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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A finished version of Obeah was somehow pieced together. Herrick’s ad in the The Film Daily Yearbook of 1935 exclaimed, “11 MONTHS—20 COUNTRIES—18,000 MILES—6,000 PEOPLE.” The first figure is accurate, at least.
The Film Daily reviewed Obeah in February of 1935, the only write up the finished film would get in the States. Whether this review was based on a press screening or just written up without a viewing is open to debate. The capsule sets a blandly positive tone, “Adventure film of South Seas scores with punch stuff and authentic nautical atmosphere.” After summarizing the plot, they write:
Suspense is built up beautifully to a smashing climax, with some grand exploitation angles on the sex situation between the white and native girl and the star. The sea shots and life aboard the schooner are grand—a real novelty that Hollywood could not duplicate. With the current front-page newspaper breaks on the schooner’s shipwreck [in reference to Phillips Lord’s infamous distress calls], it’s a bear for exploitation.
There’s a sense this anonymous reviewer is dutifully hitting the notes that the filmmakers would themselves want highlighted—Obeah is suspenseful, sexy, realistic, and timely for exploitation. In other words, the review is precisely as enthusiastic as a press release. Apparently, nobody took the bait, because after a report that Herrick had sold the British rights to British International Pictures (the company that famously produced Hitchcock’s 1927-1932 output), mentions of Obeah came to a halt in the trade magazines and newspapers. That is, until things turned litigious.
In 1936, Lord and Herrick were sued for damages by John Parks, for the disfiguring accident on set.
The next year, Lord sued Pathé News. The radio star alleged that although they supplied the camera equipment, they reneged on their agreement to pay half of the expenses of the film, including Herrick’s salary.
The final lawsuit involving this film was filed in 1942. All film fans shudder at the thought of the Fox vault fire in the summer of 1937, where poorly stored nitrate film combusted into an inferno that swallowed an entire swath of movie history. Most lament the loss of the silent Fox Films with Theda Bara or Tom Mix or F.W. Murnau’s follow-up to Sunrise, Four Devils. Comparatively few mourn the loss of F. Herrick Herrick’s magnum opus Obeah, but it cremated just the same. Phillips Lord took note and sued De Luxe Laboratories for $61,654 for, according to Film Daily, “failing to return [the negative] upon demand in 1937.”
Obeah isn’t necessarily a lost film, though. As discussed in the first part of this piece, the film was certified by the BBFC in 1935 as Black Hell with a running time of 66 minutes (nine minutes shorter than listed stateside) and subsequently played a few dates in England under the title Mystery Ship. The Kinematograph Weekly gave it a brutal review. Their capsule reads, “Crude drama of maritime treasure hunt. Voodoo hocus pocus, more laughable than thrilling. Poor acting in “sensational” scenes.” It’s worth reprinting the full text, since this is the sole contemporaneous opinion that is undoubtedly not paid for, and it includes a thorough synopsis of the plot.
With a review like that, it’s no wonder that seemingly no one has pursued what film elements might be collecting dust—or worse, decomposing—in a vault.
For a variety of reasons—the pulp maritime-meets-jungle-horror subject matter, the convoluted career of its director, the absolute fiasco of a production—this film fascinates. When I discovered that a copy of the script was in Phillips Lords’ papers held in University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center, I couldn’t resist taking a look.
Whatever Shot of Alligators We Can Get: A review of the script(s) of Obeah
A small crew of white sailors trudged through the dense, verdant jungle. Each step a man took in this green hell was a gamble. Would he slip into quicksand, rudely awaken a coiled reptile, or—the worst luck in the world—brush against a vine laced with jungle poison? Robo had already experienced the latter but luckily Morgan, the captain, knew how to handle the situation: immediately strap a belt tightly around the man’s hands lest he start scratching at the itch, and boil some water. The treatment is as simple as wiping away the poison with scalding water, but if this is not triaged instantly, the victim of jungle poison, crazed by toxin, could actually tear the skin right off themselves.
“Jungles aren’t always the beautiful things you read about,” Morgan reminded the crew as they proceeded one deadly step at a time.
The group of men—Worry, Flink, Robo, Ives, and their stalwart leader Morgan—were in search of a map that contained the precise location of a lost pirate treasure. Each of these men knew this would not be a walk in the park, but they could not have prepared themselves for all the dangers that a jungle possessed. As they mopped their brows and moved on, the swoosh of a rushing river became more distinct. At last, water! Attracted to the coolness, the fatigued crew began to bolt to the riverbank. With his years of experience and vast knowledge, Morgan stepped forward and contained the men. Ives noticed the reason why.
“Look—alligators,” he stammered.
All eyes followed the direction of Ives’ outstretched arm.
SCENE 55: JUNGLE EXT DAY: Whatever shot of alligators we can get. They must move
The above is an attempt at a novelization of scenes 45 through 55 in the script of Obeah. The line, “Jungles aren’t always the beautiful things you read about,” which reads like it’s lifted from a Larry Blamire movie, is taken verbatim. The term “jungle poison” and its symptoms and treatment are preserved, and the final cutaway is exactly as it appears in the script.
“Whatever shot of alligators we can get. They must move,” says so much. It’s a tried-and-true element of B-movies—the clumsy insertion of nature footage, stock or otherwise—but, more strikingly, it’s indicative of a production running out of steam.
Hopefully this gives a flavor of what it’s like to read what is, even by 1935 standards, the hoariest of melodramas. It’s worth pointing out that “The Amazing Adventure” was scratched out as a subtitle to the film, as if to reign in that dime-novel tone just a little bit.
