My notes on the Boston Blackie B pictures.
Boston Blackie, a ‘reformed thief’ hero who predates the Lone Wolf and the Saint, was created by Jack Boyle – himself an ex-convict (and opium addict) – in a series of stories published between 1914 and 1919. In the early stories, Blackie is an active crook rather than a Robin Hood type, but he reformed mid-way through the series. There are a clutch of silent films based on sections of the fix-up that was published as Boston Blackie (1919), with Bert Lytell (Boston Blackie’s Little Pal, 1918; Blackie’s Redemption, 1919), Sam DeGrasse (The Silk-Lined Burglar, 1919), David Powell (Missing Millions, 1922), Lionel Barrymore (The Face in the Fog, 1922), William Russell (Boston Blackie, 1923), Thomas Carrigan (Crooked Alley, 1923) and Forrest Stanley (Through the Dark, 1924). By the time of The Return of Boston Blackie (1927), with Raymond Glenn (later Bob Custer) as a just-out-of-jail, determined-to-go-straight Blackie, the franchise seemed to be flagging. The hero ceded top billing to Strongheart the Dog (who’d already played Jack London’s White Fang), who got to do intrepid pet tricks that upstaged the title character. In the 1940s, Columbia dusted off the property as a series for star Chester Morris. Boyle was always credited, but the studio essentially made up their own version of the character, complete with supporting cast, recurring bits of business and a distinct if little-remarked-on streak of camp unique in the brisk, no-nonsense world of series mysteries.
Meet Boston Blackie (1941)
The initial entry establishes a pattern in that it’s more an adventure film than a mystery, with Hitchcockian spy elements and a carny atmosphere. There initial flurry of silent Boyle adaptations had burned out, so this version of Blackie – which co-existed with a radio series and was followed by an early TV show (with Kent Taylor) – is the one that stuck. There might seem to be little to distinguish reformed safecracker Blackie (Chester Morris) from the Saint, the Lone Wolf or some film versions of Arsene Lupin. All of these debonair ex-thieves had barbed relationships with plodding police inspectors, for instance. However, they were all slick, smooth Raffles types whereas Morris plays Blackie is a rougher-edged, tough-talking wiseguy who’s probably more convincing when it comes to thumping thugs. And Inspector Faraday (Richard Lane), unlike nemeses of other ex-crooks, had scored a big win for the law by sending Blackie to prison in the first place, bringing a keener edge to his repeated attempts to put the hero back inside.
Blackie and sidekick Runt (Charles Wagenheim) return from a sojourn in Europe, and Faraday is on the dock still hoping to nab him for a long-ago pearl theft. The hero rescues blonde Marilyn Howard (Constance Worth) from obvious hoods on the ship. She she ditches her rescuer, only for Blackie to get entangled with her again at a funfair where she’s murdered in a ghost train ride. Director Robert Florey, known for horror stuff, plays up the mysterioso element with bizarre monster masks. Later, in a freak show, he even casts Schlitze (the pinhead from Freaks) as an incidental attraction – perhaps a miscalculation since she (actually he) looks heavier and unhappier ten years on from her breakout part, kicking me out of the film to recall her fairly grim life story.
Not too upset about the death of the girl he was mashing on, Blackie hitches a ride with glamorous brunette Cecelia (Rochelle Hudson), who tags along for the fun of dodging cops and thwarting a spy ring out to convey a stolen bomb site to an offshore ship. Cecelia and Blackie bicker about his lack of enthusiasm for settling down and at one point he rolls her up in a murphy bed to ditch her. In the end, the heel patriotically stops the spies (who aren’t associated with any mentioned foreign power) and Faraday decides to let him walk on the old rap. Florey’s touch is evident in incidental weirdness – a carny (Michael Rand, later James Seay) does an act as an automaton, a code involving the guess-your-weight barker and Morse flashing neon signs, Byron Foulger plays a bogus blind man in Tomb of Ligeia specs. Story and screenplay by Jay Dratler, who soon vaulted to the likes of Laura and The Dark Corner. By reimagining Boyle’s character and inventing a supporting cast, Dratler would deserve a ‘developed by’ or a ‘created for’ credit in today’s business.
Confessions of Boston Blackie (1941)
The second film in the series keeps Chester Morris and Richard Lane as Blackie and frenemy Inspector Farraday (slightly changing the character name), but replaces Wagenheim with the runtier George E. Stone as sidekick Runt, promotes Walter Sande out of uniform and gives him a character name (Sergeant Matthews) so he can serve as Farraday’s dimwit sidekick, then throws in Lloyd Corrigan as plump, prissy, excitable (ie: coded-as-gay) Arthur Manleder, yet another comic tagalong who is also the device for getting Blackie into the story.
