Jack Boyle Gets the Chair

May 18, 2015 at 11:26 AM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

In April 1920, at the height of his creative output on Boston Blackie, Jack Boyle was put in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison in New York, and managed to walk away to tell the tale.  The incident didn’t make headlines, but was picked up by a handful of newspapers, including Wisconsin’s Baraboo Daily News (April 23, 1920) and The Portland Oregonian (August 1, 1920).  .

This was hardly the first time Boyle had seen the inside of a penitentiary, but when he stepped within the walls of Sing Sing in 1920 it was amidst a rare circumstance for the convict turned author.  He had not been sentenced to serve time there.  Instead, he was in the facility at the invitation of Warden Lewis E. Lawes, to gather background material for an upcoming prison movie he was reported to be writing for director Frank Borzage.  In fact, director Borzage and Viennese scenic designer Joseph Urban accompanied Boyle on his tour of the penitentiary, which afforded them each the morbid thrill of sitting for a few moments in Sing Sing’s infamous death chair.  Given Boyle’s criminal past, and having published stories of convicts condemned to execution, sitting in the electric chair must have been a perverse experience for him.

Whether or not Boyle ever wrote the screenplay for his proposed prison story is unknown, but no such production was ever directed by Frank Borzage (whose career helming feature films stretched from 1916 to 1961).  However, Borzage did collaborate with Joseph Urban on two films in the years directly following their visit to Sing Sing — GET RICH QUICK WALLINGFORD (1921) and  BACK PAY (1922).  Coincidentally, the WALLINGFORD film was based on the work of another popular author of crime fiction, George Randolph Chester, and featured a confidence man known as Blackie Daw.

Joseph Urban eventually had a much more direct connection to Boston Blackie, working as the set designer on the Jack Boyle sourced feature films BOOMERANG BILL (1922) and THROUGH THE DARK (1924).  But its possible that Urban was a part of something even more significant in Boyle’s personal life.  Apart from his movie work, throughout the early 1920s Urban was heavily involved with set design for the Ziegfeld Follies.  It was during his 1920 visit to New York that Jack Boyle met Elsie Thomas, the woman soon to become his second wife.  At the time, Elsie was a dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies.  So, along with sitting in the electric chair with Boyle that night in Sing Sing Prison, Urban may have been party to Jack’s introduction to the next Mrs. Boyle.

JBF 5/18/15

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