Blackie & Mary’s Screen Debut

August 9, 2016 at 9:11 PM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Over the years, many performers have portrayed Boston Blackie and his beloved Mary, in media ranging from cinema to radio to television.  First seen in illustrations for the pages of The American and The Red Book magazines , the “first couple” of the underworld was given form by artists such as N.C. Wyeth and W.H.D. Koerner.  But the first flesh and blood pair to bring the characters to life on the silver screen were Bert Lytell and Rhea Mitchell, in Metro Pictures’ 1918 production Boston Blackie’s Little Pal.

Rhea Mitchell & Bert Lytell

the screen’s original Blackie & Mary

Lytell looks appropriately suave and dashing in the role of Blackie, with Mitchell a fine image of Mary.  And director E. Mason Hopper’s cinematic interpretation of the Red Book tale seems to adhere closely to Jack Boyle’s original plot (as evidenced by this item from the September 14, 1918 issue of Exhibitor’s Herald):

Exhibitors Herald 9-14-18

Lytell would play Blackie again in the 1919 offering Blackie’s Redemption, but that production saw actress Alice Lake assume the role of Mary.  However, her performance in Boston Blackie’s Little Pal endows Rhea Mitchell the indisputable title of cinema’s first Boston Blackie’s Mary.

Mary & Blackie pic

JBF  8/9/16

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The “Vanishing” Stories of 1919

July 13, 2015 at 10:11 PM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

A curious thing happened in March of 1919.  It was a banner month for both Jack Boyle and Boston Blackie.  Boyle had just wrapped up a very successful run of ten stories in The Red Book Magazine, and was preparing to launch a new sequence in The Cosmopolitan.  But this March was particularly significant for him, because it heralded the release of his hardcover collection BOSTON BLACKIE, which brought his work to the attention of an even wider audience.

Silk Lined Burglar 3At the same time, the second and third feature films dramatizing the adventures of Boston Blackie — The Poppy Girl’s Husband and The Silk Lined Burglar — were premiering in theaters within a week of each other.  Jack Boyle’s stories were in demand, and the entertainment world was taking notice.  Here is what the July 1919 issue of Picture-Play Magazine had to say about it:

Every once in a while producers start a run on one particular source for stories.  The latest discovery seems to be Jack Boyle, author of the famous “Boston Blackie” stories.  Bert Lytell produced one of these some time ago, and he will appear in another one shortly.  And this month both William S. Hart and Priscilla Dean come forward with pictures based on Boston Blackie stories.

There is no denying the dramatic strength of Boyle’s work.  They lend themselves admirably well to screen adaptation with their novel plots and unusual characters.  “The Poppy Girl’s Husband” makes what many people think is Mr. Hart’s best Artcraft photo play.  Not only does it give him an opportunity to depart from the usual Western story, but the novelty of the plot and strength of the central character as interpreted by the star are elements which go to make the whole indeed praiseworthy.

Hart appears as Hairpin Harry Dutton, a convict, who has languished ten long years in prison with the single thought of his wife, The Poppy Girl, to cheer him through the endless days.  And when at last he again breathes the free air he learns from Boston Blackie that The Poppy Girl has deserted him!  … Of course, Harry plans a revenge, a horrible one at that, but a revenge which is put to rout through the softening influence of his little boy.  Mr. Hart receives fine support from Juanita Hansen as The Poppy Girl, Walter Long as Boston Blackie, and Georgie Stone as the boy.Poppy Girl 2

The Priscilla Dean picture is called “The Silk-lined Burglar,” and it tells how Boston Blackie unwittingly aids his government in bringing a German plotter to justice.  Here, too, the action contains more than a modicum of suspense, and the novelty of the original story has been admirably maintained in the screen version.  Miss Dean, one of Universal’s most popular stars, plays with her usual energy, while Sam De Grasse has the Boston Blackie part.

The oddity of these films debuting the same month as the publication of the hardcover BOSTON BLACKIE becomes apparent with a simple examination of the book’s contents.  The volume is composed of all the Blackie stories published in The Red Book — EXCEPT “The Poppy Girl’s Husband” and “Miss Doris, Safecracker” (the source for The Silk Lined Burglar).  This seems a bit of a puzzle.  Instead of the book and the Silk Lined ad retouchedfilms cross-promoting each other, the hardcover collection omitted the two stories which would seem to hold the most immediacy for the entertainment-consuming public in March of 1919.

The reason for the stories’ omission from the collection is unclear.  Perhaps the movie studios felt that their availability in printed form the same month as their screen release would compete with the films, rather than promote them.  The best we can do now is speculate, but it does strain coincidence that the only two Red Book stories missing from BOSTON BLACKIE just happen to be the same two appearing on movie screens across the country the very same month.

Regardless of the motive behind their omission, the absence of “The Poppy Girl’s Husband” and “Miss Doris, Safecracker” from H.K. Fly’s release of Jack Boyle’s only book has relegated both tales to obscurity.  Even the modern print editions of the Blackie tales have excluded the pair, effectively causing them to vanish from the Blackie canon. Thankfully, their texts have not disappeared completely, and both will definitely be included in the late 2014 release of THE COMPLETE BOSTON BLACKIE.  Stay tuned for further details.

JBF  7/13/15

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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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