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 Secret of the Steamer COLON

July 19, 2016 at 9:19 PM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Not so long ago (April 13, 2015, for those of you keeping score), I wrote a post discussing the long unseen, unexpurgated version of Jack Boyle’s story “The Woman Called Rita.”  In its original incarnation, the tale was a sequel to “Boston Blackie’s Mary,” opening with Blackie’s attempt to flee the country in the wake of his escape from prison in the previous story.  Boyle’s original version of this yarn revealed that Blackie and Mary planned to flee to Central America aboard the steamship Colon, only to be thwarted by a mechanical failure in the ship’s boiler room.

It’s interesting to note that there really was an ocean-going vessel out of San Francisco known as the Colon,  owned by the city’s Pacific Mail Steam Ship Company and sailing a regular route between New York and Panama.  In fact, the Colon made her trans-Pacific run for many decades, so when Jack Boyle needed a realistic means of spiriting his criminal hero out of the country, the Pacific Mail’s trusty steamer was an excellent option.

SS Colon

the Steamship Colon

Though Blackie and Mary never managed to make their escape to Central America, nevertheless the Colon once carried a cargo precious to Jack Boyle.  In fact, the steamer had a major influence on his family’s history.  Note the following item from the July 24, 1873 edition of the San Francisco newspaper The Daily Alta California:

Boyles aboard Colon

Among the passengers reported arriving in San Francisco that July were S.A. Boyle and O.M. Boyle … known less formally as Sarah Boyle (Jack’s grandmother) and Olin McClintock Boyle (Jack’s father).  Prior to 1873, both were lifelong inhabitants of the East Coast.  But after studying at West Point and working on several newspapers in Pennsylvania, Olin decided to take a chance on finding his fortune out West (apparently bringing his mother along for the trip).  It was the Colon that brought the Boyle family to California, where eight years later Jack would be born.

It’s hardly surprising that when Jack needed a ship on which his main character might depart to make a fresh start, he chose the Colon.  Not only would many readers of the time find the name familiar, but the steamer also held a place in his own family history.  Sadly, Blackie and Mary were never to make their passage to another life upon her decks, but the Colon certainly played a part in changing the lives of the Boyle family.

By the way, while Blackie and Mary never managed to sail for Panama, not many months later they did take a momentous voyage aboard a steamship.  And that vessel had a real-life counterpart whose history inspired one of Boston Blackie’s most elaborate heists.  But that’s a story for another blog post.

JBF  7/19/16

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The Wallingford Connection

February 3, 2016 at 10:10 PM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Mt Adams Sun 8-1-41

Pittsburgh Press 4-17-41

Huh?  Get-Rich-Quick who?  Jack Boyle never wrote about any character known as  Wallingford, and yet numerous press releases in the 1940s connected the name to Boston Blackie.  What’s the story?

Actually, confidence man J. Rufus Wallingford was the literary creation not of Jack Boyle, but of a phenomenally popular author in the earliest days of the 20th century, named George Randolph Chester.  The character first appeared between book covers in the 1908 collection from the Henry Altemus Company Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford: A Cheerful Account of the Rise and Fall of an American Business Buccaneer (though the tales first appeared individually in issues of The Saturday Evening Post a year earlier, in 1907).  So the Wallingford series debuted and found a wide readership a decade ahead of Boston Blackie.

While there is no actual connection between George Randolph Chester’s sharp-dealing protagonist and Jack Boyle’s notorious safe-cracker, the Wallingford series did prominently feature a character named Blackie.  The protagonist’s partner in crime was a shady fellow named Blackie Daw.

And that’s where confusion has arisen over the years.  The similarity in names between George Randolph Chester’s con man Blackie Daw and Jack Boyle’s master criminal Boston Blackie Dawson has led a number of sources to confuse the two characters.  Press releases for Meet Boston Blackie were not the only items that connected Boyle’s burglar to Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford.  Promotional material for the syndicated Boston Blackie radio series made the same mistake at least as late as 1948, and some reference works published well into the 21st century have erroneously credited George Randolph Chester with creating Boston Blackie.  Certainly, the existence of two popular characters with such similar names — created within several years of each other, and both living on the wrong side of the law — is confusing.  But is the similarity of their names a coincidence?

Perhaps not.  When Boston Blackie first appeared in The American Magazine in 1914, he had no other name.  He was simply Boston Blackie.  But when he resurfaced in the pages of The Red Book Magazine three years later, he had acquired the surname Dawson.  A few years after Jack Boyle’s death, Red Book editor Ray Long recorded his recollection of how the author came to resurrect Blackie for the pages of his magazine.  During a visit to Long’s Chicago office, Boyle spoke with him about the current crop of fiction, and criticized a story about a professional confidence man.  His complaint was that the fellow in the story could be recognized as a criminal by a ten year old child.  “‘Confidence man’ means a man who wins your confidence.  That’s his stock in trade.  The fellow in your story couldn’t win the confidence of any one.  If such a person tried the confidence game, he’d starve to death.”  In response, Long encouraged Boyle to furnish some stories about “real crooks,” and the result was “Boston Blackie’s Mary,” the story in which the name Dawson first appears in the Blackie canon.

