Thursday, February 21, 2019

Chester Morris as Boston Blackie, Part 6


In June 1947, Chester Morris found himself a participant in an unusual cast. He was - depending which news item you read - either entertaining neighborhood children or jitterbugging with his wife when he slipped and fell, fracturing his right leg in two places. While laid up in bed for two months with his leg in plaster, he spent his time by developing a magic set for children, which was marketed at a cost of $10. In the penultimate Boston Blackie film, TRAPPED BY BOSTON BLACKIE (1948), we can see the toll that Morris' enforced rest took on him; he looks noticeably older, a bit bloated, and walks differently - indeed, a recent injury is noted in the dialogue.

Almost certainly the most lackluster of the series' fourteen entries, TRAPPED plays like what it actually was to Columbia: training ground for a new director (in this case, Seymour Freidman). It tells a consistent, if over-complicated story, and seems to have been assembled from pieces filmed and played in different ways. Consequently, the results are hit-and-miss. While magic doesn't play a role in this story, disguises continue to take the place of wit and natural charm. Following the apparent road accident death of the head of a small private detective agency, a close friend of Blackie's, his widow is persuaded by our hero to keep the agency going by hiring a couple of reliable ex-GI friends (we never meet them - the suggestion is made in the spirit of a positive post-war suggestion for small business owners everywhere). In the meantime, he and the Runt agree to help the widow during this period of transition by going to a costume party that her late husband was to attend, to keep an eye on the precious heirloom pearl necklace the hostess intends to wear during a private dance recital for her friends. Blackie and the Runt attend the party disguised as a pair of bearded Indian mystics and, naturally, the necklace is stolen... and naturally, Inspector Farraday arrives to oversee the searches of all the guests... and naturally, Blackie and the Runt are recognized and have to make a graceless exit, making them look guilty. While on the lam, they pose as the elderly parents of the theft victim's niece (June Vincent), gaining her confidence. Yes, the Runt's in drag again, but oddly enough, this ruse isn't played so broadly for laughs as in earlier entries.

The remainder of the story connects the theft to Igor Borio (Edward Norris) and his business partner Sandra Doray (Fay Baker, who steals the film in an unusually flinty female role for this era - she may be the only actor in the entire series who fires a gun with actual authority). They run a dancing school Blackie tries to infiltrate while wearing yet another disguise, a ploy that adds nothing to the film but manages to eat up a good ten minutes before it is seen through and just as casually discarded. Even with its heavy-handed emphasis on disguise, the tone of the overall piece is more sober than usual; George E. Stone is likewise unusually dour, with the Runt only working up one of usual neurotic spells during a brief, atmospheric visit to a graveyard. Regrettably, this was Stone's last appearance as the Runt. Director Friedman, who would also direct the series' swan song BOSTON BLACKIE'S CHINESE VENTURE (1949), a couple of B-movie entries in the Crime Doctor and The Saint series, and Columbia's THE SON OF DR. JEKYLL (1951) before settling down as a production supervisor on numerous classic television series.


I've often wondered about the title of this film. Why VENTURE rather than ADVENTURE? Why the unusual stressing of the word CHINESE? Ultimately, none of this matters.

Happily, the last film in the series is a pleasant surprise if one can get past the jarring discontinuity of Sid Tomack replacing George E. Stone's in the key role of The Runt. (Tomack has Stone's Runyanesque qualities, but he's much less of a comic actor than Stone, is harder to accept as a retired criminal, and isn't all that short. It's interesting that both actors would play criminal roles in the imminent ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN series.) Set in New York's Chinatown district - making this more of a Chinese-American venture - this script by Kentucky-born Maurice Tombragel (HORROR ISLAND, MOON PILOT) details the smuggling of stolen recut diamonds in special boxes of tea being sold from under the counter of a Chinatown tourist trap Orientalia shop. The younger salesman in the store is played by Benson Fong (who was newly married to the film's heroine, Maylia), and the shop is just down the street from a movie theater where tickets are being torn by his younger brother in the Charlie Chan series, Victor Sen Yung!

In fact, what is most impressive about this film is its most uncommon attention to employing only Chinese-American actors to play Chinese-American roles. It takes care to depict them as a deeply moral and responsible people who act honorably (yet not without humor) toward their fellow men and whose area of town boasts almost a complete absence of crime and delinquency. This is remarkable for a post-war American B-picture made at a time when most Americans could not distinguish Chinese from Japanese. In fact, there is a sub-story about a tourist bus tour of Chinatown that gently mocks paranoid American curiosity about such places, which the local Chinese are amiably exploiting to their benefit. The crooks in this venture are 100% American and the one compromised Chinese-American character, though arrested, is almost guaranteed clemency as a victim of the ruse.

