lest one be led to expect a prison version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” thisstory makes clear that it is not really the prison structure itself, but instead the men running the institution who are the deciding factor. At the crux of the story is a philosophical battle between Folsom’s ruthless warden (Ted de Corsia)—with his often inhumane

treatment of the prisoners—and his new college-educated Captaino f the guards (David Brian), who has what de Corsia dismisses as a “society’s to blame” approach. Though Steve Cochran receives top billing as an inmate who leads the film’s climactic prison break, it is

de Corsia who gives the film’s standout performance, bringing nuances  what could easily be a one-dimensional “bad warden” part. Wilbur’s dialogue helps in spots, such as a scene where a reporter quizzes de Corsia’s Warden Rickey about the reasons for some extra security procedures.

Warden Rickey: “We lost a warden that way once.”

Reporter: “(A) good warden?”

Rickey: “Not bad—as wardens go.”

Wilbur followed his usual production and writing methodology by going to Folsom early, getting to know the warden, guards and prisoners, and observing their processes. “I went there a couple of weeks in advance of when I would start shooting. I wanted to round out what I had written. I wanted to see that it was true. I didn’t want it all to be a lot of crap, if you know what I mean.”

Wilbur integrated several of his experiences into the story, including a throwaway bit about an old inmate who refused to leave the prison, even after his parole was up, because he had become attached to a dog who didn’t want to leave the prison grounds. The film liberally utilized real Folsom locations.

Considering the film’s focus on reforming the methods of a ruthless and nearly criminal warden (which bears similarities to earlier Wilbur adapted scenarios such as Crime School and Hell’s Kitchen), it may seem surprising that the film was made with the full cooperation of  Folsom and California prison authorities. However, the issue of the outmoded prison practices is explained via narration,
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 automobiles, there is nothing to indicate that the film doesn’t take place in 1951. Wilbur’s increasing familiarity with the prisoners during pre-production nearly resulted in a catastrophe, when Folsom’s real warden informed Crane that an informer had leaked information
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—including a murderer, a robbery-kidnapper and an organized crime figure—later told him, individually, 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 potentially dramatic scenes are held back slightly in their execution. Wilbur, the director, was perhaps not always the best man film his own screenplays.

In retrospect, most of the best noirs with which Wilbur was involved as a writer—He Walked by Night, Crime Wave and The Phenix City Story—were piloted by more highly-regarded directors. Perhaps Bryan Foy and Warner Bros. had the same opinion, since Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison proved to be Crane Wilbur’s last feature film as a director for eight years.

The Peak, Then Decline

After next writing a pair of non-noir color films for Warners (the Western The Lion and the Horse [1952], and the religious-themed The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima [1952]), Wilbur returned to crime with the screenplay for Crime Wave, working from an adaptation by Bernard Gordon and Richard Wormser of a John and Ward Hawkins Saturday Evening Post story. Shot over 13 days in 1952 by

André de Toth, mostly in real Los Angeles locations, Crime Wave has a very similar premise to Outside the Wall—a parolee trying to 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. However, the results are far different and vastly superior, thanks to the direction of de Toth, outstanding performances by a cast that includes Sterling Hayden and “Folsom warden” Ted de Corsia, and the atmospheric location photography.

Nevertheless, Crime Wave was inexplicably shelved until 1954, while Wilbur, Foy, and de Toth reconvened for House of Wax  (1953)—a 3D horror remake of Warners’ original two-strip Technicolor The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1932). Wilbur set the remake  a bit earlier than the original, giving the story a bit of a “gas lamp” Victorian atmosphere, while downplaying some of the comicrelief elements of the earlier version. Thanks in large part to de Toth’s focus on dramatic tension over 3D effects he couldn’t see with only one good eye, the film was a tremendous hit, launching a second career for Vincent Price as a horror star. Flush with success, Bryan Foy took his production shingle over to Harry Cohn’s Columbia Pictures, for a 1954 follow-up with Price entitled The Mad Magician.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 Diamond 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 location in Phenix City, bears the unrelenting tension characteristic of director Phil Karlson and co-writer Daniel Mainwaring, and the indepth factual and procedural research emblematic of Crane Wilbur.

For maximum impact and audience appeal, Wilbur and Mainwaring avoided making the big heroes in the story (reform leaders Hugh Bentley and Hugh Britton, or martyred Patterson—all middle-aged men) the lead characters. Instead, Patterson’s son John (Richard Kiley) becomes the protagonist. John, just returned to his hometown from law school and optimistically ready to hang out his shingle, has a naïve “live and let live” approach (after all, a number of his old school chums, even an ex-girlfriend, are now syndicate employees)— until he experiences the full breadth of the syndicate’s evil first-hand.

This gives viewers an unbiased eye as the depth of Phenix City’s corruption
unfolds before John’s (and our) eyes. Back with Bryan Foy at Columbia, Wilbur penned a fairly rote World War II naval saga Battle Stations (1956). Then, for independent producer Edward Small, Wilbur collaborated with Anthony
Veiller (The Killers) and Paul Dudley on the adaptation of Monkey on My Back (1957),—the autobiography of boxer and war hero Barney Ross (Cameron Mitchell), who developed a post-war morphine habit to mask the pain from battle injuries.

Crane Wilbur returned to the director’s chair for his 1959 version  of The Bat, starring Vincent Price (with Wilbur’s wife Lenita again in the cast), but the results couldn’t hold a candle to either of Roland West’s previous versions (in 1926 and 1930). Also in 1959, Wilbur wrote the story for King Vidor’s Biblical epic Solomon and  Sheba, with his Monkey on My Back collaborators Veiller and Dudley penning the screenplay. Wilbur was also one of the writers on a
1961 version of Jules Verne’s science fiction saga Mysterious Island (with Ray Harryhausen special effects), and the same year he also wrote the screenplay for the Joseph M. Newman-directed biopic The George Raft Story. In the meantime, Crane continued his research. When “Red Light Bandit” Caryl Chessman was executed at San Quentin in 1960, Wilbur said that he was one of the select group that bid goodbye to Chessman before he entered the gas chamber.

In 1962, Crane Wilbur made the film that turned out to be his big-screen swan song. Appropriately, it was another Bryan Foy Production for Warner Bros., and a prison film: House of Women.  Wilbur was the sole screenwriter, and also directed some uncredited scenes (Walter Doniger was the credited director). It’s unique in depicting an institution where incarcerated mothers are allowed to live with their children—a situation that leads to tragedy and a prisontakeover
rebellion by the female inmates. House of Women was released  at the end of the noir and procedural cycle, and the same year Dr. No ushered in the era of secret agents and suave international crime capers. Crane Wilbur, who turned 76 that year, was now out of the game. He continued writing television pilots and other spec scripts until the late 1960’s, as he slowly faded out of the business. When he died  in his Toluca Lake home on October 18, 1973, at age 86, the Los  Angeles Times announced “Screen Actor Crane Wilbur Dies,” and
spent the first four paragraphs of the obituary covering his status as the first serial hero in The Perils of Pauline, not getting into his writing and directing career (including his prison and procedural films) until a couple of paragraphs later. As a hyphenate writer-director, Crane Wilbur is hardly someone overdue for latent rediscovery as a lost auteur. However, as one of the principal crafters of the “police procedural” and “semi-documentary” genre, as well as the main architect  of the reality-based prison exposé film, Crane Wilbur is very deserving of a hallowed spot in the crime labs of Noir City.

Roger Touhy, Gangster!Cast and Crew