Diane Parrish (Harriet Hilliard, later Nelson) needs to sell a valuable statue of Emperor Augustus to pay for her brother’s health care. Crooked auctioneer Buchanan (Ralph Theodore) has sculptor Eric Allison (Walter Soderling) whip up a plaster copy that wouldn’t fool anyone except that the original looks like a studio workshop fake too to be substituted, while unpersuasively smarming that it’s a rule of his house that the vendor not attend the auction. Despite this red flag, Diane trusts the creep until she’s kidnapped. Blackie and his pals and Farraday and his pal are all at the auction for no real reason. Diane slips in and spots the substitution, which precipitates a shoot-out in which Allison is accidentally killed by the bullet Buchanan meant for the girl and Farraday decides that Blackie – who did pull a rod and get a shot off at the fleeing crook – is most likely guilty. Again, it’s not so much a mystery as a one-damn-thing-after-another romp – with Buchanan forced to stash the corpse in the hollow fake statue, which Manleder then buys for a larf. About the dead guy’s person are the bullet which would exonerate Blackie and pin the crime on Buchanan, but also (in a neat touch) a notebook containing the combination to the vault in which the real Augustus is stashed.
This means a runaround as the villains try to get the worthless statue, alerting the good guys to the fact that something is up. There’s a lot of padding involving a hospital visit, an ice cream vendor, Joan Woodbury as a gold-digger who claims to be Mrs Blackie, yet more dumb cops to be thwarted, and low-quality wisecracks. Edward Dmytryk (Murder My Sweet, The Caine Mutiny, Bluebeard) doesn’t get as much chance to show off as Robert Florey did in Meet Boston Blackie, but the series is at this stage going for cut-above-B directors. The climax takes place in an impressive three-storey underground set of the sculptor’s secret workshop, with an unusual touch in that dolt Matthews shoots Buchanan dead and shorts out the only elevator exit, prompting the surviving baddie (Kenneth MacDonald) to needle the goodies until Blackie comes up with an ingenious (or crackbrained) scheme to summon help by setting fire to the ceiling. Jay Dratler co-writes with Paul Yawitz, who would work on the bulk of the rest of the series.
Alias Boston Blackie (1942)
A strength of this entry is that the story wouldn’t work as a Lone Wolf or Saint adventure. A bit of backstory for Blackie and Farraday complicates their relationship and adds shading to the characters, and it the suspenseful plot is given more impact by being set at Christmas. The holiday season is intrinsic to the premise. On Christmas Eve , Blackie takes a stage troupe to the prison where he (and Runt) served time after Farraday arrested them. The charity gesture threatens to backfire as angry con Joe Trilby (Larry Parks), who insists he was framed by two other guys, uses the cover of the show to change places with clown Roggi (George McKay) and escape in order to get revenge (he also has to do Roggi’s very athletic act).
En route to the slammer, Blackie and Farraday have a barbed exchange and Blackie lightly describes his time in stir as if they were his college years – Morris is great here, suggesting a well of anger underneath his reformed cracksman schtick (those other gadabout cracksmen just treat crime as a cheery lark). Though it’s not clear exactly what he does for a living (!), we get a sense that as an ex-con he’s always coping with prejudice. Other adventurers enjoy sparring with other inspectors, but Blackie resents the way Farraday suspects him whenever a crime is committed (the Lone Wolf laughs this off over and over). Farraday, who got a promotion for busting Blackie, likes and admires Blackie but still thinks he knows a crook when he sees one. Even Runt has a speech about how he was only in crime to give presents to a blonde, who presumably dumped him during his time inside – the most human moment a comedy sidekick has in all series mysteries.
Blackie’s mission is unusual too – to head off Joe before he goes from framed innocent to murderer, while aware that he’s also on the hook as a presumed accomplice in the escape. Parks, later of the Jolson films and HUAC hearings, is hard to like. Joe doesn’t care that his sister (Adele Mara) is also likely to face charges after his killing spree. He’s only not a murderer because he shows up after his intended victim has been shot by someone else (all is forgiven in the spirit of Christmas at the end, though). Obviously, the real killer (Paul Fix) is the second of the framers. Blackie sleuths after him in lowlife manner, using an underworld contact, pawnbroker Jumbo Madigan (Cy Kendall, who’d come back to the series). Like many B films, it’s resolved too quickly with the killer shot while trying to escape – no one mentions that it’s presumably a shit Christmas for his family – and all the crimes Joe has committed during his revenge play apparently forgiven. Lloyd Corrigan’s Arthur Manleder is back for a running joke about his jaw locking and his valet (James T. Mack) gets jealous when anyone else administers the slap that puts it back in place – a rare instance of a comedy sissy appearing to be in a relationship (with a s-m complicated sub-dom twist to boot). Lloyd Bridges has a tiny bit as a bus driver. Scripted by Paul Yawitz; directed by Lew Landers (The Raven).
