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Deck the Halls December: Alias Boston Blackie (1942)

It's December, the time of year when the whole world gets nostalgic. There is no better time to watch classic movies with a Christmas theme. Join Adam and Samantha as they discuss Alias Boston Blackie.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: Boston Blackie (Chester Morris) has an entertainment troupe which he intends to bring to the local prison to entertain the inmates for Christmas. Blackie was an inmate here himself and he knows what pleasant diversion means to the men inside. Blackie plays M.C. to introduce dancing girls and a clown whose act must be pretty simple because a non-thespian inmate (Larry Parks) dons his costume and performs his act without arousing any suspicion in order to escape with the troupe.

“Doing a good turn makes you feel fine for the whole year.”

ADAM WILLIAMS: Columbia made 14 Boston Blackie movies from 1941 to 1949, all with Chester Morris in the lead role. Alias is the third of the series and it further cemented the routine set up with the inaugural Meet Boston Blackie. The recipe is simple. Boston Blackie is ostensibly a freelance detective—a former criminal that uses his knowledge of the underworld for the power of good. He serves as the lightning rod for the action. At his side is fellow ex-con Runt. In the opposite corner from wisecracking Boston Blackie is the ever-suspicious, bull-headed Inspector Farraday. Toss in a girl that is clever, sympathetic, and cute. Fold in an assemblage of character actors—Lloyd Corrigan, Cy Kendall, and Walter Sande all reprise roles in the series—and you have your case. It will typically take around 60 minutes to complete. In this installment our intrepid hero Boston Blackie learns two lessons: no good deed goes unpunished and, when it comes to Columbia B movies, no plot is too ludicrous.

Action-packed programmers like this can be frustrating. As if a lurching heap of coincidences, red herrings, double crossings, and chases through anonymous backlot sets isn’t disorienting enough, the exposition is so compacted that missing a single line of dialogue can render subsequent scenes even more confusing. This is all to preface a correction to your synopsis: Larry Parks’ character just so happened to be a member of the troupe prior to his conviction, hence his seamless transition into Roggi, the clown.

SG: Ah, I missed that part. Yes, that makes a little more sense then. The movie opens with Blackie and former safecracker Runt (George E. Stone) decorating a Christmas tree with that loose angel hair tinsel that I love but can’t use because I have pets. Runt likens the tree to a gold-digging girl he once dated and says they’re bad luck. The film is full of lighthearted banter like this which softens the crime aspect.

AW: That wisenheimer tone is part of the recipe for the series. Starting with the second film, Confessions of Boston Blackie, and for six more entries the scripts were churned out by Paul Yawitz, a former newspaper columnist who occasionally filled in for Walter Winchell. That brand of fast-talking slanguage runs rampant over every frame of these films.

SG: Blackie uses his wits to cleverly finagle his way into Joe’s hideout, pretending to be the laundry man. But not everything here is slick and amusing. There is a really stupid reoccurring slapping gag where a guy’s jaw keeps getting stuck open. The cops are all basically incompetent, letting their man escape over and over again. Fool me once; shame on you. These guys are fooled twice, three times, four, five, six… Harrison Reports said, “The action taxes one’s credulity to the limit many times.”

Recognize the bus driver? That's Lloyd Bridges!

AW: One of the most appealing plot elements in this series is Boston Blackie’s subterfuge; because he is neither law and order nor a criminal, he doesn’t have to play by the rules to solve the case. Besides the laundry bit, in this installment he poses as a cop and an effete newspaper editor. I was banking on Boston Blackie donning the Santa outfit of the Salvation Army bell-ringer at some point, but the screenwriter swung and missed on that opportunity.

SG: Or planted a red herring to keep you guessing. Variety reported disappointing box office receipts in August 1942, an odd time of year to release a movie with a Christmas backdrop.

AW: Maybe they felt the need to make this a holiday film just to distinguish it from the other entries which were being released in rapid succession. I can imagine a frequent moviegoer cataloging their screenings, “Now I remember, Alias is the one where Boston Blackie wishes us a Merry Christmas.”

This movie doesn’t strive to be anything but simple, escapist entertainment but there’s a disturbing footnote to its release. While an audience in New Brunswick, New Jersey enjoyed a double bill of Alias and the patriotic Blondie for Victory, they were unaware that a young woman was being bludgeoned to death in the theater’s lounge and her body hidden behind the silver screen. A newly hired usher—recently discharged from the Army for inaptitude—chose his victim the moment she got up to take a break from the show. The full details of the crime and its subsequent trial were extensively reported at the time. The perpetrator would die in the electric chair in February of 1944.

SG: Whoa, that's much more gruesome than anything we see in this film. The Exhibitor called it, “standard,” and I wholeheartedly agree with that assessment. This is the kind of movie that doesn’t ask too much of its audience but delivers with enough twists and turns to keep it entertained. The convenient confession at the end wraps the whole story up perfectly. You either love or hate these kinds of endings. I’m partial to them, the way I am to the occasional cozy mystery read. The Cinevent crowd seems to like the too because they often appear on the film program. Three stars.

AW: Despite appearances, not all Boston Blackies are created equal. I’ve re-watched a couple of these movies recently, and this entry pales in comparison to Meet Boston Blackie, directed by the great Robert Florey. It also falls slightly short of Budd Boetticher’s work on One Mysterious Night. I don’t turn my nose up at the name Lew Landers, the director of Alias Boston Blackie, but his work is strictly by-the-book. I’m becoming quite a fan of the film reviewer in The Irish Times, who simply goes by Our Cinema Correspondent. They write, “…this latest adventure of Boston Blackie’s is in no way remarkable—and no offence is intended to Mr. Chester Morris or Miss Adele Mara—but it has all the pace in those various matters of direction, dialogue, and photography, which makes the most bromidic cops-and-robbers story into good entertainment.” I wouldn’t single this movie out for recommendation either, but my instinct is to shrug and agree. It’s good. Three stars.

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