Thursday, January 13, 2011

A counterfeit Dickens and a double-crossin' dame

The Boston Blackie movies made during the 1940s were, like many B-movie series, very formulaic. The former thief Blackie would be falsely accused of murder. With his nemesis Inspector Faraday on his trail, he’d have to go on the lam and figure out who really done it to clear himself.

You have to wonder about Faraday sometimes--he always suspects Blackie even though Blackie always turns out to be innocent. But it's a concession we're happy to make--it's similar to the reason we accept that district attorney Hamilton Burger is yet again convinced that Perry Mason's client is guilty, despite the fact that he/she always turns out to be innocent. It's a formula that leads to an entertaining story. Chester Morris played Blackie with charm and humor, while the plots were reasonably well-constructed.

A couple of details make Boston Blackie Booked on Suspicion (1945) a particularly fun entry in the series. Usually, the murder of which Blackie is accused revolves around some valuable jewels, a work of art, or a large sum of money. In this case, the macguffin is a forged copy of a first edition Pickwick Papers, which goes for a high price at an auction held at a rare book store.

It’s a small detail—once the book is sold, the macguffin becomes the 50 grand in cash for which it sold. But it’s a nice touch all the same. And it gives Blackie an excuse to spend a large percentage of the movie disguised as the elderly owner of the rare book store. Morris seems to have fun with that role—it’s certainly fun to watch him.

Anyway, Blackie eludes the cops while doing some investigating, uses some clever misdirection and a few outright cons to trick the villains, and pretty much outsmarts everyone. There’re a few clunky moments, such as Blackie’s escape from a remote house depending on the thug who’s guarding him to be an idiot who needs an afternoon nap, but the fun stuff clearly outweighs the contrivances.

When I watched this one recently, I kept trying to identify the actor playing the main male villain. It was driving me nuts, but I couldn’t quite place him. When I looked him up later, I discovered he was Steve Cochran. His credits later included White Heat, in which he got killed by Cagney for whacking Cagney’s mom and making time with Virginia Mayo (who played Cagney’s wife.) He was also in The Best Years of Our Lives, in which Dana Andrews catches him playing around with Andrews' wife—played by Virginia Mayo. The moral to all that: Virginia Mayo was drop-dead gorgeous, but she’s definitely not the right married woman with whom to have an affair. You’ll only get in big trouble.

The Boston Blackie movies pop up on TCM from time to time, but they’ve never come out on DVD. They were originally produced by Columbia, but old-movie rights bounce around a lot and I have no idea who owns them now. A DVD release (along with some other as-yet unseen B-movie series such as the Lone Wolf) would be nice. As more and more old-time stuff gets released by the studies through print-on-demand services, there’s always hope.


  1. A fun and informative post for a fan unfamiliar with the Blackie movies (though I have enjoyed the "Boston Quackie" spoof cartoon with Daffy Duck!).

    I too enjoy the old series movies and have been delighted to see some being released as sets on DVD, from the popular Ma and Pa Kettle and Charlie Chan movies to lesser-known series like the Inner Sanctum films. Me, I'm waiting for a DVD of the four Great Gildersleeve films starring Hal Peary!

    DVDs of the Lone Wolf movies would be warmly welcomed. A nice set or two featuring all the Warren William films plus the underappreciated later ones starring Gerald Mohr (the voice of Reed Richards in the 1967 Fantastic Four cartoon).

    -- Gary in Omaha

  2. Warren Williams also appeared as Perry Mason in a short-lived series of B-Movies. Mason's creator, Erle Stanley Gardner, hated them because they weren't at all faithful to the books. But Williams is likable in his B-Movie roles and, taken for what they are, his Mason movies are fun to watch.

    Warner Brothers has released several series through their MOD (manufacture-on-demand)program. Universal and Columbia also have MOD programs now, so I'm hoping we'll get more of these wonderful films through that route.

    I'd forgotten Mohr did Reed's voice. That makes him a great trivia question--Who has been a retired thief, a famous hard-boiled P.I. and the world's smartest superhero?

    That's almost as good as ta question that applies to another actor: Who has played Archie Andrews, Superboy and Commissioner Gordon?


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