Boston Blackie Goes Hollywood (1942)
A particularly weak, thin effort. The plot, involving a stolen jewel (‘the Monterey’) we never actually get to see, is just a line to peg a bunch of not-that-funny comedy bits on. In the opening, a mystery figure is prowling in Blackie’s apartment and the series lead (Chester Morris) and stooge Runt (George E. Stone) call the cops. Sgt Matthews (Walter Sande, series regular in a prominent role, but unbilled on the credits) shows up, smugly assumes Blackie’s the crook and tries to bust him, though an elevator operator points out that this is the reformed burglar’s own apartment. Then, after an elementary bit of locked room detection, the prowler is hauled down from the chimney by giving him a hot-foot and it turns out to be Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane, clinging to his billing), who has illegally broken and entered Blackie’s home because he’s heard of the jewel theft in California (!) and has somehow decided BB must be guilty and will have the mcguffin stashed in his desk. To be fair to the grudge-holding idiot – Blackie recites all the cop’s resentful dialogue as he arrests him – the theft did involve Blackie’s rich pal Arthur Manleder (Lloyd Corrigan), who was duped by a blonde (Constance Worth) into getting hold of the gem and lending it to her.
Manleder gets in touch in a tizzy because he’s being shaken down by the thieves – one is Forrest Tucker, as a git called Whipper because he’s always whipping out his gun – who say they can get the jewel back for $60,000 but actually want the money to pay to have the stone cut so they can split the take. Manleder, whose sissiness remains though the script insists that he’s always getting into trouble because he’s an easy mark for gold-digging dames, asks Blackie to get the cash from his apartment and bring it across country. He omits to share the combination to the safe so the reformed thief can show off his skills (maybe he knew that the safe would be no problem for his pal, but it just makes him all the guiltier-seeming). After that, it’s just a car crash of silly circumstances: Blackie and the Runt disguise themselves as an old professor and a schoolboy in shorts and an Eton collar, Blackie pours an ant farm into the aeroplane luggage compartment where the cops are hiding (hilarious itch jokes ensue), all the Hollywood action is confined to one apartment building (no mention of, say, the movie business), the old gag about a chase repeatedly interrupting an old couple listening to the radio, a falling-out between several factions of thieves, business in a lift shaft, and Blackie amusingly beating rival thief Slick Barton (William Wright) senseless via comedy sound effects that still convey what a vicious bastard the hero can be.
Cy Kendall returns from Alias Boston Blackie as underworld connection Jumbo Madigan. Scripted by series staple Paul Yawitz. This entry’s director-on-the-rise is Michael Gordon, who went on to noirs (The Web) and big pictures (Cyrano de Bergerac) before HUAC blacklisting killed his career, only to re-emerge with glossy rom-coms like Pillow Talk and Move Over, Darling.
After Midnight With Boston Blackie (1943)
Among the best of the series, with a nice mix of thriller and comic elements, decent bits of characterisation, a few topical references (Manleder’s butler was A-1 and is in the army, the climax takes place during a test blackout of NYC), one or two actual surprises (rare in programmers of this vintage), and a revelation that Blackie’s real name is Horatio Black.
Like Alias Boston Blackie, it has a compressed timeframe – though rather than Christmas, the event in the background here is the Runt (George E. Stone) trying to get married to bubble dancer Dixie Rose Blossom (Jane Buckingham – one of Preston Sturges’ stock company) but always leaving her before the ceremony to accompany Blackie on his latest adventure. Dixie Rose is suspiciously sanguine about being left at the altar – she even flirts with Arthur (Lloyd Corrigan), who is hosting the wedding, and has a memorable bit where she takes off her coat while hearing what turns out to be the music from her act and unthinkingly makes stripper moves. There’s a well-set up punchline (again, a rarity) as it turns out that Dixie Rose is the bigamist Farraday (Richard Lane) and Matthews (Walter Sande) have been told to look out for before they got distracted by a case involving a just-out-of-jail diamond heister (Walter Baldwin) who wants some gems he legitimately owns to go to his daughter Betty (Ann Savage, sweeter than in her signature role in Detour) but is targeted by club-owning crook Herschel (Cy Kendall, taking a break from his regular Jumbo role and effective as a straight heavy). The cops think Blackie is out to get the diamonds for himself, and – in a nice complication – Herschel is aiming to chisel his goons out of their cut and gets the diamonds early on but pretends they’re still in play, which makes for a scenes-we’d-like-to-see turnaround as one of the standard issue thugs, Sammy Walsh (Al Hill), realises the double-cross and plugs the boss, then becomes the villain who has to be thwarted in the finale.
Again, there’s a lot of actual action – a rooftop chase during blackout, a chase with a stolen police car – but the emphasis is on the hero doing clever things, like slipping the diamonds into a jug of water or improvising an instant blackface disguise to infiltrate a nightclub as a musician. This ought to be embarrassing, but Morris – who tended to underplay when in disguise (at least in early films) – gives an actual, uncaricatured performance as the jazz man and has a tiny, sort-of sexy encounter with a sepia songstress (Marguerite Whitten, of King of the Zombies and a bunch of ‘race’ films) in her dressing room.
The Chance of a Lifetime (1943)
Many long-running series – cf: Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan – reach a point when the lead character gets dropped from the title, though ‘with Chester Morris as Boston Blackie’ is still part of the title card here. Screenwriter Paul Yawitz returns to the idea that ex-con Blackie is a booster for programs to rehabilitate offenders. The interesting premise is scuppered by fairly dumb developments, way too much comic padding, and ridiculous runaround stuff clumsily directed by debuting William Castle.
