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Vagabond Director: F. Herrick Herrick and Obeah, the Lost Horror Film of 1935 (Part 1)

Updated: May 16

The Wednesday program at The New Regal Cinema in the town of Macclesfield got off to a rousing start with a chapter of Universal’s Ace Drummond serial and a filmed variety show featuring The Windmill Theatre’s famously au naturel Windmill Girls. Even if the feature film—under the forgettable moniker Mystery Ship—was a dud, they got their money’s worth. That provincial audience in Cheshire, England undoubtedly had no frame of reference for the feature film they were seeing on September 1, 1937—and why would they? If anybody in the UK knew who US radio star Phillips H. Lord was, it was from starring opposite Bette Davis in a minor film released five years earlier as Old Greatheart. Even if they had done some research, the provenance of this film was confusing—the British Board of Film Classification’s “A” certification dated back to 1935 under the title Black Hell (to make matters murkier, this was the original title of the Paul Muni film Black Fury, also from 1935). The director had helmed no other feature films and his name, F. Herrick Herrick, looks like a typographic error. The advertisement for the program unconvincingly promised that Mystery Ship would “send cold shivers down your spine,” but this little American independent picture was clearly second tier material. The New Regal’s surefire entertainment was reserved for the end of the week: ukulele-strumming, Lancashire-native George Formby in his second film, Off the Dole.

Obeah F. Herrick Herrick Phillips H. Lord
Ad from 1937 for the final showings of Obeah.

That Wednesday screening was significant, though. Whatever audience ambled into the 400-seat theater in a small town south of Manchester for a showing of Mystery Ship may have been the last to set eyes on the film—ever. Little did they know that Mystery Ship, filmed as Obeah two years earlier, was a culmination of over a decade’s experience in the industry for F. Herrick Herrick (not a typo). It was also to be his sole feature film as director. A supernatural tale lensed in the West Indies, it was equal parts travelogue, adventure, and horror. Appropriately, this scrappy low-budget movie seemed to be hexed. The film never got a run in the States. Other than a preview screening and a few dates in England distributed by Waldour Ltd., the film sat shelved. As if to ensure its fate, the original negative was incinerated in the famous 20th Century Fox vault fire in Little Ferry, New Jersey two months prior to its limited run in the UK. It’s somehow fitting that this unceremonious final stop for this obscure movie should be set in equally obscure Macclesfield, perhaps best known today for being Ian Curtis of Joy Division’s hometown, in a theater with all the glitz of a crematorium. It’s a perfect place for a funeral.

Obeah F. Herrick Herrick Phillips H. Lord
The shuttered New Regal Cinema. Photo by David Simpson/Cinema Treasures.

The story of Obeah and its director is the story of filmmaking on the margins during the studio era. Upon a quick glance at his IMDb page, it might seem that F. Herrick Herrick was a failure. The eleven bit parts he played in other director’s features, such as “Old Telegraph Operator” in the 1952 Edmond O’Brien Western Denver & Rio Grande, outweigh his eight directorial credits. That latter batch is made up of six 1925 shorts that nobody has ever heard of, Obeah, and something called Fish Story—a documentary following John Carradine on a fishing trip in Wisconsin with the thoroughly unrenowned ‘Stu’ Pritchard and Lowell ‘Tubby’ Toms. Dive a little deeper than IMDb allows, and F. Herrick Herrick’s story becomes fascinating. From cameraman for Thomas Ince to renowned stamp collector with NASA connections, Herrick was a vagabond storyteller who dabbled in states rights films, travelogues from all over the world, itinerant two-reel comedies, educational films, and he even hosted a TV show in the 1970s. Naturally, for a little-known figure who spent most of his life wandering, his story is fragmented, and documentation remains elusive. Obeah stands out as the pinnacle of his career and a most enticing film, made more so because it’s impossible to see. The very idea of there being a voodoo (to use the word loosely) film released on the heels of White Zombie and Black Moon, is enough to get the heart of a horror fan racing. Two reviews are available and, miraculously, a script does survive to offer a glimpse of its worth—or lack thereof—but the story of how the film came to be is almost undoubtedly more interesting than the movie itself. In 1963, Variety printed a one-line notice that Herrick was writing an autobiography. Perhaps something came of that—it would certainly answer some important questions. For instance, what does the “F” stand for?

Fragments of Life: F. Herrick Herrick in the Silent Era

Obeah F. Herrick Herrick
Promotional photo of F. Herrick Herrick from the "Fragments of Life" era.

