A crook with heart of gold is released from prison and reunited with his beloved German Shepherd, Strongheart. When he runs across a lady jewel thief, he finds himself being drawn back into the criminal underworld.
A Dog’s Life
I have to be honest: I kind of fell down the Boston Blackie rabbit hole here. The character’s evolution from a gritty opium addict to a Jazz Age Robin Hood-type good guy who saves the day or gives it a darn good shot. I far preferred the earlier version but we’ll address all that later. Let’s get to work on discussing the film first.
This picture is a Chadwick production. Chadwick, like Columbia, was an independent studio that hoped to vault itself into the upper echelons of film producers. Chadwick bet on Larry Semon and while his Wizard of Oz did not take down the company as legend has it, it didn’t make it a big player either.
As part of its business model, Chadwick would make off-brand versions of bigger studio fare. Nothing you could be sued for but definite echoes. For example, Universal’s The Cohens and Kellys (itself a ripoff from Abie’s Irish Rose) was given the Chadwick twist with The Shamrock and the Rose. I am quite curious to see how The Return of Boston Blackie compares to Through the Dark (1924), which featured Forrest Stanley as Blackie and Colleen Moore as Mary McGinn. (The Library of Congress has a partial print in their holdings.) And, of course, there is the popularity of Rin-Tin-Tin to consider. Strongheart was there first but Rinty was packing ‘em into theaters coast to coast.
(I should note that copycat fare was standard practice in the film industry and Chadwick was not alone. DeMille’s film company did quite a bit of copycat work but their films were also absolutely bonkers and mostly written by women and had eye-popping budgets, so they actually play quite well to modern audiences.)
The Return of Boston Blackie starts with its main character, played by Bob Custer, being released from prison and greeted by his dog, Strongheart. Determined to go straight, Blackie turns down an offer to go into business with Denver Dan (Coit Albertson). However, Dan has other plans to earn a dishonest dollar. (By the way, Blackie is referred to as “Mr. Black” at the end but in an early short story, he is described as having black eyes and I assume that was the real reason for his nickname.)
His partner in crime, Necklace Nellie (Rosemary Cooper), has an old, rich fool eating out of her hand and he has promised to give her his family’s famous necklace. However, Nellie’s triumph doesn’t last long as a mysterious woman in a maribou coat knocks her down and steals the necklace.
Blackie is out walking Strongheart when he spots a posh dame on the run from the police. She is Sylvia Markham (Corliss Palmer) and her father is the old fool giving away the family jewels. Blackie helps her escape because, hey, could a pretty woman ever be guilty? In the process, he is shot and, worse, he forgets to feed Strongheart. (The dog solves this problem by stealing sausage links from the local hot dog stand.)
In the midst of all this, the cast plays a game of keep away with the necklace and the police don’t know which way to look. Will it be returned to its rightful owner? Watch The Return of Boston Blackie to find out!
So, how is it? It’s… okay? It doesn’t break any new ground but Harry O. Hoyt (The Lost World) does a good job of keeping things moving. Film Daily described it as “Fairly interesting crook play. Not convincing enough in its development to make it especially exciting.” Yeah, that about sums it up. It’s an entertaining programmer but there isn’t much about it in the non-canine department to make it terribly notable.
Forgive me if I don’t discuss the humans of this picture very much. They do fine, it’s just pretty clear that they know they are playing second fiddle to a pooch. Strongheart is a stunner, absolutely classic German Shepherd beauty and I could look at him for hours. As an actor… not so great. He does his tricks and it’s pretty obvious that he’s looking to his handler offscreen with some variation of, “Aren’t I a good boy?”
And he IS a good boy! He is! That’s the beauty of animal performers: if they are convincing actors, it’s great. If they aren’t convincing actors, it’s great. Strongheart has looks and charm, the acting would have been nice but it isn’t a dealbreaker. (For comparison, Rinty was less classically handsome but he WAS a good actor.)