Though Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) argues against it, Blackie persuades the Governor (Pierre Watkin, who spent his whole screen career behind a desk) to test an early release scheme so non-hardened cons can do war work in Arthur Manleder’s never-before-mentioned manufacturing plant … but Dooley Watson (Erik Rolf) imperils the scheme by retrieving stolen money he’s stashed and not showing up for work. It may just be that the film is too hurried to cross all its Ts, but there’s an almost interesting characterisation for Dooley. He may be less guilty than his unconvicted partners, who threaten his wife (Jeanne Bates) and moppet son to get their cut, but his instinct still seems to be to grab the cash and get out of town with his family and the hell with Blackie and those other saps at the factory. One crook gets shot in one of those struggles-over-a-gun scripts presume will be dismissed as accidental killings rather than manslaughter, and baddie Nails Blanton (Douglas Fowley) uses that to pressure Dooley even more.
To safeguard his social program, Blackie confesses to murder and larceny – to the delight of the vindictive Farraday, who sometimes seems to root for Blackie and sometimes genuinely hates his guts – but escapes and hares around town trying to sort things out. It’s little-remarked within the films but a blatant fact to anyone watching that reformed crook Blackie commits more crimes while being a do-gooder than he did in his burglary days. Here, we get plentiful common assaults, false confession, wasting police time, impersonating a police officer, cracking a safe and stealing $60,000 (from a police evidence locker!), vandalism (he wrecks a dumb waiter in an apartment building after using it to escape), and torture (hanging Nails out of a 14th storey window to extort a confession). All of this is smiled away and forgiven at the end. In an endless bit, the Runt (George E. Stone) and Blackie get some washerwomen (Maude Eburne, Marie de Becker) drunk on champagne – setting up an even more endless bit where the pals drag up as washerwomen, signalling a shift in the series as it starts flirting with the notion of Blackie and the Runt as a couple.
Cy Kendall is back as pawnbroker informant fixer Jumbo, and seems to get killed – a shock, since regular characters in series were generally invincible – only it turns out he was shamming. Among lesser unbelievabilities is the idea that the ten early-release cons could all camp out in Blackie’s apartment; their number include a few recognisable faces (Arthur Hunnicutt, Trevor Bardette). Castle would direct a breakout B in When Strangers Marry and do impressive early work on Columbia’s ambitious Whistler series – before moving on to a producer-as-auteur career and a distinctive line in gimmicky horror films.
One Mysterious Night (1944)
There seems to have been a bit of a shake-up in the series before this item – Chester Morris, Richard Lane and George E. Stone are still in their regular roles, but three other continuing characters are recast … Harrison Greene has a tiny bit as Arthur Manleder, Lyle Latell takes over as Sergeant Matthews, and Joseph Crehan is now Jumbo Madigan. I suspect Paul Yawitz wrote One Mysterious Night with the previous casting in mind, but the performances tug the characters in different directions – Manleder is written as sissy comedy relief but Greene plays it straighter, Latell is even more irritatingly clod-hopping as Matthews than Walter Sande was getting to be, and Crehan is good but gives a completely different reading of Jumbo. As in the last film, Jumbo gets shot and seems to be dead – the script mentions he’s still alive, without a scene showing his recovery (after getting plugged twice while helping out Blackie, this fence must be getting fed up with his reformed pal).
We get something like progress or character arc rather than the endless cycling of most film series. When the priceless Blue Star of the Nile diamond is stolen from an exhibition being held for war relief, Inspector Farraday (Lane) tells the press that Boston Blackie must be the guilty party since he’s the only crook in the city bold enough to do it, but by now he’s finally cottoned on to the fact that the hero has genuinely reformed and is only accusing him as a backhand way of forcing Blackie to do the cops’ job for them and catch the real thieves.
The basic plot isn’t much – a feckless manager (Robert E. Scott/Mark Roberts) has been suborned by a couple of regulation tough characters, Martens (William Wright) and Healy (Robert B. Williams), into making the snatch (using a lot of chewing gum) and Blackie tumbles quickly. Several disguise/imposture/comedy scenes are wildly overdone – another change, and not for the better. But Yawitz has a knack for populating these films with distinctive character bits: a chase leads into a women-only hotel where a manager (Minerva Urecal) bristles with instinctive misandry, and Healy has a habit of repeating and trying to top his dominant partner’s tough lines that’s slightly off. There’s finally a display of cleverness as, after a pass-the-mcguffin bit which sees the diamond unknowingly shuffled around the supporting cast, the crooks finally get what they want, only for Blackie to convince them it’s paste and he’s only trying to get it from them because he needs it as a substitute when he steals the real gem.
As often in series films, plot threads are curtailed – early on, Daley’s sister (a young Dorothy Malone) is a key character, concerned about her brother but furious that he’s let her down (she got him his cushy job, though she’s only a switchboard operator at the hotel). Then, after Daley gets killed, we never see her again – leaving her feelings up in the air. And the business of escaping from being tied up wears thin too.
