The Myth of Horatio Black

June 29, 2015 at 10:05 PM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

The internet would have you believe that Boston Blackie’s real name is Horatio Black.  This is the answer swiftly yielded by any casual Google search, and the pedigree behind the name sounds quite plausible.  However, as is the case with most easy answers, it falls short of the facts.

To begin with, “Horatio Black” suggests that the nickname “Blackie” sprang from the character’s family surname.  But Jack Boyle himself refutes this notion in the very first Boston Blackie tale, “The Price of Principle” (American Magazine – July 1914). The introduction of the character reveals that his “piercing black eyes and New England birthplace had won him his nickname …”  So Blackie’s creator expressly establishes that his colorful sobriquet is derived from his commanding eyes, and not from a variation of his family name.

Some sources suggest that the name Horatio Black originated in an unspecified episode the 1945-49 syndicated radio series BOSTON BLACKIE, in which actor Richard Kolmar played the lead.  This seems unlikely though, when you consider the series’ June 6, 1945 installment “Mrs. Boston Blackie.”  The episode revolves around the appearance of a woman who claims to be married to Blackie, brandishing a marriage certificate as proof.  On the document, the groom’s name is — Boston Blackie.  If the writers of the radio series had given the character any other name, surely they would have put it on his marriage papers.  But there’s a more compelling reason that the name Horatio Black couldn’t have risen from Blackie’s radio incarnation.

The simple fact of the matter is that, as far as Boston Blackie is concerned, the name Horatio Black can be traced back at least as far as 1943 — two years prior to the radio series’ debut.  In March of that year, Columbia Pictures released AFTER MIDNIGHT WITH BOSTON BLACKIE, the fifth in their series of Blackie b-movies starring Chester Morris.  In the film, Blackie’s name is revealed as Horatio Black by the daughter of a former underworld friend.  This may or may not be the first appearance of the name in conjunction with Blackie, but the timing of it definitively establishes that the name was not an invention of the radio series.  However, 1943 was a long time after Blackie’s 1914 debut in print.  Rather than trying to verify the origin of Horatio Black, the bigger question is, did Jack Boyle ever provide a civilian name to his most famous creation?

The first hint of an answer appears in “Boston Blackie’s Mary” (Red Book Magazine – November 1917).  The story explicitly names Blackie’s wife Mary Dawson, despite the fact that she was previously Mary Harris in “A Thief’s Daughter” (American – October 1914) before the pair were married. Dawson is again presented as Mary’s name in “A Problem in Grand Larceny” (Red Book – December 1918), cementing the idea that this is, indeed, Blackie’s surname.  Then, in “The Face in the Fog” (Cosmopolitan Magazine – May 1920), detective Huk Kant greets Boyle’s protagonist as Blackie Dawson, removing all doubt that, canonically, the name belongs to both Blackie and Mary.

While Jack Boyle provided his criminal hero a surname relatively early in the series, it wasn’t until he penned his final tale of the character that he divulged his full given name.  On May 9, 1925, The Los Angeles Times published the seventh installment of Boyle’s serial “Daggers of Jade.”  In it, he presents us with “John Dawson, once known by the the police of every city from Maine to California as Boston Blackie …”  So, with his swan song story of his most popular character, Jack Boyle reveals that Boston Blackie is John Dawson.

In truth, the reality seems almost banal.  Horatio Black seems a more dashing name for a safecracker than the workaday John Dawson.  But perhaps it’s not too surprising that Jack Boyle settled on the name John for his rogue hero.  After all, his own name was John Alexander Boyle.

JBF 6/29/15


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The Misadventures of Jack Boyle – December 1915

June 22, 2015 at 1:00 AM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

In 1915, Jack Boyle was employed as a reporter for the Missouri newspaper The Kansas City Post.  But on Sunday December 19, 1915, his doings of the previous evening were chronicled in the rival paper The Kansas City Gazette Globe.  Here’s what his competitors had to say:

Jack Boyle, whose ambition is to become a Sherlock Holmes, was sentenced in police court.  Last night Boyle, on arriving at Sixth Street and Minnesota Avenue, saw Harry Vose, a newspaper  boy, selling papers.  Boyle placed the boy under arrest and took him to police headquarters.  Stepping up to the sergeant’s desk he insisted upon young Vose being locked up for impersonating a messenger boy.  After arguing with the sergeant for a while, Boyle was ordered locked in the hold-over for safe keeping.  Boyle told the judge that State Line booze was awful stuff when it got to working.