The problem here is that Strongheart never really gets to be part of the main action until the finale. When watching a genius dog movie, I expect a bit more for the canine star to do to further the plot throughout the film. However, he feels like an afterthought sometimes.
Incidentally, Blackie is an absolutely appalling German Shepherd owner. They’re wonderful dogs but you need to know how to handle them. Rule number one is not to encourage their prey drive, as Blackie does when he allows Strongheart to fixate on a cat. Also, they’re smart and can therefore get into mischief yet Blackie allows Strongheart to wander the streets. Shepherds often open doors and gates by themselves and so Blackie should have dogproofed his house. Tsk, tsk, tsk. And tossing his dog off a moving carnival ride? Blackie should have gone back to prison for that!
Spoiler: But Blackie’s biggest sin was getting all twitterpated and completely ignoring the fact that his dog was missing during the grand finale. One would think a thief would want a smart dog on hand to warn him if anyone was approaching but noooo. He didn’t know that Strongheart was trapped in a burning building but none of that would have been an issue if he had gone looking for his dog. And as for the sausage sellers, why didn’t they just look at Strongheart’s collar to see who he belonged to and hand them a bill? And Strongheart wouldn’t have been stealing sausages if Blackie had fed him. I don’t know if screenwriter Leah Baird ever owned a pet but I would be willing to bet she didn’t.
(I knew a German Shepherd who would lie in wait in the kitchen. She would be good as gold until she saw someone lifting food on a spatula or some other precarious situation and then rush over and bump their legs. The idea was that the unbalanced food would land on the floor and she would eat it. It worked more often than not.)
I always like to read the source material for whatever movie I watch, within reason. (Want to know why I haven’t reviewed The Man Who Laughs yet? I just can’t face Victor Hugo right now.) So, it was an obvious choice to track down the Boston Blackie short stories by Jack Boyle. The character was introduced in 1914 in a quartet of tales published in the American Magazine under the pen name “No. 6066”. Boyle had run-ins with the law throughout his life, including prison time and his early writings are kind of a grim counterpoint to O. Henry’s body of work.
These four stories, The Price of Principle, The Story About Dad Morgan, Death Cell Visions and A Thief’s Daughter, all follow a similar pattern: Boston Blackie and his trio of co-conspirators meet over opium and as they get high together, Blackie tells stories about the underworld characters he has met in his travels. We never really learn where he came from, we just know that sometimes his accent slips into something a little more educated.
I was impressed by these stories. They’re stylized, to be sure, but they also keep one foot firmly in reality. The colorful supporting cast is memorable and, best of all, Boyle isn’t afraid to leave us with no justice or satisfaction. Sometimes the bad guys get theirs (one memorably offed in a footnote) but most just continue to be awful while Boston Blackie does what he can for the friends he meets along the way. It’s grim stuff, very 1910s and also a building block for the pessimistic world of film noir.
However, there is still a bit of panache, with Boston Blackie striking a match, lighting a fuse meant to blow a safe and then using the same match to light his cigarette before casually strolling away from the inevitable explosion. It’s quite a balance to achieve and Boyle does it.
Or, rather, he did it. You see, somewhere along the line, Boston Blackie was defanged and sent into fasntasyland and it happened rather quickly because the 1919 book Boston Blackie (assembled from short stories published in Red Book magazine between 1917 and 1919) features a clean and sober hero who, in addition to robbing from the rich, solves their personal problems in a priggish manner.
The opening chapter has Blackie trying to steal some jewels from a wealthy couple but then he discovers that the wife is unhappy so he frames her lover for the theft in order to force her back with her husband. He knows nothing of the background or how the wife has been treated or if the husband was faithful to her. Nope, just sticks his great honker into somebody’s business… and keeps the jewels. Yoiks! It’s painful! (Yes, I’m afraid I am a Boston Blackie hipster.)
Worse, the Boston Blackie of those first four short stories is mysterious and while he has a code of honor, his motives are not spelled out for our benefit. Not so in that 1919 book. No, we get a full and complete rundown of Blackie’s motives, personality and method for eating asparagus before a single safe is blown up and let me tell you, I find it insulting. I like to do some of the work when I read a book, thank you very much, and not have the author dump exposition all over the floor without so much as a “By your leave.”
