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Vagabond Director: F. Herrick Herrick and Obeah, the Lost Horror Film of 1935 (Part 2)

Click here for the first part of this article.

Obeah: A Real Novelty

F. Herrick Herrick’s most significant career move was in 1925 when he formed Herrick Productions, Inc. and signed an agreement with producer J. Charles Davis to direct a series of two-reelers. He promptly had a photograph taken with the essential accessories of any director—a folding canvas chair, megaphone, and pipe—and used it to publicize himself in the trade magazines. From that point on, Herrick held the title of director—it was a verifiable fact. No matter that those two-reelers were all but forgotten before they unspooled in whatever theaters Davis could get them booked. No matter that in the photo Herrick is missing the director’s most important accoutrement—a crew.

For years, Herrick stayed above water by inflating his resume with nonexistent titles, boldly announcing projects that he had no chance of completing, and churning out community-made films that would only be seen in the cities they were made in. Then, after years of unavailing efforts, footage he shot on a Mediterranean cruise was purchased by The Van Beuren Corporation for their “Vagabond Adventures” travelogue series. Suddenly, Herrick was a director again—for a major studio, no less. (RKO distributed the Van Beuren shorts, so that was close enough to put RKO on his self-promotional ad for Film Daily.)

With renewed vigor, Herrick unfolded the canvas chair, dusted off the megaphone, and assembled a crew. This time for a real feature film.

Obeah F. Herrick Herrick
The title page of the script of Obeah. Note the flourish in Herrick's directorial credit.

After the success of the “Vagabond Adventures” shorts, Arcturus Pictures, headed by travel-tycoon James Boring, looked to expand by producing a feature film. The announcement was made in late 1933 but more details didn’t emerge until March of the next year when The Film Daily reported that the feature film was indeed happening with Herrick at the helm and a budget of $200,000. The production began to crystallize once the leading man was announced. Variety reported that Phillips Lord—a household name due to his work in radio—was to star in the picture. While Lord was certainly a known quantity, he was no Clark Gable. This news was not likely to raise the pulse of film fans. In fact, an entertainment writer in Northwest Indiana’s The Hammond Times took the announcement as an opportunity for a groan-inducing joke:

Phil Lord, alias Seth Parker, will make a movie for Arcturus Pictures Corp. (never hear of ‘em [sic]) with Alice Wessler, (never heard of her) playing opposite and directed by Herrick Herrick, (never heard of either one of him!) It will tell of a radio star captured by South American natives.

What’d they do? Mistake him for a crooner?

The film was announced as “Destination Unknown,” a title which would transform several times over the next couple of years, but that wasn’t the only element up in the air. Paul Gangelin, a Wisconsinite like Herrick, was reportedly the screenwriter working off a story by Neil Brant, but neither of these names ended up attached to the project. On the other hand, the female leads were indeed locked in. Alice Wessler, a leggy Covington, Kentucky girl who was dancing at a Broadway nightclub, was in the starring role as Linda. The equally obscure Jean (also spelled Jeane or Jeanne) Kelly, “a new discovery from Costa Rica” according to Film Daily, was in fact a Texan by way of Costa Rica. Several years later, she would find a modicum of success in Hollywood as Jean Brooks.

Obeah F. Herrick Herrick Alice Wessler
Alice Wessler was cast as Linda in Obeah.

Most of the reporting about the making of the film comes from an unlikely source: Kingston, Jamaica’s The Daily Gleaner. The first mention of the production was in May of 1934. Under a photo of Phillips Lord’s ship “Seth Parker” was the cheerful news that the vessel had arrived at the port, containing “sixteen happy-go-lucky young Americans out for romance and adventure” and, at the same time, another ship docked with a movie crew. Lord and company were going to participate in the Jamaica shoot before continuing their globetrotting adventure, broadcasting a show via shortwave radio as they went.

Several days later, the Gleaner reported that the movie crew had received government permission to film at the ancient town of Port Royal, a former home of Captain Henry Morgan and countless pirates. The paper filled in more details about this production later, including that it was to be based on a story by Robert Carse, a former merchant mariner and New York Times reporter. (It’s not clear what, if any, involvement Carse had in the film.) They also reported that the film was being produced for the “R.K. Corporation,” a significant inaccuracy/typo, assuming the paper meant RKO.