Awful stuff indeed.

JBF 6/22/15

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Blackie’s Redemption (1919)

June 15, 2015 at 1:00 AM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Blackie's Redemption 2In April of 1919, at the same time the publisher H.K. Fly was releasing their hardcover collection BOSTON BLACKIE, Metro Pictures Corporation debuted the second of two feature films in which actor Bert Lytell portrayed Jack Boyle’s most famous character.  Titled BLACKIE’S REDEMPTION, the movie was a re-imagining of the popular Red Book Magazine story “Boston Blackie’s Mary,” with a detour through Boyle’s later tale “Fred the Count.”  Alice Lake co-starred, as the steadfast Mary, though in this version of the story she and Blackie were not yet wed.  The basic storyline of this re-invented tale can be gleaned from the following synopsis, derived from the reviews in Moving Picture World (April 26, 1919) and Photoplay (May 1919):

Boston Blackie, a crook so clever that no one can “get” him, has determined to go straight.  Fred the Count, a cowardly crook, cracks a safe and comes unbidden to Blackie’s supper of farewell on the eve of his marriage to Mary, a worthy girl.  The police hear of the robbery, come to the eating place and search everyone.  The Count slips a pearl pin into Blackie’s pocket and this is found.  Mary pledges to wait for Blackie, despite his very bad prospects, and meanwhile, to keep the villainy going, the Count tries to sway her affections, but fails.

At San Quentin prison, Warden Sherwood receives Blackie with grim satisfaction.  Time passes and Blackie, having become ill, is placed in the Hospital cell.  With the aid of Squirrel, a half-wit convict, he breaks jail one stormy night and goes immediately to Mary.  The police are notified and Sherwood finds him there, disguised as an old woman, mourning over a dummy that they tell the officer is Blackie.  At an opportune moment, Blackie draws his gun and places it against the Warden’s head, and tells him that he hates to kill a man as brave as he is, but that he couldn’t trust him not to bother him.  Blackie’s sense of fairness predominates and he gives the Warden a chance for his life, telling him that in two minutes by the clock they will reach together for their guns and the quickest hand wins.  Mary looks on panic-stricken.  Blackie grabs his gun and levels it at the Warden, who stands still, looking fearlessly at him.  Blackie demands that he defend himself.  Sherwood calmly says “no.”  Blackie, with the cry of a broken and beaten man, throws his gun on the floor, saying “You have beaten me, Warden.  I couldn’t.  I will go back with you.”  Mary is relieved that he did not kill the man.  Blackie holds out his hands for hand-cuffs.  The Warden looks into the grief-stricken faces of Mary and Blackie, and calmly tells them that he is sorry to have disturbed them; that he was looking for an escaped convict, but the man he wanted is not there.  The men look understandingly into each others eyes and shake hands, and the Warden goes out and reports to the waiting men that it was a cold trail.

In the meantime, Blackie’s old pal, Sober, reports that Fred the Count has framed up a job to rob the pay-roll of a lumber company.  Blackie and Sober go up there, open the safe, scatter money all over the floor, and when Fred the Count comes in they knock him out and also the constable, then they handcuff Fred to the constable.  And Blackie and Mary leave for Honolulu on a deferred wedding trip.

Redemption ad This alternate version of “Boston Blackie’s Mary” sprang from the pen of screen scenarioist Finis Fox, who the following year scripted Metro Pictures’ ALIAS JIMMY VALENTINE (based on the short story “A Retrieved Reformation” by O. Henry).  Moviegoers in 1920 may have felt some deja vu, as ALIAS JIMMY VALENTINE starred Bert Lytell, and featured a climax in which the detective chasing the title character experienced a change of heart and let his quarry go, after deciding that the criminal had become a changed man.

