Cinema’s First Boston Blackie

April 20, 2015 at 1:00 AM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

In August of 1918, Metro Pictures Corporation released BOSTON BLACKIE’S LITTLE PAL, a big screen adaptation of the story which had debuted just months earlier in THE RED BOOK MAGAZINE.  Starring Bert Lytell, this was the first of many films to be based upon the writings of Jack Boyle.  So, it would seem fairly obvious that Bert Lytell was the first man to play Boston Blackie on the silver screen.  But when dealing with a character as notorious as Boston Blackie, never trust the obvious.

While Jack Boyle began chronicling the adventures of his thief-hero in 1914, the name Boston Blackie was not original to him.  The moniker had actually been around at least since the 1890s, attached to a number of real-life vagabonds and law-breakers (and may have originated far earlier).  Though it is virtually impossible to trace the origin of the name Boston Blackie, we can observe an interesting coincidence in timing.  Boyle’s first Blackie story appeared in the July 1914 issue of THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE.  At almost exactly the same time, director John G. Adolfi was hard at work shooting a film titled THE RUNAWAY FREIGHT for The Reliance Film Company.  This 2-reel production told the story of a tramp who manages to make a better life for himself by securing a job at a railway station.  He later discovers that two of his former vagrant friends plan to rob the station, and tries to intervene to stop the crime.  The name given to the film’s tramp protagonist is Boston Blackie.

So, while THE RUNAWAY FREIGHT had no connection to Jack Boyle or his work, it still holds the unique distinction of being the first screen production to feature a character named Boston Blackie.  Which makes RUNAWAY FREIGHT star Eugene Pallette cinema’s first Boston Blackie.

Eugene Pallette c1914

Eugene Pallette was a busy actor in the silent era, appearing in dozens of films in the 1910s and ’20s.  He successfully transitioned into talkies, and established himself as a character actor of some repute.  Arguably his most memorable role was that of Friar Tuck in Errol Flynn’s version of ROBIN HOOD released in 1938.  But Pallette also had remarkable turns in movies ranging from THE MARK OF ZORRO to MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and far beyond.  He continued to work in movies until the late 1940s, and passed away in 1954 at the age of 65.

It’s also worth noting that THE RUNAWAY FREIGHT offers up one further coincidence for Jack Boyle fans.  One of the two criminals bent on robbing the movie’s railway station was played by an actor named Sam De Grasse.  De Grasse was also a prolific performer in the silent era, and in 1919 he starred in THE SILK LINED BURGLAR.  The film was based on Jack Boyle’s story “Miss Doris, Safecracker,” and Mr. De Grasse played the role of Boston Blackie.

JBF 4/20/15

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