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BOSTON BLACKIE—REFORMED JEWEL THIEF

BOSTON BLACKIE WAS BILLED AS “enemy to those who make him an enemy, friend to those who have no friend.” With this convoluted moral message, he entertained readers of pulp fiction as early as 1914. His silent film career ran from 1918 through 1927. Blackie eventually returned to the screen in talkies 1941–1949. A radio series followed, its programs still heard today on SiriusXM “Radio Classics.” There was even a TV interlude, 1951–1953, with repeats over several decades. 

Here are tidbits gleaned from several sources, including John Dunning’s On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, a most informative bostonblackie.com website, and my usual Internet sleuthing. Along the way, we encounter an enigmatic backstory, well-known movie names, and an introduction to light-hearted pre-noir.

A Real-life Model? The original  Boston Blackie short story, “The Price of Principle,” appeared in The American Magazine, July 1914. As with another three tales that year, its author was identified as “No. 6066,” Jack Boyle’s actual prison number when he was in Canon City Penitentiary near Denver.

Wikipedia says, “Writer Jack Boyle grew up in Chicago, Illinois. While working as a newspaper reporter in San Francisco, he became an opium addict, was drawn into crime, and was jailed for writing bad checks. Later convicted of robbery, Boyle was serving a term in San Quentin when he created the character of Boston Blackie.”

However, bostonblackie.com says, “He was released from San Quentin in 1911, three years before the first Blackie story. In San Quentin he was prisoner 24700.”

Either way, and for whatever charge, it appears that Boyle had the street/stir cred to make Blackie a reformed jewel thief who nabbed bad guys before the bumbling police got around to it.

Silent Blackie. Our sleuth hit the silver screen in Boston Blackie’s Little Pal, a 1918 Metro production. 

Bert Lytell portrayed Blackie; Joey Jacobs, his little pal.

Eleven other silent flicks followed, including two starring Lionel Barrymore, Boomerang Bill and The Face in the Fog, both in 1922.  

Blackie Finds His Voice. Chester Morris gave Blackie his cinema voice, belatedly, in a string of 14 movies, 1927-1949. These were all B-flicks, quickies with straightforward production values, intended to accompany principal films as double features. 

Morris’s filmography is rather more varied, though he is most remembered for his Boston Blackie character. “According to critic Leonard Maltin,” bostonblackie.com notes, “Chester Morris provided an amiable, charming hero in all episodes. Morris ‘brought to the role a delightful offhand manner and sense of humor that kept the films fresh even when the scripts weren’t.’ ”

Blackie’s (and Morris’s) Radio Career. Blackie’s movie popularity gave rise to a 1944 radio debut on NBC. In his Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, John Dunning writes of the character, “His speciality was making fools of the police, a simple task with Inspector Faraday heading the official investigations.” 

Faraday was portrayed in all the films and the radio series by Richard Lane. His assistant Sergeant Matthews abetted in the cop fumbling: As described at bostonblackie.com, “Matthews was originally played as a hapless victim of circumstance by Walter Sande; he was replaced by Lyle Latell, who played it dumber, and then by comedian Frank Sully, who played it even dumber.”

A Typical Boston Blackie Plot. Time constraints of the media called for radio plots to be concentrated versions of their B-flick counterparts. Often, there would be money, jewels (fake or otherwise), and a safe (remember Blackie’s crime cred). Occasionally there’s a dead body. Valuables go missing, maybe the corpus delecti too (body or otherwise). And either Blackie (or better yet) some friendly innocent is accused and then absolved when Blackie nails the real culprit. 

Given the wartime era, it’s not out of the question to have spies or other insidious foreigners involved with bombsights, critical machine tools, and the like.

As variety in Boston Blackie Booked On Suspicion, there’s a first edition of Dicken’s Pickwick Papers, only it’s a fake.

All in light-hearted pre-noir fun. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022  

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