Certainly, there is no way to prove that it was one of George Randolph Chester’s stories that Boyle was criticizing, or that the confidence man in question was Blackie Daw.  However, it is unquestionable that Chester wrote for a number of popular periodicals during this period (including The Red Book and Cosmopolitan), and that the Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford stories made numerous appearances in magazines and newspapers.  The series was firmly in the public eye the day that Boyle paid his visit to Long’s office.  While it’s possible that he was referring to a story about another confidence artist, it strains credibility that he would subsequently just happen to name his own character so closely after another con man from popular fiction of the time.  It seems more plausible that, in naming his own character Blackie Dawson, Jack Boyle was tweaking the nose of the creator of Blackie Daw.

Again, there is no way to prove this speculation, so it must be taken, at best, as a hypothesis.  Did Jack Boyle name his most famous character in response to an already-popular criminal protagonist whom he found absurdly unrealistic?  No one can say.  But if he did, to some degree his joke backfired on him.  Decades later, people confuse Blackies Dawson and Daw, giving rise to questions of exactly who created Boston Blackie.  I doubt Boyle would have been so keen to christen Blackie the way he did had he known that it might cast doubt on his creation of his own most popular character.

JBF  2/3/16

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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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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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Boston Blackie: Complete and Uncut (At Last!)

April 13, 2015 at 1:00 AM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Since passing into the public domain, the 1919 “novel” BOSTON BLACKIE has been reprinted numerous times in the early 21st century.  Available in digital, print, and audio editions (often at little or no cost), the seven stories it encompasses are the most familiar portion of Jack Boyle’s body of work.  And yet, anyone who has read it will not recognize the following scene, missing from the Blackie canon since its publication in 1917:

 

A pallet was spread on the floor in the Mission attic in which Boston Blackie, university graduate, safe-cracker and escaped convict, had taken refuge after his flight from San Gregorio Penitentiary.  On it lay Blackie, a block of wood supporting his head Chinese-fashion, while his long, deft fingers rapidly toasted oozy drops of opium into nut-brown smoking-pellets.

The room was in darkness save for the dim light shed by a tiny opium lamp covered by a conical tin chimney.  The smoker’s fingers, twirling the sizzling pills on a yen hok in the slender shaft of light above the lamp, cast gigantic shadows on the walls and ceiling – grim, fantastic, strangely shaped shadows that seemed a visible expression of the troubled mind of the man beneath them.

Boston Blackie was oppressed by an unreasoning but insistent sense of impending trouble and unseen danger.  His mind, keen, alert and supernormally intuitive, sought in vain to place the intangible menace.  Often, it seemed, his mentality, projecting itself into the darkness about him, almost reached and drew aside the black curtain that hid the lurking mystery.  But each time the unrealized vision faded and left him staring at dancing, meaningless wall-shadows.  Suddenly, unbidden and unconnected with any conscious thought, a picture gripped his mind.  He saw a shadowy figure, bound hand and foot and standing alone on a raised platform with head and face hidden by something dark and sinister.

“The black cap of the hangman,” he whispered, twisting uneasily on his pallet.  “This has been a strange day and a stranger night,” he thought.  “Trouble hangs in the air.  To-day was to have seen Mary and me safe at sea, with fear and danger forever behind us.  By every possible human computation of chances, we should be.  But night finds us still here in a world of enemies.  And thoughts of a hangman haunt my mind!  Why?  Chance!  There is no such thing.  Something holds us here for good or evil – evil, probably.  Well, if it must come, let it.  But it’s hard on Mary.  Poor Mary!  Poor little girl!”

Boston Blackie and Mary, partner of all the hazards of his life, had taken passage for Central America on the steamer Colon.  In his own country Blackie was a man with a price on his head – an escaped convict.  For days he and Mary had waited for the hour of the Colon’s sailing – Blackie with keen impatience, Mary with the fierce longing of a hunted creature seeking refuge for herself and her mate.  Almost on the hour of departure a steam-pipe had burst in the Colon’s engine room.  Two days would be required for repairs.  It was on the first of these that Blackie now lay on his pallet twirling pellets of opium, while a sixth sense warned him of danger still to be met. 

An hour passed.  The shadows still danced on the wall and ceiling.  The pills still hissed and bubbled in the heat of the tiny flame.  A step sounded on the stair.

“Mary at last!” exclaimed Blackie in tones caressingly tender.

 

This *lost* sequence from “The Woman Called Rita” is just one example of the deleted material lurking within the pages of THE RED BOOK MAGAZINE, excised when Boston Blackie was converted from periodical to hardcover publication.  While the 1919 book played a crucial role in making Blackie accessible to a readership for many decades, it also ensured that Jack Boyle’s original, unexpurgated texts were all but forgotten.  Virtually no one has read the full-length versions of “Boston Blackie’s Mary,” “The Woman Called Rita,” “Fred the Count,” “Boston Blackie’s Little Pal,” “A Problem in Grand Larceny,” “An Answer in Grand Larceny” and “Alibi Ann” in almost 100 years.

With that in mind, I’ve taken pains to return to the original magazine texts in preparing my upcoming volume, THE COMPLETE BOSTON BLACKIE.  Much the way that films are often given an extended director’s cut these days, I’m working to present Jack Boyle’s extended author’s cut of these not-so-familiar stories.  So, if you’ve read BOSTON BLACKIE (or even the more recent collection BOSTON BLACKIE & FRIENDS), my volume will still hold more than a few surprises for you.

JBF 4/13/15

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