Early on, the Runt (Stone) swears Blackie couldn’t have committed the crime because he was working beside him on a twelve hour shift in Manleder’s factory (so they’ve finally got jobs) then slept in the same room as him. The tag has Blackie ambling after a smart, interfering blonde reporter (Janis Carter, very good) who has consistently been a nuisance, prompting the Runt having a spasm of jealous panic a she rushes off to (it seems) get his boyfriend back. Farraday and Matthews and even crooks Martens and Healy also come across as bickering couples. One area that the series is light on is villains – Blackie spends so much time thwarting the cops that there’s only room for standard-issue, recyclable unreformed-thugs-in-hats (Wright is back in another of these roles) as low-wattage nemeses. Dorothy Anderson (Carter) is added as another this-side-of-the-law foil.
Following William Castle, the director scoring his first feature credit here is Oscar Boetticher Jr (later Budd) who manages ambitious effects like a long take scene which tracks back and forth through a three-room apartment (the take is slightly spoiled by a glimpsed crew shadow, but it’s still unusual for a B).
Boston Blackie Booked on Suspicion (1945)
A rare clever title – most other BB’s have meaningless/interchangeable titles – in that this finally gets away from jewels and cash to highlight a different type of valuable item, and thus fits into a tiny category of bibliophile mysteries (cf; Quiet Please, Murder, Secrets of the Chateau, even The Big Sleep).
Arthur Manleder (Lloyd Corrigan, reclaiming his role) has just bought a bookshop, but his first big auction hits a snag when long-time proprietor Wilfred Kittredge (George M. Carleton) is too frail to appear … so Blackie bizarrely gets up in old man drag to take his place, mostly for comedic reasons (Chester Morris’ old man act had got broader over the series and his doddering here shades into annoying). The prize item, going for $62,000, is a first edition of Pickwick Papers, which has actually been forged by odd little Porter Hadley (George Meader), aka Steven Cubacker (pronounced ‘Chewbacca’, which makes you wonder …). In a frankly unbelievable bit, the near-perfect forgery is spotted overnight because of an extra comma in the text (as if a collector would get hold of the volume and read it like a page-turning best-seller).
Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) of course suspects Boston Blackie, because that’s his default setting for any given crime. It’s a good thing Farraday wasn’t on the Black Dahlia case or the Lindbergh Kidnapping. All series fall into conventions which lull regular audiences, giving an opportunity for the odd surprise. Most BBs feature attractive actresses in sympathetic ‘involved party’ roles, wives or sisters of the unjustly-treated who implore Blackie to help out. Here, blonde bookshop assistant Gloria Mannard (Lynn Merick) seems to fit that bill but is in on the forgery-fraud and ruthless enough to murder Porter/Chewbacca and bully her escaped con husband Jack Higgins (Steve Cochran) into other perfidies. Merrick is an appealing silky noir fatale and an unusual antagonist in a series that generally got stuck with regulation mugs. The runaround includes a bit in a building’s incinerator shaft that’s reprised from One Exciting Night, but done better here. Frank Sully is the third Sergeant Matthews, but mostly bland on his initial outing – not necessarily a bad thing.
Regular screenwriter Paul Yawitz works here from a story by Malcolm Stuart Boylan – who’d started out as a scenarist/title writer in silent days and would stay on for more BB work (he also contributed to the I Love a Mystery and Lone Wolf series). Directed by Arthur Dreifuss (Riot on Sunset Strip).
Boston Blackie’s Rendezvous (1945)
Paul Yawitz isn’t credited with the script on this – though screenwriter Edward Dein (later director of Curse of the Undead and The Leech Woman), working from a story by Fred Schiller, reprises whole bits from earlier films in the series. Most disastrously, Blackie’s blackface venture from Boston Blackie After Midnight is combined with Blackie and the Runt impersonating washerwomen from The Chance of a Lifetime in an excruciating sequence in which the lads drag up as jiving mamas and flirt with a porter (the usually more dignified Clarence Muse). The comic relief – which also includes a horrible bit as Blackie irritates a police psychiatrist (Philip Van Zandt) with conjuring tricks – is especially misplaced in that this has what is otherwise the grimmest plot in the series.
Arthur Manleder (now Harry Hayden) tells Blackie that his nephew Jimmy Cook (Steve Cochran), a speed demon who has suffered homicidal urges since a car wreck, has escaped from an asylum. Blackie promises to bring the lunatic in without publicity so as not to wreck another nephew’s wedding (!). It’s finally established why Blackie and Manleder are pals – Manleder was on the parole board that let Blackie out of prison. After the expository dialogue, what should happen but Jimmy creeps through the upper-storey window of Blackie’s suite in an apartment hotel. In a suspenseful, noir-lit face-off Cook briefly suggests that he’s only locked up so his family can get hold of his inheritance … but he knocks off the cat and mouse shit and semi-strangles the hero before stealing some of his clothes. Cook heads for a dance hall where Sally Brown (Nina Foch, classy but wasted) works. He’s been sending her fan letters from the asylum, though she doesn’t seem to have noticed the ominous return address, and is now an early stalker. Sally isn’t working this evening, so Cook dances with Patricia Powers (Adele Roberts) and inveigles her out into the woods where she’s strangled.