Chester Morris looks appreciably healthier here than in the previous film, though an unnecessary comment is made about his unnoticeable "funny walk." There is welcome relief from gratuitous magic tricks and there is only one funny disguise sequence, cleverly and usefully integrated into the story. The script also makes a tacit apology for its past depiction of the police force as being dumb as a bag of hammers. On their last go-arounds as Inspector Farraday and the witless Sgt. Matthews, Richard Lane has lost none of his forceful authority and Frank Sully finally gets to look like he's starting to wise-up. But never fear: he's still capable of making monumentally pointless observations like "Chief, I'm beginning to think there is more to this case than meets the eye." By far the strangest turn of events in this moderately atmospheric quickie is a failed camera trick seen when Blackie dodges police pursuit by ducking into a Chinatown movie theater. Once inside the darkened theater, where a film is in progress, the entire audience is painted black to make the setting that much darker... but the result of the effect backfires, because their eyes look luminously white in contrast! What were they thinking?

BOSTON BLACKIE'S CHINESE VENTURE ended the nearly decade-long series, but through no specific fault of its own. 1948 had also seen the last of Columbia's Whistler series, while 1949 saw the end of Columbia's Crime Doctor movies, just as Monogram Pictures put an end to producing their Charlie Chan pictures. Of course, the stars of these series - silent film leading men all - were starting to show their age. More importantly, the movie game itself was changing; studios were beginning to see the wisdom of putting yesteryear's A-titles into the supporting feature slots previously held by original B-picture production. Boston Blackie, like Charlie Chan and The Whistler, continued to thrive on radio for the time being and was subsequently developed for television with Kent Taylor in the role.

(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Chester Morris as Boston Blackie, Part 5


The fourth Boston Blackie movie released in 1945, this one was shot under the title SURPRISE IN THE NIGHT, which makes a bit more sense than its final moniker. In this case, Blackie’s old friend Arthur Manleader (out again with Lloyd Corrigan, in with an uncredited Harry Hayden) prevails upon him to help his nephew, an accused strangler who has escaped from his sanatorium. The nephew, James Cook (Steve Cochran), is in fact deranged and he’s escaped after establishing an affectionate pen-pal relationship with Sally (lovely Nina Foch), an award-winning dancehall girl. News of his escape gets out, but - after he has slain a couple of other women en route - he manages to insinuate himself into Sally’s confidence by posing as... Boston Blackie!

Director Arthur Dreifuss (who had also directed the regulars and Cochran in BB BOOKED ON SUSPICION) infuses the tight film with some eerie atmosphere and set-pieces, allows Chester Morris to pad an interrogation scene with a barrage of magic tricks, and clearly the caliber of supporting talent is higher than usual in this one. Alas, the film falls back on our hero’s unfortunate penchant for blackface disguise, which this time extends to The Runt as Chester Morris and George E. Stone pose as hotel cleaning women - and flirt with janitor Clarence Muse! I can’t help wondering if the recurring blackface disguises in this year of production had something to do with the fact that, the year before, Boston Blackie became a radio show, also starring Morris and Richard Lane as Inspector Farraday - as a summer replacement for none other than AMOS AND ANDY. Dreifuss later directed RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP (1967)!


The series was given a rest through most of this year, not reappearing until December 1946. Given a more sober title than usual, it's actually a fair description of its content for a change, but not of its tone. This one is pretty much a light and lively entertainment from beginning to end. The first 15 minutes of the film are devoted to star Chester Morris’ personal interest and aptitude for magic.

The story opens with Blackie giving one of his annual charitable magic shows at a women’s penitentiary, where he makes the mistake of making the wrong inmate disappear - a surly former magician’s assistant (Constance Dowling) who seizes the opportunity to skip jail and seek out the former partner who let her take a murder rap while he absconded with $100,000 of plundered cash. Naturally, Blackie is accused of planning and enabling her escape, and he’s taken to Police Headquarters, supposedly to be grilled by Inspector Farraday and his brainless associate Sgt. Matthews (Frank Sully), but it turns into Three Stooges time as he makes serial fools of the cops. He eventually escapes too and exchanges places with the other magician, now working under another name and planning marriage to his new assistant, which gives us more chances to see Blackie in Bela Lugosi’s old CHANDU THE MAGICIAN wardrobe, astounding audiences with trick store magic. (Frankly, there is less a feeling of astonishment about the prestidigitation than of hat-in-hand.) 

There are a couple of corpses along the way, major characters too, but the laughs hardly stop long enough to let us feel their loss. D. Ross Lederman directs from an early script by Harry Essex, whose later credits would include KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL, I THE JURY, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE and CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.


(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.  