JBF 6/15/15

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Black Dan Pays

June 3, 2015 at 8:20 PM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

In April 1920, Variety ran an item announcing the negotiation of a contract between Jack Boyle and Henry M. Hobart, head of Cosmopolitan Productions. The agreement granted the film company first option on the screen rights to ten stories written by Boyle, most of which were slated for publication in upcoming issues of Cosmopolitan Magazine. The ten titles under option were “A Problem in Grand Larceny,” “An Answer in Grand Larceny,” “The Daughter of Mother McGinn,” “Alias Prince Charming,” “The Face in the Fog,” “Boomerang Bill,” “The Beauty Fountain,” “Grandad’s Girl,” “The Painted Child” and “Black Dan Pays.” Remarkably, nearly all of these stories did find their way to the silver screen within a few years, but this list of titles also presents a puzzle. Jack Boyle never published a story called “Black Dan Pays.”

At first glance, this wouldn’t seem to be much of a mystery. Boyle did write a story titled “Black Dan” for the October 1919 issue of Cosmopolitan, detailing Boston Blackie’s devotion to an underworld comrade and his sacrifice of his own freedom to prevent his friend’s dog (the titular Black Dan) from being wrongfully put to death. It would seem obvious that the Cosmopolitan editorial staff shortened Boyle’s original title of “Black Dan Pays” to simply “Black Dan” before taking the story to press. But the puzzle is actually a bit more complicated.

Certainly, this wasn’t the first time one of Boyle’s titles had been altered by a publisher. His autobiographical sketch, “A Modern Opium Eater” (American Magazine – June 1914) which prefaced the first series of Boston Blackie stories, was initially advertised as “Opium: Maker of Criminals.” Likewise, September 1918 correspondence between Red Book Magazine editorial staff and artist W.H.D. Koerner references their recent purchase of a Jack Boyle story titled “Queens of Camouflage.” Given the timing of this correspondence, and the fact that no story by that name ever appeared in the magazine, it is likely that “Queens of Camouflage” was Jack Boyle’s working title for his tale which Koerner illustrated for the December 1918 issue of Red Book, “A Problem in Grand Larceny.” However, the path to “Black Dan Pays” is even more convoluted.

The key to the mystery is held in the 1931 publication Catalogue of Stories and Plays Owned by Fox Film Corporation, from Los Angeles’ Times-Mirror Press. The catalogue is an inventory of all literary works purchased for adaptation to the screen by Fox, and among its listings is the story “Black Dan Pays” by Jack Boyle. Apparently, Cosmopolitan Productions passed on their first option of the story, and Boyle subsequently sold it to Fox. The catalogue contains the further notation that the story was first published in the September 1919 issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine, and that Fox eventually released it as a silent motion picture in 1923 under the title BOSTON BLACKIE. In reality, nothing by Jack Boyle appeared in the September 1919 Cosmopolitan, but Fox’s 1923 film BOSTON BLACKIE is fairly well documented. Multiple sources, including The American Film Institute Catalogue of Feature Films, 1921 – 1930, cite the source material for the film as Cosmopolitan’s November 1919 story “The Water-Cross.”

This makes a certain amount of sense, as “The Water-Cross” features a return appearance from the dog Black Dan. In the story’s climax, Dan repays Blackie’s previous kindness by leading him out of the thick of a manhunt to safety. Bluntly, Black Dan pays … his debt to Boston Blackie. So, “The Water-Cross” is the basis for BOSTON BLACKIE, and “Black Dan Pays” is Jack Boyle’s original title for “The Water-Cross.”

Fox Film Corporation released BOSTON BLACKIE on May 6, 1923 but, curiously, the title “Black Dan Pays” continued to surface amidst confusion. More than six weeks after the film’s premiere, the June 30, 1923 issue of the motion picture trade publication Exhibitor’s Herald touted Fox’s release of BLACK DAN PAYS, starring William Russell. And as late as November 11, 1923, Montana’s The Anaconda Standard announced William Russell’s three newest films – ALIAS THE NIGHT WIND, TIMES HAVE CHANGED and BLACK DAN PAYS. To further confuse matters, scenarioist Paul Schofield excised the canine character Black Dan from his screen adaptation of Jack Boyle’s story, rendering the title BLACK DAN PAYS nonsensical. Makes one wonder what Boyle thought of all the mutations his story underwent – from a simple title change on the printed page to a radical overhaul of the narrative that appeared on screen.

JBF 6/3/15

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