The Runt (George E. Stone) finds Blackie unconscious, and slash fiction fans could get plenty of suggestive frame captures from the scenes of the sidekick embracing the pajama-clad hero and wrestling him onto a bed (we see what was only mentioned earlier, that they sleep in the same room – in twin beds). The pair also lapse a lot into snippy, swishy mannerisms and come over more than ever as a couple.
Again, Farraday (Richard Lane) suspects Blackie is responsible for crimes, theorising that his pent-up criminality has turned him into a maniac. In an astonishingly sadistic bit, the cop fantasises about putting his nemesis in the electric chair and punching him in the face before the juice hits. This doesn’t square with the depictions of the characters in earlier films, but sets up the finale where Farraday and Blackie pretend to have a hissy fit slap fight in front of the killer while secretly teaming up to bring him down. However, Blackie’s actions throughout wilfully muddy the investigation and probably let Cook rack up an additional murder (he strangles a maid). Just this once, maybe he could have taken the crimes seriously. Cochran, bumped up from supporting heavy in the previous film, is excellent as the soft-spoken, inexpressive murderer, as if he were auditioning for a more straight-on psycho noir (Phantom Lady or Stranger on the Third Floor?). Returning director Arthur Dreifuss works up suspense in Cook’s scenes, especially when he’s impersonating Boston Blackie and pretending to protect the girl he’ll probably want to strangle before the film’s through.
The comedy of the lead characters may be misjudged, but the series still has a knack for one- or two-scene eccentrics – Iris Adrian is funny as Sally’s roommate, who sells dance tickets, but we also get interesting, off-beat smart-mouthing from a doorman (Tom Kennedy) and a cabbie (Joe Devlin). This entry seems to be struggling to ring some changes and a few sequences are among the series’ best – but a few more rank with the worst the saga had to offer.
A Close Call for Boston Blackie (1946)
There’d been A Close Call for Ellery Queen in 1942, so the series is back to simply taking the title format from another series and switching in the hero’s name. Paul Yawitz provided the story, but script was done by Ben Markson and Malocm Stuart Boylan. Again, a few surprises suggest the characters are learning to defy expectations, but we get way more overfamiliar schtick and the uneven tone of knockabout comedy and ruthless noir is if anything more jarring here than it was in Boston Blackie’s Rendezvous.
The opening finds Blackie (Chester Morris) and the Runt (George E. Stone) apparently in the custody of Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) and Sergeant Matthews (Frank Sully, who at least cops a credit by now) and exchanging tired barbs about the situation – only in turns out the police are giving their pals a ride home. Outside Blackie’s apartment building, two men are trying to force a girl into a car – which naturally prompts the hero to intervene, rescuing ex-showgirl Geraldine Peyton (Lynn Merrick), with whom Blackie was involved before she married a no-good rich guy who’s just out of the slammer on a manslaughter/vehicular homicide charge. Gerry has a baby she’s not told husband John (Mark Peyton) about and is worried that the heel will come back into her life. John shows up with a gun and starts acting psycho, but gets shot from the doorway by one of the would-be abductors. Merrick, from Boston Blackie Booked on Suspicion, again fooled me: the set-up suggests she’s an innocent heroine, but she turns out to be a calculating minx and accessory to murder, though her apparent new boyfriend Smiley Slade (Erik Rolf) is the prime mover.
The villains rely on Blackie to get involved chivalrously, so he can be framed for the killing of the guy he clashes with over the girl – though their long-term plan is to extort a big payment from Peyton’s rich father to hand over the kid, who has been borrowed from Hack Hagen (Charles Lane), a comedy crook who seems to be Slade’s version of the Runt. It’s a real shock when Slade casually kills Hack, making an orphan of the child who gets passed around the whole cast and makes goo-goo eyes at the camera, remaining adorable and indulged … and whose loss of an actual parent is not mentioned in the resolution. Neatly, Blackie escapes from the police by replacing a corpse under a sheet on a stretcher – but sits up not in the morgue but at HQ where Farraday springs a ‘gotcha’ on him. The series as a whole would be stronger if the cop got a few more wins like this amid the humiliations which are visited on him wholesale.
Giving Blackie a love interest in the past makes the Runt seem a little less like his boyfriend and the sidekick again has a brassy blonde love interest, waitress Mamie Kirwin (Claire Carleton), who is nicely tough-talking and wise to the childish behaviour of the men around her. But that childishness is on view in way too many foolish scenes. The Runt dresses up in a nurse outfit to go out and buy milk, which is either revealingly perverse or plain screwy. Blackie does his doddering old man act, passing himself off as Senior Peyton in a scene that requires the villains not to know what their mark looks like – Matthews also gets up as an old man, waiting in the wings in case he’s needed too. Directed by returnee Lew Landers – did journeymen like him and Arthur Dreifuss bristle as other directors used assignments like this as springboards to A pictures?