Tuesday, February 19, 2019


Continuing on my 1940s mystery bingeing, last night I decided to watch Monogram Pictures' PHANTOM OF CHINATOWN (1940), currently streaming in a nice copy on Amazon Prime, which I believe was Keye Luke’s only starring role. This movie gets a bad rap as the only Mr. Wong mystery that didn't star Boris Karloff, but are they even the same character? Yes, they are both named James Lee Wong and based on COLLIER'S Magazine stories written by Hugh Wiley, but this younger variation is never identified as a proper detective (we're told he specializes in "research") and goes by the name of Jimmy.

Having just seen director Phil Rosen’s clumsily edited CHARLIE CHAN IN THE SECRET SERVICE (1944) the night before, I was pleasantly surprised to find this earlier film so tight, interesting, and competent. Among other things, it contains an even earlier instance than I thought existed of the “faux archeologic expedition” footage idea later used in CALTIKI THE IMMORTAL MONSTER (1959), which subsequently became the basis of Deodato’s CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980). Here, it’s footage of the discovery of an Egyptian king’s burial site in Mongolia, where we learn the leader of the group (introduced as a reliable witness) absconded with a sacred scroll supposedly containing the location of an H. Rider Haggard-like “pillar of eternal fire” that may actually indicate the whereabouts of a huge and immensely valuable flow of natural oil. Unexplained deaths occur - the result of the mummy’s curse, or someone out to steal the oil? As with many Rosen films, this question is ultimately solved by assembling a group of suspects in a house and wearing them down with questions while dodging stray bullets fired by skulking silhouettes. The script was written by director George Waggner under his "Joseph West" pseudonym, the same name he used to pen Universal's MAN-MADE MONSTER the same year, and many others besides.

As often happens, the American detective on the case (Capt. Street, Grant Withers) is a how'd-he-ever-make-it-to-Captain muttonhead with no patience for Far Eastern mumbo jumbo; however, to his credit, in time he puts his lazy biases aside and decides to learn something from Wong (Luke) and his lucid, methodical, informed approach to solving the case. The dialogue also pokes occasional fun at American presumptions about people of Asian descent, as when Luke (sporting a dashing mustache) turns out to be a stranger to the only other Chinese-American in the room; Wong seems to live in a two-room efficiency apartment yet he has his own gibbering manservant (Lee Tung Foo, who is left tied up and forgotten about at the end of CHARLIE CHAN IN THE SECRET SERVICE). Also interesting is the absence of romantic sparks between Luke and leading lady Lotus Long, as we might anticipate. On the contrary, their characters share a mutual initial distrust - and when Luke decides to trust her, she abuses the privilege! Of course, films like this stand or fall on the charisma of their lead actor, and while Keye Luke is highly charismatic, he is ultimately too formal a presence to carry the movie, and a bit too overly mannered in his line readings at times. That said, at a brisk 61 minutes, I found PHANTOM OF CHINATOWN a pleasant little time-killer.

(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Chester Morris as Boston Blackie, Part 4


Sometimes one wonders where these titles come from, in this case because Blackie is never actually booked or apprehended by the police - in fact, they can’t even find him because he spends much of the picture in disguise, another variation on the old man makeup he’s used before. He hauls out the blackface makeup once again too. Strangely enough, the milieu in Arthur Dreifuss’ BOSTON BLACKIE BOOKED ON SUSPICION is a rare and antique bookstore owned by Arthur Mangrave (a welcomely returning Lloyd Corrigan) that hosts monthly auctions. (The setting of this story unmasks a pun in the film's title.) Though our only close-ups of the shop’s shelves show categories like Medicine, Astronomy and Botany, which would hardly command much public interest or big bucks, it auctions a first edition of Dickens’ THE PICKWICK PAPERS that fetches $62,000 - only for the buyer to promptly notice from a misplaced comma that it’s a forgery! Blackie poses as the store’s elderly manager (whose doctor has ordered him to bed) to find out who is behind the old switcheroo, only to once again become embroiled in the suspicions of Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane), who immediately jumps to the conclusion that he must must have stolen the McCoy. The real crooks in this case, revealed early on, are a young criminal couple played by Steve Cochran and Lynn Merrick - the latter, in a startling surprise, turning out to be the more cold-blooded and crafty of the two. There’s a cleverly filmed sequence as Blackie attempts to elude capture by climbing into a building’s incinerator chute, but ultimately Merrick’s characterization is the only other fresh point of interest.


