Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Close Call for Boston Blackie (Columbia, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last Sunday Charles and I ran a movie called A Close Call for Boston Blackie, an entry in the 1940’s series for Columbia featuring Chester Morris as Boston Blackie, the jewel thief turned good guy — this one hadn’t been shown on the Turner Classic Movies run of the Boston Blackie movies but it turned up on archive.org in a quite good-quality download and it turned out to be one of the best entries in the series. The backstory is that Boston Blackie dated nightclub entertainer Geraldine Payton (Lynn Merrick), only she jilted him and instead married an heir, John Peyton (Mark Roberts), who turned out to be an abuser and an alcoholic. He ultimately got a two-year prison sentence and has just been paroled when the movie begins. Geraldine turns up at Blackie’s apartment with a baby she says is her child by Payton and says she needs his help in hiding the baby from Peyton’s father Cyrus, who if he knows his scapegrace son left him a grandchild will stop at nothing to take custody. Then John Peyton himself shows up at Blackie’s apartment, demands his wife and his kid back, and holds a gun on the other characters — until Blackie takes it from him and then another gunman fires through Blackie’s open front door, kills Peyton and flees. Then we get an exposition sequence in which we learn that Geraldine isn’t the nice young thing Blackie thought she was back when they were dating but a hard-bitten schemer in league with two other crooks, Smiley Slade (Emil Roberts) and Hack Hagen (Charles Lane) — the baby isn’t really hers and Peyton’s but is Hack’s, though there’s no evidence of a Mrs. Hagen — to defraud Cyrus Peyton and win a major financial settlement from him in exchange for giving him “his” grandchild.

The writers — Paul Yawitz (story), Ben Markson (screenplay) and Malcolm Stuart Boylan (additional dialogue) — manage to keep their story moving through a one-hour running time and include plenty of comic moments, notably in the attempts of Blackie and his servant “The Runt” (George E. Stone) to hide the baby from Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) of the NYPD and his even dumber sidekick, Sgt. Matthews (Frank Sully), which includes dropping it off at the home of the Runt’s girlfriend Mamie (a quite charming performance by Claire Carleton), forcing the Runt to dress in drag as a waitress to go out and get the child milk, before setting up a denouement in which Boston Blackie disguises himself as Cyrus Peyton (with a fake beard and a lot of faux-British “cheerio, pip-pip” dialogue) to visit the crooks in their hideout in a seedy hotel (whose receptionist, Kathryn Card, later played Lucille Ball’s mother on I Love Lucy) — only things get complicated when the “official” cops hit on the same idea and Sgt. Matthews also shows up as a similarly faux-British Cyrus Peyton. (We never actually get to see the real Cyrus Peyton, by the way.) Eventually, of course, all ends the way it should — Geraldine and Smiley are busted (they’ve already shot Hack, though there’s a hint that he survived long enough to give Blackie and/or the cops information about the scheme before he expired) and Blackie emerges sadder but not a bit wiser about heeding Farraday’s and the Runt’s advice not to get caught up helping damsels in distress (a gimmick RKO used on the Saint and Falcon movies, too).