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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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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