This one is another directorial return for the ever-capable Lew Landers. No stolen diamond, no safe-cracking this time, but we do have the usual character ingredients, this time up against an unscrupulous young couple who are using a borrowed baby to squeeze support money out of its supposed grandfather, a man of wealth. Blackie and The Runt get involved because the woman (Lynn Merrick, the bad girl from the previous film) was once involved with him and, through somewhat unbelievable circumstance, leaves the baby in his apartment for safe-keeping while he’s out. (This baby gets left alone by adults a lot!) Make no mistake, the emphasis here is on cute comedy, with many shots of the baby making faces and the Runt recruited as a baby sitter who must take to the street in drag to beg a bottle of milk from a delivery truck. Blackie once again dons his by-now-much-overused old man disguise, gruff Inspector Farraday is knocked down by a dozen affectionate dogs, and we’re left with a thin collision of comic situations in which some characters actually die for their efforts. Charles Lane (middle-aged here, he lived well into his hundreds) appears briefly as the baby’s actual father, for whom things do not end well. The film - earning its B-movie stripes at a mere 57 minutes - is actually stolen by Claire Carleton, a comedienne reminiscent of Judy Holliday who carries much of the film as the Runt’s new girlfriend Mamie; incredibly, she received no screen credit.


Here, the Boston Blackie films fall into the hands of director D. Ross Lederman - not really a cherished name among B-directors but a guy responsible for TARZAN’S REVENGE, THE GORILLA MAN, and THE BODY DISAPPEARS, and dozens of Western programmers - and would you believe it? He serves up what is a strong and oh-so-welcome return to form, certainly one of the best films in the series, and arguably the best. 

After at least one too many adventures in a comedy vein, this one returns our heroes to mystery, to stolen jewels, and adds for the first time some exotic, even mystic atmosphere. In this moodily photographed adventure, Blackie and The Runt are involved by a double-crossed old acquaintance in a supposed jewel robbery that escalates into murder... but this is just an oblique route into the real mystery, which involves the ties between a neurotic young woman of some wealth (Jeff Donnell) and the all-knowing swami she is consulting, a Dr. Nejomi (Marvin Miller). Naturally, Nejomi’s supernatural racket is just a front for criminal activities but his stagy entranced summonings of the spirit world are great, spooky fun - along the lines of Cesar Romero’s routines in CHARLIE CHAN AT TREASURE ISLAND (an obvious model for this story), not to mention William Castle’s HOUSE IN HAUNTED HILL. I’ll bet Castle would have loved a crack at this one, but I doubt he could have done a better job.


(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Chester Morris as Boston Blackie, Part 3


Here, Lew Landers (THE RAVEN) returns to the director’s chair. The Runt’s pending wedding to a bubble dancer (she towers over him) is continually interrupted by Best Man Blackie’s latest imperative: to recover three flawless gems once in the keeping of a former prison pal, recently released and murdered, and fulfill his dying wish by handing them over to his daughter (Ann Savage, looking and behaving much more sweetly than in Edgar G. Ulmer's DETOUR). This is the first film in the series to pay any real heed to the reality of American wartime activities (there are joking references to rations, and the last act takes place during a practice blackout) and the first to reveal Blackie’s real name: Horatio Black.

There is a well-done, exciting scene of Blackie forced to drive a stolen police car against the flow of oncoming traffic (pre-FRENCH CONNECTION, natch), and also a wince-inducing scene where our debonair hero eludes his obnoxious adversary Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) by blacking up his face and hands with oil and dirt from a parked car and posing as a jive-talking jazz musician!


The sixth Boston Blackie feature, THE CHANCE OF A LIFETIME (1943), has a distinction beyond being the first series entry to drop the hero’s name from the title: it was the first feature ever directed by William Castle! 

In this one, Blackie is spearheading a rehabilitation project for first-time arrestees (among them Sid Melton and Arthur Hunnicutt), putting them to work for the war effort at his friend Arthur’s (Lloyd Corrigan) factory with an eye toward earning them early paroles. One of them gets into trouble with flimt-nosed ex-cohorts wanting their share of $60,000 in stolen money that Blackie has already turned over to the police. To force matters, they abduct his wife and child, and Blackie and The Runt must find a way to satisfy both sides of the law or spoil the early release of the other cons making an honest bid for redemption. An uncredited Cy Kendall returns in the role of Jumbo, the underworld fence from BOSTON BLACKIE GOES HOLLYWOOD (#4) - even though he appeared in the subsequent ALIAS BOSTON BLACKIE (#5) as another character, who was shot to death!

Still snappy, still entertaining, but - while a decent first effort for Castle - this is nevertheless the least of the series entries thus far, feeling more like a compilation of tried-out ideas for scenes that might be used to tell this story than a firm narrative. The comic highlight finds Blackie and The Runt getting a couple of Irish cleaning ladies sauced on champagne and dressing up in scrubwoman drag to crack a safe in police headquarters. This would be Castle’s only Boston Blackie film, but he would helm several titles in Columbia’s Whistler and Crime Doctor series.