Phillips Lord F. Herrick Herrick Obeah
Two photos published in Kingston, Jamaica's newspaper The Gleaner.

This film was far from a “Big Five” studio production. As if to prove that point, Herrick resorted to using the Gleaner to cast a net for local talent. Like his days in Wilmington, St. Louis, and Indianapolis, Herrick put out the word that he was looking to fill a role, in this case there were very specific requirements: “…a beautiful white lady, not over twenty-five years of age, to play a very important part in this picture, the qualifications being primarily, perfect figure, lovely teeth, personal beauty and charm and her height must not exceed five feet four inches in stockinged feet.” Since this description seems to describe Alice Wessler, the reason for this notice is unclear.

Phillips Lord F. Herrick Herrick Seth Parker Obeah
Magazine photo of Phillips Lord and his alter-ego Seth Parker.

Besides the casting call, this June 8th article is noteworthy for being the first of several that exhibits tension between the Gleaner reporters and Herrick, the former advocating for a positive portrayal of Jamaica to bolster its tourism, and the latter simply wanting to produce a thrilling film. The first point of contention revolved around the new working title of the film, Obeah. Like Voodoo, Obeah is a religion with African roots that conflicted with the colonial rule—so much so that the practice was (and technically still is) illegal in Jamaica. As if to assuage the reporter, Herrick made this change of title sound tentative:

Temporarily, we have chosen ‘Obeah” as the title of the picture; but in no wise is such a title indicative of what the picture is really going to be about. The selection of ‘obeah’ for a workingtitle was made only because we lacked a suitable title for the picture, and I wish to carefully explain that the picture is very definitely not a story in any wise casting reflection upon the people of this island. It is purely a mythical yarn, and the plot is built around imaginary figures and locations.

(The emphasis is mine; the grammatical errors are the Gleaner’s.)

To lighten the mood, Herrick changed the subject to the “biggest piece of news”: back home in the States, his daughter Rita had just learned to walk.

Subsequent articles contain equal parts good, bad, and confounding news. On June 12th it was reported that with the paid assistance of around 150 Jamaicans and some extra wattage from the Jamaica Public Service Company, a sequence had been filmed at a bar in Kingston. Unfortunately, there would be some considerable delays in the production because at some point in the night the camera toppled over and “…the magazine containing important shots was smashed up, the sound head was split in two and view finders were snapped off.” The paper went on to explain the movie crew would next be constructing a village and, after that, a mocked-up Chinese Den of Inequity. Incidentally, Herrick was now casting on the fly for a few Chinese actors to populate said opium parlor.

At this point, readers of the Gleaner should have been clued-in to exactly what kind of rinky-dink production had set up shop in their country. If not, the next report from the production made it abundantly clear.

Late at night on June 24, John Parks (or Parker, depending on the reporting), Lord’s engineer on the “Seth Parker,” was enlisted for a speaking role in the film, playing the part of Whiskers. Herrick and Lord ordered Parks to light some flares on camera, one of which exploded in his hand. Parks sustained the worst injuries and was rushed to the Nuttall Memorial Hospital. Another crew member, Jack Love, and two Jamaican girls received minor burns, but severe enough to require hospitalization.

“In [the] future I will personally handle all flares,” the director explained to the Gleaner.

It’s probably no coincidence that at this point the film’s title changed from Obeah to “White Sails,” which must have appeased the local press. Alas, a bigger public relations problem soon sprung up. As the dailies were being screened, it became apparent how much footage was unusable, and Herrick made a stern announcement in the pages of the Gleaner:

I should like to appeal to the people of Jamaica and ask them that they do not come out to watch us work. It is not that we do not appreciate their interest, for we do, but frankly, spectators inadvertently will cough, whisper or shuffle their feet and cause the FILM TO BE SPOILT as it is absolutely essential that complete quiet should reign at all times in making a sound picture.

This must in no way be considered to mean that I am placing blame whatsoever on anyone, but the advent of spectators interferes with the cast and the picture as obviously when a person has spent hours trying to make a picture and then is forced to double up the work in the same space of time by countless requests to the audience to be quiet, he eventually gets very tired and the recent accident should be a warning to us that it is necessary that we are all alert every second.

