No. 6606’s Last Bow

September 19, 2016 at 8:12 PM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

In honor of mid-September, with summer slowly slipping into autumn, here’s a seldom-seen bit of advertising from 102 years ago this very month:

thiefs-daughter-ad

This bit of vintage promotion comes from the September 26, 1914 issue  of The Literary Digest, hyping (among other things) the last of Jack Boyle’s original quartet of Boston Blackie stories.  “A Thief’s Daughter” was the final yarn to bear Boyle’s No. 6606 pseudonym, and the first appearance of Blackie’s beloved Mary.  With illustrations from N.C. Wyeth, the tale made for an excellent final bow to Boyle’s American Magazine readers.  It would be another three years before Boston Blackie would surface again, in the pages of The Red Book.

JBF  9/19/16

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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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Unseen Boston Blackie … The “Lost” Images

May 4, 2015 at 1:00 AM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

When The American Magazine published the quartet of tales which introduced Boston Blackie to the world in 1914, readers were treated not only to the watershed stories of Jack Boyle’s literary career, but also to the graphic artistry of a master illustrator.  These early Blackie yarns were graced by illustrations from rising American artist N.C. Wyeth.  Each story was accompanied by several original Wyeth compositions, all rendered in beautiful black and white.  Several excellent artists illustrated Blackie’s magazine adventures over the years – W.H.D. Koerner and Lee Conrey, to name just a pair – but Wyeth’s work on the series is in a class by itself.

Which makes it all the more exciting to discover a couple of Boston Blackie images that have never been published the way Wyeth originally rendered them.  While The American presented these pieces gorgeously in black and white, the artist painted at least some of them in full color.  So, while Wyeth’s work on Boston Blackie has been available to the public for literally as long as the character has existed, almost no one has seen the paintings the way they actually appeared resting on the artist’s easel.

Happily, the Brandywine River Museum in Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania is home to many of the original canvases of N.C. Wyeth, and among them are at least two full color images from Jack Boyle’s very first set of Boston Blackie tales.  These images cannot be reproduced here (as they are copyrighted to the Brandywine Museum), but for your enjoyment I will present links to them as they appear on the museum’s website:

http://brandywine.doetech.net/Voyager/image.cfm?ImageKey=9785&ImageFile=/VoyagerImages/BRM_93.23.jpg&TableKey=OBJECT:1213155

This first painting was highlighted in the October 1914 story “A Thief’s Daughter,” and features an image of Mary, before her marriage to Blackie, preparing opium for a group of her father’s friends.  Blackie is among the group.

http://brandywine.doetech.net/Voyager/image.cfm?ImageKey=9493&ImageFile=/VoyagerImages/BRM_96.1.13.jpg&TableKey=OBJECT:1278033

And this image comes from the September 1914 tale “Death Cell Visions,” in which Blackie and his cellmate are visited nightly by a ghostly apparition.

While Wyeth’s Blackie illustrations are among the finest done for the series, apparently N.C. Wyeth himself was less than thrilled to be doing such commercial work.  The Brandywine’s notes on the “Death Cell Visions” piece include the following comments:           

In May, 1914 Wyeth wrote, “To-day on my easel stands a canvas vividly portraying two murderers in a death-cell. The apparition of a hideous blood stained face stares at them from the wall. It is only by using my utmost power of control that I do not get up from this note and destroy the damned thing! But patience! I see the opening clear, where I can choose what kind of thing shall be my output.”           

Regardless of Wyeth’s feelings regarding his commercial work, his illustrations for Boston Blackie’s debut run in The American are fantastic visualizations of Jack Boyle’s scenes, and are well worth the effort of any Blackie fan to view them.  Many more are available on the Brandywine’s website, accessible simply by running the name Blackie though their catalogue’s keyword search.  I highly encourage everyone to take the time to give it a look.

JBF 5/4/15

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Boston Blackie

April 26, 2011 at 7:46 PM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

It’s probably unfair of me to call Jack Boyle forgotten.  Certainly, a simple Google search of “Boston Blackie” will turn up references to him, and there are snippets of info about his life buried in documents scattered across the Internet.  But virtually all of that material is DEEPLY buried, and Boyle’s name is scarcely a fraction as recognizable to the general public as that of his most enduring creation.

Not that Boston Blackie is a household name these days either.  Still, unlike his creator, Blackie has managed to maintain a toehold in the  consciousness of the American public.  He is mentioned in songs like The Coasters’ Searchin’ and (more recently) Jimmy Buffet’s Pencil Thin
Moustache.  And, of course, his adventures are fondly remembered by a great many fans of old-time radio and b-movie mysteries.

For the uninitiated among us, Boston Blackie is a hero on the wrong side of the law.  In his best-remembered incarnations (the movies, radio, and tv
series of the 1940s-50s), he is a reformed thief with a heart of gold, usually at odds with the police because of his criminal past.  However, this characterization is a far cry from the initial concept first presented in Jack Boyle’s earliest stories.  While his Blackie definitely possesses the benevolent streak which helped endear him to audiences for decades, he initially appears as a hardened criminal and opium addict.  Later tales wean him of his drug dependence, and move Blackie closer and closer to the reformed status he enjoys in later decades.  Regardless of which version of the character you prefer, Boston Blackie always makes for ripping good entertainment, and his creation was a defining moment in Jack Boyle’s life.

Of course, I was scarcely aware of most of this the day I unwittingly took my first tentative steps down the trail of Blackie and Boyle.  The afternoon I returned that reprint of BOSTON BLACKIE to the public library, and followed a whim to dig up Boyle’s earliest tales from THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE, I had no intention of embarking on a decades-long research project.  I just wanted to read a few more stories, and maybe find out a
little bit more about their author.  There was something magical about handling those crumbling magazines from 1914 though – almost intoxicating –
and the original illustrations by N.C. Wyeth alone were stunning enough to justify pulling the aged periodicals from the depths of the library’s
archives.  The autobiographical sketch published with these earliest Blackie tales was not credited to Jack Boyle, but appeared under the byline No. 6606 (Boyle’s convict number in the penitentiary where he was incarcerated).  With his identity obscured in this manner, the sketch provided little in the way of specific data about the author, instead relating anecdotes primarily related to his addiction to opium and his fall from grace as a journalist. So, while fascinating reading, the piece gave only vague clues to Boyle’s early life.

But what clues they were!  They spoke of a successful professional brought to ruin, the pursuit of a fugitive from justice, armed robbery, corruption in law enforcement, and an insider’s view of the criminal underworld. In many ways, Boyle himself was beginning to sound even more intriguing than
the fictional characters he wrote about.  Surely there was more I could ferret out about this man.  How could he have gone from success to disgrace to extreme success and then obscurity?  My intrigue was deepening.  So, putting aside those issues of THE AMERICAN, I began contemplating how I
could go about finding out more …

JBF 4/26/11

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