The Phantom Thief (1946)
An aspect of mystery series that most appeals to me is the bogus spook stuff that makes the likes of The Dragon Murder Case, The Scarlet Claw, Castle in the Desert or The Falcon and the Co-Eds play as semi-horror movies. The Boston Blackies didn’t get to this until late in the series, and any attempt at creepiness is annoyingly sabotaged by having the Runt (George E. Stone) and Sgt Matthews (Frank Sully) react to the most obviously fake of apparitions (floating rubber hands) with exaggerated panic as auditioning for roles as replacement Ritz Brothers. This is also the nearest thing the series has had to an actual whodunit, though we’re let in on the guilt of a key crook before Blackie cleverly sleuths it out and sets a trap.
Eddie (Murray Alper), a pal of the Runt’s and another reformed crook, has backslid and stolen a box from swami Dr Nejino (Marvin Miller) on the orders of his boss, Mrs Anne Duncan (Jeff Donnell), who says it contains documents being used to blackmail he, though it turns out to contain a valuable necklace. Eddie (another annoying comedy clod) is persuaded to return the box, but Blackie and the Runt tag along because the whole swami set-up is highly suspicious and Eddie gets killed during the lights-out performance. Of course, Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) wants to pin the killing on Blackie, but his heart isn’t in it here – what with the extraordinarily suspect Nejino in cahoots with Anne’s high-handed husband Rex (Wilton Graff), the sort of fellow who airily suggests he can write his wife’s police statement and get her to sign it.
A lot of time is spent creeping around in the dark, which is refreshing for the series. The climax is a spooky (if transparent) seance with Anne impersonating her own ghost while Blackie impersonates Nejino in order to j’accuse her louse husband of being involved in the blackmail-bilking-murder racket. One actually good comic idea is that Farraday puts extra cops on the streets in a dragnet Blackie evades by posing as a drunk and spending the night in the police station drunk tank. With Dusty Anderson as Nejino’s good bad girl assistant, Joseph Crehan in a vivid little bit as Jumbo Madigan (a little tougher and more mercenary here). Script by Richard Wormser (The Big Steal) and Richard Weil (The Mysterious Doctor), from a story by G.A. Snow, with additional dialogue by Malcolm Stuart Boylan. Since Paul Yawitz is off this one, I wonder whether Boylan – held over from A Close Call for Boston Blackie – was here to keep series continuity even as the film ventures into new-ish territory. Directed by D. Ross Lederman (Tarzan’s Revenge, The Body Disappears, The Notorious Lone Wolf).
Boston Blackie and the Law (1946)
Twelve films into the series, and Boston Blackie and the Law finally offers an actual mystery – with a surprise culprit the hero identifies and dupes into confessing, though it doesn’t go so far as to have a bunch of suspects (along the way, a few bodies are dropped – but they all turn out to be crooks double-crossed by the baddie).
Again, much business is recycled – as in Alias Boston Blackie, the opening finds Blackie (Chester Morris) putting on a holiday show at a prison, this time a Thanksgiving magic act at a women’s penitentiary. Morris was a keen sleight-of-hand man – we see him do that coin-rolling stunt Steve Martin pulls in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid – and Blackie did a few conjuring tricks in other films, but this is the first time he’s an actual stage magician. He calls for a volunteer from the audience, Dinah Moran (Constance Dowling), to help him with a disappearing trick. She takes the opportunity to escape, whereupon the film skips the track and never really recovers. Dowling, a Lake-ish blonde tough cookie, is barely a presence when her character ought to get a build-up. Instead, a tiresome ten-minute routine has Blackie use the disappearing cabinet to make Sgt Matthews (Frank Sully) and Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) look stupid (the drawn-out joke is done twice). Blackie is quite often smug and petty in the series, but there’s something extra-nasty here about his delight in ruining Farraday’s holiday meal with his family. Dinah used to be a magician’s assistant and was serving time on a robbery charge, but the money has never been recovered and it’s possible she was set up by magician Lampau aka Jani (Warren Ashe), who has divorced her while she’s in stir and is about to marry his leggy brunette new assistant Irene (Trudy Marshall).
For no real reason, Blackie disguises himself as the conjurer and does his act for him after he’s been winged in a shoot-out. Ashe barely registers as a presence, a disappontment after Marvin Miller’s excellent creepy swami turn in The Phantom Thief, and Marshall and Dowling barely get enough lines to establish their rivalry. It uses a variant of the tricked-into-recording-a-confession finale, which is admittedly neatly set up early on as Blackie demonstrates his ventriloquism to mess with Matthews. He doesn’t actually get the confession on wax, but pretends to replay a snippet of dialogue to make the culprit think he has. George E. Stone gets less to do and wears a moustache, looking almost dapper. Scripted by Harry Essex (Creature From the Black Lagoon) and Malcolm Stuart Boylan; directed by D. Ross Lederman.