I wish I could be more specific about the exact time when Blackie turned from proto-noir to straight up pulp (and no opium) but the Red Book stories that make up the backbone of the novelization are not easy to obtain for some reason. All are in the public domain. However, we do at least know that Blackie was still using opium in one of the Red Book stories reworked for the novel.
It’s likely that these changes were incorporated to make the character more of an attractive property to Hollywood. (The Mystery of the Leaping Fish was a decided fluke.) While a safecracker with a heart of gold was practically an institution, unwinding in an opium den was generally reserved for villains or tragic heroes. It was not usually something that a character just did. For context on the legality of drugs, the Harrison Act, which banned what we would call “hard” drugs, was passed in December of 1914, just after the first wave of the Boston Blackie stories were published.
And Hollywood was definitely calling. If you think Spiderman has been rebooted and recast a lot, just take a look at the list of films in which Boston Blackie appeared between 1918 and 1924. Obviously, there was something of a Blackie overload because the character was given a break of a few years before this 1927 picture (thus the “return” of the title makes perfect sense) and then put on hiatus until the famous Columbia B-picture series.
This 1927 film was officially based on the Boston Blackie series being published in Cosmopolitan magazine earlier in the decade. The AFI catalog expresses some confusion as to which story it was actually derived from but dogs played roles in the stories Black Dan, The Water-Cross and Boomerang Bill. That being said, none of the stories published in Cosmopolitan are a perfect match for the plot of this picture and I think we can safely assume that screenwriter Leah Baird (Rebecca in Ivanhoe) pretty much made up her own plot and characters.
One a side note, there are two Boston Blackie films that kind of exist outside the series, at least from what I can tell. The first film, The Runaway Freight, is a two-reeler released in 1914 around the time the first Blackie stories were being published. It features a character named Boston Blackie but from what I can tell from the synopsis, it has absolutely nothing to do with Boyle’s short stories and the name is either a coincidence or lifted. I would like to see it, though, as it involves the hero imperiled on a runaway train while the heroine races to the rescue on a handcar being pumped by two crooks she is holding at gunpoint. Go, lady, go!
Alas, I do not know the survival status of this film but if you know anything about it, do let me know. The IMDB cast list (which, of course, must be taken with a metric ton of salt) names Eugene Pallette as the hero, Francelia Billington has the heroine and Sam De Grasse as the baddie. If true, it’s interesting that De Grasse himself played Blackie in The Silk Lined Burglar (1919). The character has the requisite heart of gold and breaks a German spy ring, winning himself a job with the United States government. (The Library of Congress has the last three of six reels.)
(Can you see why I have been so fascinated by this series?)
The other kinda-Blackie film is The Poppy Girl’s Husband with Walter Long as Blackie and William S. Hart playing a man betrayed by his wife. He conspires to brand her on the face, as one does, and is only stopped at the last minute by his son. Shockingly, this was directed by Hart and not Tod Browning but we will never see how it turned out because it is missing and presumed lost.
I hope this little detour has given you a bit of appreciation for the character of Blackie and allowed you to understand where the 1927 production was coming from. Blackie would have been a very familiar, if somewhat shopworn, character to most of the viewers of the time.
I am not sure about the box office reception of The Return of Boston Blackie. One would have thought that a large hit would have generated more interest for the character in the following years but there was nothing until the Columbia series. Still, we must remember that author Jack Boyle died in 1928 and so legal matters may have entangled the film rights to the Boston Blackie character.
The Return of Boston Blackie is good for what it is. It certainly works fine as a lower budget crime picture, though the only thing that really distinguishes it is the presence of Strongheart. That being said, an excuse to watch Strongheart for an hour or so is a very attractive prospect.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD by Grapevine at 57 minutes. The Alpha release is officially longer at 75 minutes but they just slowed the film down, there is no additional footage and a snappy little crime film becomes a dull, plodding affair.