The legendary Western specialist Budd Boetticher made his directorial debut (as Oscar Boetticher. Jr.) with the seventh Boston Blackie adventure, ONE MYSTERIOUS NIGHT (1944). Right off the bat, you can see that an adventurous director is in the driver's seat with an ostentatious crane shot and an oblique route into the narrative. Later, Boetticher even has a character break the fourth wall to deliver dialogue and to look at themselves in mirrors.

In fact, it takes an uncommon while for Blackie, The Runt, and Inspector Farraday even to show up, and when they do, things have changed here too: when the fabulous North Star diamond is stolen from a public exhibition, Farraday retires his dogged nemesis stance and deputizes Blackie to find and retrieve it for him - but he finds his job bedeviled by an ambitious young female reporter (Janis Carter).

As always, there's a good deal of fun to be had and Blackie trots out some more disguises that shouldn't fool anybody (and in Ms. Carter's case, don't), but a number of beloved or familiar supporting characters turn up with unfamiliar new actors assigned to them. Harrison Greene replaces Lloyd Corrigan as the new Arthur Manleader, Cy Kendall's Jumbo Madigan is now Joseph Crean (and gets shot), and Walter Sande's Detective Sgt. Mathews (Farraday's bungling associate) is here played by Lyle Latell - none is an improvement on the original. Furthermore, Janis Carter's character is never given a side for the viewer to really like, which gives an uncredited Dorothy Malone a chance to shine as the thief's sister. On another note, the film sheds some light on Blackie's living arrangement with The Runt, which is rather like that of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson - they're together 24 hours a day and even sleep in the same room! 

Boetticher later said that his first movie was "never released, it escaped" but this film deserves some respect. He does more with his chance at bat than William Castle was able to do.


(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Chester Morris as Boston Blackie, Part 2


For the second Boston Blackie adventure, Columbia chose 32 year-old Edward Dmytryk to direct, a Universal emigré who had joined their B-movie unit with talent and enthusiasm on two earlier 1941 co-features, THE BLONDE FROM SINGAPORE and SECRETS OF THE LONE WOLF. Even at Universal, Dmytryk had done fine work - including the Boris Karloff thriller THE DEVIL COMMANDS and the Ozzie and Harriet musical SWEETHEART OF THE CAMPUS - and he had apparently been sufficiently pleased with Harriet Hilliard's professionalism as an actress to cast her here as the leading lady. Working from a script by Paul Yawitz - the first of seven Blackie scripts he would pen - the series was off to a rousing continuation. Not only is Chester Morris back in vibrant form as Blackie, but the film properly introduces George E. Stone as The Runt, the always amusing Lloyd Corrigan as their wealthy and gullible friend Arthur Manleader, and Walter Sande as Inspector Faraday's meatheaded associate Detective Mathews.

In this story, Diane Parish (Hilliard's character) makes an arrangement with a prominent art gallery to sell a valuable sculpture she has inherited, not realizing that the gallery is a front for criminals who auction well-done fakes and reserving the original art for themselves. During the auction (which she has been advised not to attend), Diane realizes the sculpture being offered is a fake and shouts out a caution, bringing out the gun of the gallery owner - but someone else gets in the way of the bullet. Blackie, in turn, takes a shot at the gunman. In the midst of the ensuing chaos, the dead body is secreted inside the sculpture (!) and Blackie is apprehended by Farraday when his recently fired gun is found on his person. Arthur Manleader is taken with the fake sculpture and buys it for a minimal fee, not knowing there is a corpse inside - not to mention the bullet that could clear Blackie of the charge against him. It is a kind of situation mystery, but even with the addition of Joan Woodbury as Mona (a trouble-making redhead from Blackie's past who claims to be his wife), it's never overcomplicated and highly diverting.


There is much to commend the this Boston Blackie effort but its most endearing quality is that it's an actual Christmas movie - opening with Blackie and The Runt at home, decorating their tree! All the main characters introduced in CONFESSIONS are back again, and the hulking Cy Kendall joins the repertory cast as the pawnbroker and fence Jumbo Kendall - Black can rely on him whenever he needs the latest dope on local criminal activity. Jumbo's character will take some interesting turns as the series continues.

With this installment - directed by Lew Landers (another of Columbia's Universal refugees, responsible for 1935's THE RAVEN) - Blackie really begins to assert himself as a guy with a heart of 14K sentiment. We learn that, each year since his parole, he and The Runt go back to the prison where they served their time to stage a Christmas show as a gift for the inmates. There's dancing, an acrobatic clown act, and - to show off Chester Morris's legerdemain - even a bit of stage magic, albeit the kind that really anybody could pick up in a magic store and easily master. Unbeknownst to Blackie, one of the showgirls in his company (Adele Mara) is the sister of one of the inmates (Larry Parks), who takes advantage of visit to escape from prison in the guise of the clown and seek revenge against those who framed him for murder. Blackie almost catches him, gets knocked out during a scuffle, and is subsequently implicated in the jailbreak by the eager Inspector Farraday.     