Therefore if the people of Jamaica will consider this in the friendly way in which I mean it to be put, I am sure they will cooperate and allow us to work quietly. Altogether over ten thousand feet of film HAVE BEEN RUINED through coughings, sneezings, laughing and whispering on the sidelights, and as this represents no small sum of money, it naturally means that we would have that less money to spend on employing local people.

(Both the grammatical errors and emphasis are the Gleaner’s this time).

On the heels of the on-set injury, this announcement perfectly captures the strained, disorderly, and amateur nature of this film. A typical Hollywood production seamlessly combines non-sound establishing location shots with sound studio interiors. In instances when location sound was recorded, extra security would be hired to control spectators. Instead, Arcturus allowed spectators to congregate. Then, when the residents couldn’t remain stock-still while the camera was rolling, Herrick went to the press to tell them to stay away. His passive-aggressive reprimand and the insinuation that something like a sneeze could cause another life-threatening accident is especially galling.

At this point in the production, Herrick took what was obviously a much-needed break and left for New York to try to sell the film and check-in on the initial cutting of the footage. Phillips Lord manned the megaphone in Jamaica while John Ives, the CBS producer of Seth Parker and, later, Gangbusters, took over public relations with the Gleaner. On July 4th, Ives—who was also acting in the movie—gave the paper a grim update that the film was less than halfway shot, and because the character of Whiskers needed to be written out of the movie because of the flare accident, some scenes would have to be redone.

Nonetheless, the Seth Parker left Jamaica on July 19th en route to Panama. Somehow the filmmakers would make do with what footage they had. Despite the chaotic production, the locals had reason to look forward to the film’s completion. Several Jamaicans were given featured roles including local celebrities Daisy “Rhumba Queen” Riley and heavyweight boxer Battling Johnnie. Herrick’s parting words in the Gleaner reflect appreciation for the support albeit with a dash of egotism:

I cannot say too much for the island of Jamaica; never in my experience have I been so decently treated. The people here have treated me as one of them. They have given me of their confidence, their time, their friendship; they have given me a loyalty which I can never repay, and they have made me feel that this can always be a home; and if the many kind invitations to come back here are to be taken as a criterion of the feeling Jamaicans might have for me, I can only add that any words I may say will be thoroughly inadequate. I hope that when the picture is finished it will be shown in Jamaica, and when it is completed and shown here and when those Jamaicans who see it shall see my name on the film I hope that each one of them who have personally helped in the making of this picture will feel that I am again with them. Perhaps all this may sound like sentimental trash to local people, but if they would just stop to consider what a joy it has been to me to come here from the United States and receive such a welcome they perhaps might gain some little bit of the sincere feeling I possess towards them.

The message continues, assuring the readers that “White Sails” will contain nothing unfavorable about the island. If anything can be gathered about Herrick’s personality from this, it’s that he could turn on the charm when needed, something supported by his ability to set up productions in so many disparate places.

Into the Spring of 1935, the Gleaner kept its readers apprised of the progress of the film—which had changed from being called “White Sails” to “Jungles in the Night,” before reverting to Obeah. The articles have a palpable sense of excitement about a potential premiere in Kingston. However, an April 6th update includes this prickly comment, “There is one remarkably happy feature about Obeah, and it is this: no mention is made of Jamaica or its people in the picture at all. The producers could not have exercised better judgment, for had this been done, the title of the film alone would have certainly been considered offensive to Jamaicans.” To support this claim, the Gleaner quoted an unnamed advance report on the movie, which doesn’t bode well for the overall quality of the production:

Entirely fictional, the picture merely is another vapid drama straight from minds of Hollywood and conveyed to the screen via the medium of celluloid without the pill of educationalism.

The finished film—whatever it might be titled—never made it back to Jamaica. That was just one of many ways the whole endeavor failed to live up to its promise.

Phillips Lord and his romantically old-fashioned wooden vessel, the Seth Parker, continued their voyage into the South Seas. In February of 1935, Lord issued two separate distress calls when the ship encountered severe storms. Although there were persistent rumors that this was a publicity stunt for the radio star, the responding ship, the HMAS Australia, investigated and determined that there was indeed legitimate danger. Regardless of the level of risk the crew of the Seth Parker faced, the trip was terminated, and everyone returned home.