Today we exhume Boston Blackie — “an enemy to those who make him an enemy, friend to those who have no friend.”
I first became aware of this enigmatic fictional character in 2006 when we presented some old radio scripts at the Brick Theatre. Prior to this, I’d not encountered Boston Blackie in any medium, although the franchise had conquered them all. Lacking context, we were amused by the vague ambiguity of the premise. As near as we could tell, Boston Blackie was not defined as a professional detective; he simply seemed to be some guy who drifted around randomly helping people. The actual set-up was that he was a jewel thief and safecracker who helped falsely accused parties (often himself) clear themselves. This was the premise in the original short stories by former San Francisco reporter, opium addict, fraudster and petty thief Jack Boyle (1881-1928). The original stories were published in Red Book, The American Magazine, The Strand and Cosmopolitan between 1914 and 1920. There is an entire blog dedicated to Boyle here.
Later, in films, radio and TV the character was formalized as a detective with a sketchy past. There were 11 silent movie adaptations of Boston Blackie stories between 1918 and 1927, played by new fewer than 9 actors, the most famous of whom including Lionel Barrymore, Walter Long, and Bert Lytell.
The actor most closely identified with the role was Chester Morris, who played Blackie in 14 Columbia B movies between 1941 and 1949, with George E. Stone as the Runt and Richard Lane as his frenemy Farraday. Morris, Stone, and Lane reprised their roles in a radio version of the series in 1944. A longer lasting radio version was launched the following year starring Dorothy Kllgallen’s husband Richard Kollmar. Jan Miner (“Madge” from Palmolive Commercials) was a regular on this incarnation, which ran until fall 1950. There was also a syndicated TV version The Adventures of Boston Blackie that starred Kent Taylor and ran from 1951 through 1953. Frank Orth played Inspector Farraday on the show.
Why no revivals since then? I conjecture it’s because the premise has been borrowed so many times by now it might no longer seem special. But make no mistake: the template belongs to Boston Blackie.