F. Herrick Herrick was born on March 25, 1902, in the small town of Beloit, Wisconsin. The birth registry lists him as “---Reckhow,” son of William Reckhow. Little is known about the elder Reckhow other than reports of an unscrupulous real estate dealing in 1904 and that Herrick’s mother, Sophrona Mabel Herrick, divorced him after 18 years in 1909 on the grounds of non-support. Perhaps this upended home life was the impetus for Herrick to strike out on his own as a young teenager. In a 1974 interview, Herrick—sporting a full Hemingway-esque gray beard—recounted his youthful adventures as cabin boy on a schooner heading to South America. He tells rousing tales of a cargo of fireworks exploding on-board and the perils of being shipwrecked in the Baja archipelago. It all sounds like the types of stories churned out in dime novels and Argosy magazine. Many of Herrick’s tales probably aren’t entirely true, but throughout his life he travelled far and wide giving them plausibility. His greatest quality seemed to be his willingness to take risks. Accordingly, plucky Herrick joined the Navy at the ripe old age of 15, just as the US was entering into World War I.

It's tempting to interpret Herrick’s restless behavior as a rebellion against his father and the stifling isolation of Beloit. That the future director doubled up on his mother’s name suggests a definite matriarchal allegiance, but the Reckhow name does reemerge. After his time in the Navy, Herrick had his first brush with fame as F. Herrick Reckhow. The reason for the publicity was Herrick had bet a friend (or his father, it depends on the reporting) that he could make it from Los Angeles to Baltimore in 25 days without spending any money on transportation. Transcontinental travel was a novel concept in the 1920s, and Herrick’s wager was a perfect lure for reporters across the nation. The Los Angeles Times (referring to him as F.R. Reckhow) gave the story a romantic spin, writing that he was doing this to “win the hand of a ladye faire.” The report out of Missouri claimed Herrick was trying to prove how cordial Americans were to strangers. According to a paper in Kansas, he was planning on writing a screenplay about the experience. If that’s the case, one must wonder what Herrick thought about Harry Langdon’s cross-country adventure in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp just a few years later. The story concluded happily when Herrick married his “ladye faire” Alma June Leaman in 1923. The register spells out his name as F. Herrick Herrick Reckhow.

It's unclear exactly when Herrick entered the film industry, but later in life he would recount that he and his mother were living in Culver City when she arranged a tryout to be a cameraman for Ince Studios with Thomas Ince himself. With no experience with photography, Herrick borrowed a camera and took some test shots of a model at Santa Monica beach under the blazing sun—minus a matte box to shield the lens. The resulting footage was marred by lens flare, or so the hapless cameraman thought. The flare gave his model a mysterious halo, and this inadvertent but novel look impressed Ince enough to hire Herrick on the spot.

As if the South American adventures, tramping across the States, and entrance to the Southern California film industry weren’t divergent enough, a notice in the January 15, 1924, edition of The Film Daily established the almost comical nature of Herrick’s improbable projects. Seemingly out of nowhere, he was a in Saginaw, Michigan as a “Detroit producer” with Herrick Studios making a five-reel picture entitled “Charlie Chu.” This would be the only time this enterprise was mentioned in the trades, but it was the first of many pie-in-the-sky ventures for Herrick. However, his next undertaking was an important milestone—the 23-year-old was to get his first credit as director.

In May of 1925, Davis Distributing Division (motto: “Better Pictures for Less Money”), headed by independent producer J. Charles Davis, announced a series of two-reel films to be produced and directed by F. Herrick Herrick. As president of the newly formed Herrick Productions, Inc. of New York City, Herrick employed his wife, Alma June Leaman, as the scenarist for the “Fragments of Life” series. These comedy-dramas were pure cinema, i.e., “Tales Told Without Titles.”

F. Herrick Herrick Obeah
October 1925 ad.

In their review of the second of the "Fragments" The Invention, the Exhibitor’s Trade Review called the series “unusually strong.” The film’s plot involves the titular tinkerer working on a new type of color photography. Out on the town, the inventor happens to admire a shotgun in the window of a hardware store. For some reason, this causes him to be identified as a bank robber on the loose. The sheriff pursues the inventor to his laboratory where the real bank robber just so happened to have holed up. In breaking into the lab, the criminal wrecked the place—and through sheer chance successfully completed the formula for the photographic process. Everything is tied up nicely in twenty minutes.

At least two other “Fragments of Life” were released, It Might Happen to You and The Valiant Skipper. Others were announced—including “Crooked,” “The Promise,” “The Legacy,” and “Memory Lane”—but evidence that they exist in completed form is lacking. Likewise, a feature length film entitled “Keep it Up” starring Eleanore King was at least partially completed in 1925 but other than some stills and reports from the production in New York, no trace of a finished film has surfaced.

Yet, Herrick’s promotional ad in a 1926 Film Daily includes all these projects and more in his list of directorial credits. There looks to be no proof that he completed a seven-reeler called “Mary Inheritance” in 1923 or the six-reeler “When Tony Went Over the Top” in 1924 but it certainly wouldn’t be the first time a filmmaker padded their resume.