Trapped by Boston Blackie (1948)
With the disappearance of comedy sissy Arthur Manleder from the Boston Blackie series – the role was recast for Boston Blackie’s Rendezvous and then written out – Blackie himself becomes a camper figure. Here, while rooting through a dress-up closet for disguises, Blackie (Chester Morris) snatches a fabulous ‘Eastern mystic’ outfit away from the Runt (George E. Stone), seizing on a white turban while exclaiming ‘ooh, gay!’ He also feels up the Runt’s ass at one point and they dress as man and wife in another extended disguise riff where Stone’s uncharacteristic underplaying makes his transvestism more like a comfortable kink than schtick. As if that weren’t swish enough, the plot finds an excuse to have Blackie apply to become a pupil of ballet teacher/suspect Igor Borio (Edward Norris) with a sustained display of fluttering (far more than Humphrey Bogart’s biblionerd act in The Big Sleep) and a surprisingly affecting speech about always wanting to dance but being forced to play football instead.
As in Boston Blackie and the Law, this is close to being a proper whodunit and screenwriter Maurice Tombragel (working from a story by Charles Marion and Edward Bock) comes up with clever situations and smart lines to keep the attention between elongated comedy bits. Richard Lane’s Inspector Farraday is on great form, considering mooncalf sidekick Matthews (Frank Sully) and intoning ‘in the dull blank expression on your face I can see the dismal prospect of the years to come’. After a private eye is killed in a suspect car accident, Blackie and the Runt offer to work for his widow (Mary Currier) – later, in a rare touch of legal realism, they’re in trouble because they don’t go to the trouble of getting licensed as PIs – to keep her from going broke. Their first gig (in the mystic disguises) is guarding valuable pearls (‘the Queen’s Ransom’) during a high society soiree in which hostess Claire Carter (Sarah Selby) makes her dance debut with Borio. When Claire drops the pearls, she realises fakes have been substituted. The rest of the film involves a lot of pass-the-mcguffin as a thief conceals the booty in someone else’s fur wrap only to have them lend the thing to someone else. There are clever bits with an office filing cabinet (elaborately locked, but with a huge hole in the back) and a safe (at one point, Blackie proves he can’t be the crook with the acetylene torch because he knows the combination of the safe – in which the pearls happen not to be at the moment).
The whodunit angle is basic, but welcome – and allows Blackie to tangle with the expected lowlifes and hypocrites. Ben Weldon has a priceless moment as a fence appalled that some people have spread disgraceful rumours that Blackie has reformed. A single moment verges on social self-awareness as the Runt sneers about a dame who’s been mixed up in larceny that ‘a leopard doesn’t change its spots’ when he is himself a reformed crook who’s faced prejudice. Continuing a tradition of this series in particular, the suspects include a variety of interesting, attractive women (Fay Baker, June Vincent, Patricia Barry) in chic 1940s outfits. One guest at the costume ball is wearing exactly the same outfit the DC comics character Zatanna would in her 1960s debut. Seymour Friedman – who worked on the Lone Wolf, Saint and Crime Doctor series and made The Son of Dr Jekyll – seems more on the ball than D. Ross Lederman, though he’s a long way from Robert Florey, Edward Dmytryk or Budd Boetticher.
Boston Blackie’s Chinese Venture (1948)
George E. Stone took over as the Runt in the second film in the series, and was replaced for the last. Sid Tomack makes a somewhat taller, less comic sidekick for Chester Morris’s Boston Blackie; Stone is now probably best remembered for his tiny role as informant Toothpick Charlie, kicking off the plot of Something Like It Hot. The last film in the series, scripted and directed by the Boston Blackie and the Law team of Maurice Tombragel and Seymour Friedman, is low-key, with the only unusual angle being the New York Chinatown setting … which raises hacl;es because you know there’ll be an excuse to get Morris and Tomack into Chinese make-up and do silly voices, though when that comes along it’s surprisingly brief .
Going against expectations, the plot has to do with out-of-towners on a tour of the evils of Chinatown, which are enacted by Asian-Americans playing up to but also subverting stereotypes – a circle of gamblers turn out to be playing bridge and crack wise in Jewish dialect. The main villains are caucasians in a diamond smuggling racket that doesn’t make sense, and Chinese performers Maylia, Philip Ahn and Benson Fong get honest character roles that don’t make them out to be either exotic or sinister. Joan Woodbury is back from Confessions of Boston Blackie as a shady dame – her career ran from King of the Zombies to The Ten Commandments – and there are crooked cameos from Don McGuire, Charles Arnt and Luis Van Rooten.
The shortest film of the set, it’s not quite the slightest – but does run around tunnels under Chinatown and through a movie theatre rather a lot. For a change, Sgt Matthews catches a major clue – gunshots on the soundtrack of a Robin Hood picture (Columbia’s The Prince of Thieves, new that year – not the rerun Blackie dismisses it as) and a nice moment has Blackie bristle at the suggestion – made by a Chinese character who instinctively distrusts cops more than the white ex-con does – that Farraday might be a bent copper. The whole series ends with a groaner joke about the Boston Blackie tea party.
The character continued on radio and into a TV series in the early 1950s, but thereafter faded out of pop culture in a way that others – say, the Saint or Charlie Chan – haven’t. Watching the whole run at one film a day, I’ve enjoyed most of the films – though even the best of them have truly ghastly moments.
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