This third entry has some very special bonus attractions: no-line cameos by Paul Fix (as a cabbie) and Lloyd Bridges (as a bus driver)! However, it's the Christmas setting that gives this one its most endearing charm.


Despite its title, the location of this fourth film in the series hardly matters - there’s no involvement in the world of movies, just a glimpse of the famous Brown Derby restaurant far in the background during a rooftop chase. Directed by Michael Gordon, this one finds Blackie and The Runt trying to rescue gullible millionaire friend Arthur (the ever-delightful Lloyd Corrigan) from the cluches of two gunmen (one of them, The Whipper, played by a young Forrest Tucker) and a calculating blonde who’s bamboozled him out of a priceless gem and, hopefully, an additional sixty grand. In trying to help, Blackie once again convinces Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) that he’s gone back to his old criminal ways and must elude and embarrass the law while trying to lend a helping hand. To this end, Blackie introduces his mastery of disguise, which extends to the Runt being dressed up as a little boy. There is one outrageous bit of dialogue that got past the censor. When the Runt is introduced to the scheming blonde, she sneers “Hello... RUNT.” The Runt sarcastically replies, “Funny how words escape me!” All in all, perhaps a mite too complicated in its telling for its own good, and it disappoints the expectations encouraged by its title, but still a snappy, fast-paced 67 minutes.


(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Chester Morris as Boston Blackie, Part 1

Chester Morris as Boston Blackie, with George E. Stone as his neurotic sidekick, The Runt.

Today marks the 118th anniversary of actor Chester Morris's birth, so I've decided to launch my Boston Blackie series overview a couple of days earlier than anticipated. I hope you enjoy it - I certainly did.

According to the old TV listings archived at, I must have made my original Beta recordings of Columbia's "Boston Blackie" series with Chester Morris when TCM first aired them, back in August 1990. In the intervening years, I copied most of these onto DVD-R - and I'm still meaning to do the remaining few. Because I'm lazy and susceptible to that dream of having them all in one place, I actually once bought a set of all 14 films in the series from an online vendor, but found them of poor quality, minus any footage that said "Columbia" (hence sudden credits and no Columbia logo at the end), and annoyingly out of chronological sequence.

It occurred to me recently that I loved these films but hadn't actually revisited them in toto since the time I recorded them initially, so I started up a nightly film festival in my living room, watching them all again, in the proper order, in the wee hours when movies seem to play the best. I began compiling my notes on them over at Facebook, but as the project began to develop in size and length, I decided it would be wise to archive them here in more definitive drafts.

The character of Boston Blackie was introduced in a series of short stories published in THE AMERICAN and RED BOOK magazines, written by Jack Boyle. Blackie was an expert safecracker who turns his talents toward solving crimes, a logline that makes him comparable to a tradition of such characters that would encompass Arsène Lupin, Raffles, Rocambole, and Michael Lanyard, the Lone Wolf. The stories, eventually 14, began appearing in 1917 and were adapted to silent films within the following year. Between 1918 and 1927, 11 films were made. Boyle eventually collected and reorganized his RED BOOK stories into a proper chronology that was published as a hardcover novel, BOSTON BLACKIE, in 1919. He subsequently wrote additional stories that appeared in THE STRAND Magazine as well as the early incarnation of COSMOPOLITAN but he didn't live long enough to push the character further. He died in October 1927 at the age of 47.

In 1935, Columbia Pictures initiated a successful series of mystery-adventure programmers based on Louis Joseph Vance's character The Lone Wolf - which itself was a character inspired (as openly admitted in Vance's first novel) by Maurice Leblanc's Arsène Lupin. The Lone Wolf, also known by the name Michael Lanyard, was initially played by Melvyn Douglas, then by Warren William, and finally (in the late 1940s) by Gerald Mohr. (Louis Hayward - who had incidentally played another role incestuously related to the Lone Wolf and Lupin, namely Leslie Charteris' hero Simon Templar, a.k.a. The Saint - subsequently took on the role for television.) The Lone Wolf had been around in movies since the silent days, mostly played by a now-mostly-forgotten actor named Bert Lytell. When Columbia began looking for a complementary property they might spin off into a parallel series, someone noticed that Lytell had also starred in some silents as Boston Blackie - beginning with BOSTON BLACKIE'S LITTLE PAL (1918), a pre-SCARFACE reference to his gun.