F. Herrick Herrick Obeah
F. Herrick Herrick's resume.

The end of 1925 saw another surprising Herrick announcement—he was moving to Florida to start production on a film based on Isabel Ostrander’s mystery novel “The Black Joker.” Along for the journey was Paramount cameraman William Miller, who would go on to have a successful career in pictures into the 1960s. Moving Pictures World elaborated on the announcement, coyly writing, “The cast, which will be announced later, includes one of the foremost film stars in the world.” According to the trade magazine, Herrick was simultaneously preparing a separate feature length film about motor races at the newly constructed Fulford-Miami Speedway.

It was an impressive announcement, but none of it came to pass. Instead, Herrick directed Movie Struck, a two-reeler with Ziegfield Girl Doris Eaton for short film producers R.T. Cranfield and W.F. Clarke. It’s unclear if this film was ever distributed theatrically but according to a notice in Motion Picture News, Herrick showed the film to the Boston Historical Society in a bid to direct the organization’s own proposed short films.

At the close of 1926, there was another odd one-off notice. This time the claim was Herrick was making “The Solution” for Saginaw Films, Inc. in Michigan. Herrick was in a rut of stalled projects.

The movie industry has a way of constructing deeply entrenched barriers, and, despite his persistence, F. Herrick Herrick remained an outsider. As if written to prove this point, Picture Play magazine’s 1927 article “Who Is the Greatest Man,” in which they tried to determine the best director, manages to be oddly cruel to Herrick. The author Virginia (no last name) noted that there had been approximately 600 film directors thus far and 580 of them could immediately be swept to the side. Of course, Griffith, DeMille, Ingram, Lubitsch, et al. were a part of the upper three percent contending for the top spot. The author then writes, “If you’re still speaking to me, I’ll go ahead. On the other hand, if your own favorite director is Seymore Zeliff or F. Herrick-Herrick, read no further.” Obviously chosen for his unusual name, the snide comment still reflects Herrick’s low position in the public eye.

Fortunately, just as the silent era was careening to the end, F. Herrick Herrick was going as far away from the restrictive confines of the movie industry as he could.

Vagabond Adventures: F. Herrick Herrick Around the Globe and Around the Neighborhood

The front page of the October 11, 1927, edition of The Los Angeles Times grips the heart of any adventure seeker. Under a picture of a schooner was another image of five men sitting at a table staring intently at a map. Written with the panache of a screenwriter, the photo is captioned “They Seek Secrets of Head Hunters.” The schooner was the Georgana and the men were its crew. On the far right, pipe clenched between his teeth, was a stout man with heavy-lidded eyes and dark mustache. With sleeves rolled up and pencil in hand, he commands the attention of the other four. F. Herrick Herrick certainly looks like the captain, but the article, “Adventurers to Roam Sea,” explains that the “former” movie producer was part of a larger project. Herrick was embarking on the nine month, 32,000-mile South Seas voyage to capture ethnographic and wildlife images, while a team from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History were on board to capture live animal specimens.

Whether or not the trip was fruitful, it firmly announced a break with the movie industry and a new chapter in Herrick’s life. Yet, Herrick was not done with narrative filmmaking, he would just approach it from a more communal angle—setting up film productions in mid-size cities throughout the country. After a five-year absence from the film trades, the Motion Picture Herald published a slightly demeaning two-sentence notice in 1931:

In days gone by, F. Herrick-Herrick was in front line directorial ranks. This week he is making a community short for the Fox house at St. Louis.

While the industry rags were glib, the local papers beamed with pride. That’s because Herrick’s modus operandi was to arrive in the city, ingratiate himself with the local media and businesses, and appeal to the public for casting and story ideas. He would then shoot and edit the film and be in the next town before it premiered. Itinerant filmmaking was like a medicine show, circus, and four-walled exploitation movie all rolled into one.

F. Herrick Herrick Obeah
Herrick (next to camera, wearing hat) and crew in Delaware.

The first city to receive Herrick was Wilmington, Delaware where Herrick Productions made an “Our Own Gang” comedy called The Sekatary. The Wilmington Evening Journal sponsored the film and ran a contest for the best scenario. The paper gave merchants the opportunity to have their places of businesses used as locales, and for every citizen in Wilmington to try out for a featured role or to be part of one of the “mob scenes.” The red carpet was rolled out for Herrick. He was even given a nightly 15-minute slot on local radio station WDEL to discuss the film and act as an authority on the motion picture industry. After a month of nonstop local news coverage, the film premiered on Monday, July 6th at the Queen Theater.

The next stop was the nation’s capital where the children of Washington, D.C. participated in the film Disarmament in September 1931.

F. Herrick Herrick Obeah
St. Louis Dairy sponsored ad for Football Spills 'Em.

The St. Louis Star published a photo of Herrick, surrounded by assistants, sorting through the reported 13,000 applications to be in the locally produced two-reel talkie, Football Spills 'Em. The Star went movie-crazy, covering the production on an almost daily basis from the announcement in mid-October until the premiere on November 9th, where it played with Ambassador Bill. Like a Hal Roach on wheels, Herrick positioned himself as a big Hollywood fish in a small market pond.