Chester Morris from his MGM days.
In 1941, Columbia Pictures renewed the character's popularity with his first talkie, MEET BOSTON BLACKIE, which was entrusted to director Robert Florey after the success of his first picture for the studio, THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK (1941). As with their companion mystery series The Whistler and The Crime Doctor, Columbia began looking at durable actors established since the silent days for their star. Soon cast in the title role was Chester Morris, who had the distinction of being nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for his first screen role, in 1929's ALIBI. He had a successful run during the 1930s, beginning with his lead role in Roland West's THE BAT WHISPERS (1930); he generally specialized in roles as adventurers and roguish leading men, and the role of Blackie - not unlike an amalgam of all the roles he'd played, with livelier banter - came along just in time to help buoy his 1940s. A good deal of the series' charm is due to Morris' jaunty, playful, snappy personality and resilient wit, and his banter with co-stars George E. Stone (as Blackie's "little pal" and valet, The Runt) and future roller-derby announcer Richard Lane (as his hard-nosed nemesis, Inspector Farraday). Since he was a boy, Morris had been enamored of practicing magic and he grew up to become a recognized, award-winning magician in his own right. As the series went on, Morris' interest in magic was granted opportunities for expression and Blackie's mostly untapped talents for safe-cracking were supplanted with a mastery of disguise and prestidigitation.

Columbia sweetened their contract with Chester Morris by promising him non-Blackie vehicles to supplement the work he put into the series, predominantly wartime romances and the odd noir thriller, but soon audiences only wanted him as Blackie. His popularity in the role spread to other media: in 1944, BOSTON BLACKIE became a summer replacement for radio's AMOS AND ANDY, also starring Morris and Lane. It was picked up as a regular radio program the following year, but with different actors in the roles. Columbia's film series ended in 1949. The fact that Chester Morris had little time to do anything else while the series was in production had its toll on his career; he was thoroughly typecast. Television and theater work thereafter became his main bread-and-butter, though he would also memorably appear as the hypnotist Dr. Lombardi in Edward L. Cahn's THE SHE-CREATURE (1956). His next and final screen role was in Martin Ritt's THE GREAT WHITE HOPE (1970). He died in September of that year, due to an overdose of barbiturates while on the road doing dinner theater. He had earlier been diagnosed with stomach cancer, and the pain was getting worse.

But all that was a long way off from 1941, when Columbia first introduced Morris as Hollywood's favorite safecracker turned wise-cracker. The story begins - as it often does with long-running series - with a movie that got it all right and set the bar respectively high. Its fourteen sequels would span a period of eight years.


The series hits the ground running with this tightly-wound thriller, directed with style and economy by Robert Florey (THE FLORENTINE DAGGER) and featuring lots of snappy, wonderfully hard-boiled dialogue by Jay Dratler, later the screenwriter of LAURA (1944) and CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (1948). It introduces Blackie - a five-star safecracker who has gone straight since paying his debt to society - as a passenger traveling with his valet, a redeemed jail acquaintance known as The Runt (Charles Wagenheim), aboard a steamer. As soon as they arrive back in New York, Blackie gets into hot water when he discovers a man's corpse (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON's Nestor Paiva!) planted in his stateroom. His only visible path to clearing himself is to follow the quickly exiting woman seen previously in the company of the dead man (Constance Worth), which he does after leaving a soap-on-mirror message to Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane), his constant nemesis - the Javert to his Valjean, you might say. The suspicious lady unwittingly leads our heroes to Coney Island, where a spy ring is hiding out, but she ends up murdered in the dark of a Tunnel of Horrors ride as she begins to tell all. Blackie nearly meets the same fate, but he and the Runt are able to make their escape from certain death with the help of an innocent bystander (Rochelle Hudson). Blackie can always rely on his charm to gain some timely female assistance.

As would become standard in the series but plays quite originally here, Blackie's methods of crime-solving are reliant on his past history as a criminal; we see him breaking lots of little laws and interfering with the police throughout the adventure, but always in ways that are ultimately forgivable considering the major crimes he is able to thwart. The one standing peculiarity of the series is that Inspector Farraday is given repeated evidence of Blackie's turnabout as a responsible and helpful American citizen yet, despite their established friendliness at the end of each picture, he continues to think the worst of him at the outset of the next. The carnival setting of this adventure recalls Florey's earlier work on Universal's MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932) and features some memorable attractions, including Michael Rand as a "Mechanical Man" and a rare cameo appearance by none other than Schlitzie of FREAKS fame as "Princess Betsy, the Bird Woman."

It should be noted that George E. Stone had been signed to play The Runt from the start, but was unfortunately side-lined by a viral infection shortly before filming was set to commence. He was quickly replaced by Charles Wagenheim, a forgettable but certainly not ruinous substitute, but Stone could have only raised this film's stock by being aboard. 


(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

From the Radio Silence

Dear WatchBlog-followers,

I know I've been scarce here in recent weeks, but whenever I disappear you can be sure it's because I'm busy elsewhere.

I've spent the last week or so nudging my Joe Sarno book forward. During this period, I made the decision to halve the project, dividing the manuscript into two books - one devoted to the 1960s films, the second covering selective works from the 1970s and beyond. The 1960s volume alone will cover close to 40 films, more than most mainstream directors make in a lifetime, so there will be no shortage of discussion; on the basis of where things stand now, nearly 400 pages in manuscript, the completed draft should total 500-600 pages despite telling only the first half of the total story. With illustrations, this should be enough book for anybody - at least for starters.

Speaking of working on the Sarno book... On the day Albert Finney died, I happened to be still-framing my way through an exterior shot in Sarno's ALL THE SINS OF SODOM (1968) to determine exactly where it was shot and found a buried cameo by Finney - his face was plastered on a poster for his play A DAY IN THE DEATH OF JOE EGG, which ran on Broadway from February through June 1968. It was downright surreal to see Finney turn up there, of all places - and the title of the play gave it special resonance. 

Thankfully, audio commentary work continues to be offered and my finished tracks have been receiving some wonderful notices. The titles I've been assigned thus far for 2019 read like a dream list. I just finished scripting a new commentary for a major Jess Franco title, to be recorded as soon as Kino Lorber's master becomes available, and this very day I'm starting to work on André Hunebelle's FANTOMAS (1964) starring Jean Marais and Louis de Funès. Fantômas is a movie and character that captured my imagination in childhood, thanks to a Michel Parry article in a 1966 issue of CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN magazine, and I saw the film for the first time on television 50 years ago this year. I was recently surprised and pleased to discover that FANTOMAS had its Cincinnati debut in 1966 at the RKO Albee Theater, where Donna and I later met, playing in support of THE BIG BOUNCE.

I posted recently about my top obsessions of 2018. My current obsessions vary between a complete viewing of Roger Moore's 1960s series THE SAINT, getting acquainted with the works of a British Edgar Wallace competitor named Roland Daniel (his titles got to me - I presently have THE HUNCHBACK OF SOHO in hand, and am eagerly awaiting delivery of SNAKE FACE!), and I'm still preoccupied with Jules Verne, specifically collecting those latter-day Jules Verne novels whose copyrights exclude their English translations from the Delphi COMPLETE WORKS ebook. I was surprised to discover that one of the key publishers of this material, Wesleyan University Press, released in 2001 the first-ever complete English translation of THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND; it's hard-to-find now in an affordable hardcover, but if you ever intend to read it, remember that this is the only authentic version. Be warned, though: there are no giant birds, crabs or bees, so you'll be left looking at the Ray Harryhausen film in a completely different way.

Between one thing and another, I find myself reading more these days than watching new Blu-ray releases, but there is some incredible stuff coming out that I'll try to let you know about as I can find the time! 

As I'll be working steadily on the FANTOMAS script next week, I've written a serialized set of blog entries to keep you occupied during my absence. Starting next Monday, look forward to my six-part feature article documenting the 14 Columbia Pictures adventures of BOSTON BLACKIE, starring Chester Morris. 

(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

A New Luigi Bazzoni Essay, by Yours Truly

Virna Lisi in Arrow Video's THE POSSESSED.
The folks at Arrow Films & Video recently invited me to write for their website an introductory essay to the films of Luigi Bazzoni, whose THE POSSESSED (La donna del lago, 1965) and THE FIFTH CORD (Giornata near per l'ariete, 1971) are being released on Blu-ray today under their banner, both here in the States and the UK. I was happy to oblige, and the resulting essay "Rediscovering Luigi Bazzoni" is now live here.

By the way, DVD Beaver's Gary Tooze wrote a splendid review of THE POSSESSED today which you can read in full here. In brief, he says of the film: "THE POSSESSED masterfully combines film noir, mystery and giallo tropes, whilst also drawing on the formal innovations of 1960s art cinema (particularly the films of Michelangelo Antonioni). A uniquely dreamlike take on true crime, THE POSSESSED is presented here in a stunning new restoration."

I was especially pleased to read these generous words about my audio commentary: "I keep thinking how good certain commentaries [are] when I am indulging in them - and then I hear one from Tim Lucas - and realize he is the most-prepared and best with subtle analysis, multiple connected-film references and a calm, settling voice in reflecting minute details of the production. His comments about THE POSSESSED are no exception. A pure pleasure to listen to and a great addition to this package.”

(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.