The plot of Obeah is as cliched a B-movie scenario as could be imagined: a search for lost treasure in an exotic and perilous locale, bizarre rituals and hexes, and a love triangle between our handsome protagonist, a sexy native girl, and a beautiful white woman. The stilted dialogue and painful attempts at humor position this on the lowest rung of fiction. All that said—and I must qualify myself as somebody who enjoys some of the more risible programmers from the era—this script works, and it leaves plenty of room to weave in touches of visual artistry.
I’ve seen enough under-budgeted 1930s movies to know that, as a film, Obeah probably frustrates with a glacial pace and tinny sound, but reading the script suggests great possibilities. As I poured over the text, I imagined how it must have been filmed with early sound-era technology, but eventually I also visualized how it would have been adapted to the freer and more expressionistic style of 1960s and 70s European exploitation, which drew heavily from early Hollywood motifs. The script is charmingly naïve and plays with the sort of archetypal perils and heroics that renegade autuers like Jean Rollin and Jess Franco used as springboards for their personal visions. Then there’s the background knowledge of the chaotic production and the perpetually thwarted career of the writer/director, which adds an extra layer of narrative to the script. It’s like the effect Burden of Dreams and Hearts of Darkness have on viewing Fitzcarraldo and Apocalypse Now, albeit on an F. Herrick Herrick scale.
To take a step back, Phillips Lords’ archives actually contain two Obeah scripts, one 74-pages and the other 44-pages. The longer script seems to be a revision made at some point during production, with many scenes starting with the word, “TAKEN,” which I assume to be shots already “in the can.” Perhaps this script dates to when Herrick left for New York after the flare accident and assessed what had been shot. The second, pared-down document appears to be a dialogue script. Scripts like this were often prepared after a film was edited for submission to the New York state censors—although Obeah was never submitted to that commission. Based on the synopsis in the Kinematograph review, this shorter version does appear to follow the completed film’s plot. Taken as a whole, the two scripts show how the movie was initially envisioned versus how, after many compromises during filming, it ended up in finished form.
The longer script—the more ambitious version—is a better read since it includes scenes like the encounter with the alligator footage. It’s also curiously self-referential with Phillips Lord’s character, Captain Morgan, broadcasting a radio show from his ship, the “Seth Parker.” Herrick—and whoever else was collaborating on the script—were clearly working out ideas. This is made clear when the crew enter “Death City” looking for Humphreys, who possesses the treasure map. The script reads:
Show street. Lord enters and looks for others. Takes in the surroundings. Sees corpse in skeleton [sic] in one alley—bones in another—looks overhead and sees buzzards flying about.
(Suggest a possible shot for possible future use. We might plant a skeleton with meat back in the woods—leave it all day—and try to get a picture of the buzzards actually on a human skeleton.[)]
Like the lack of pulse-pounding wildlife footage, Herrick likely fell short in conjuring this macabre atmosphere. The “skeleton with meat” plan seems questionable at best, a supreme waste of time waiting around for buzzards at worst. The climactic scene exploring the sunken ship contains another nerve rackingly vague suggestion: “If possible show shark or fish being shot”—a task easier said than done, to put it mildly.
The production script is notable for an early appearance of the word “zombie” in a movie, although it’s spelt unusually and not used to describe the walking dead. Lord pleads with Humphreys to ignore the ominous drumming of the natives:
Stop this. Now Humphreys—look here. You’re a white man—be a white man. This voodoo and Obeah is nothing but superstition—no Zomby has got your soul. You’re killing yourself by imagination—those drums don’t mean a thing—(shaking him) Snap out of it.
Rather than "zomby," Herrick most likely meant “duppy,” the Bantu word for a malevolent ghost, but there seems to be confusion between the two words in early English-language descriptions of Obeah. Although there are no resurrected corpses in the script, there are enough eerie moments to make a strong case for Obeah being more horror than adventure. The stroll through Death City is the most suspenseful sequence, with the men splitting up to investigate a row of abandoned shanties, each containing human remains. Lord eventually walks up to the town church and peers into the window, then this shot description: “Full face of Lord looking in window—side to side—throws his arm over his face.” The horror is left for the audience to imagine.
The Obeah ritual scene is more visceral. A true test of directorial and editorial prowess would be to visually construct this especially gruesome part of the script:
CU [close-up] of old hag preparing sacrificial goat. Goat is placed on small table. On table is white shirt of a man. Picks up machette [sic], screams and incants. Stares right over goat and stares down at it.
Very close CU of goat and eyes. Cuff of shirt also in evidence.
Dissolve from preceding scene to head of Humphreys [dying in his hut] and his blazing [glazing?] eyes.
This sequence is in the post-production script, but notably there are only close-ups and semi-close-ups listed, so the extreme-close-ups promised by the script—almost evoking similar intensity to the raw terror found in 1970s horror films—is most likely diluted in the finished film.
When the crew return to the ship, now joined by Humphreys’ daughter Linda and the native girl Gara, the script periodically cross cuts to the visage of the old witch as a reminder of the curse upon them. It’s not just the old hag that follows them. One of the sailors, Sloppy Joe, sees a man in white emerge from the water, climb over the rail, only to reveal “his throat cut from ear to ear.” When Lord sees the same man in white, he snaps a picture just before the apparition disappears. They develop the film, but it reveals nothing of this mysterious being.
At that moment, Sloppy screams off camera.
The script then cuts to the crew sending Sloppy’s shrouded body down a chute into the sea. They sing the shanty “Rolling Home” as eight bells toll, signifying the end of the watch. The body sinks into the ocean abyss.
The post-production script has an insert shot of the ship’s log: “The curse—just what it is, I can’t figure out. Mental I am sure but then there is Sloppy Joe’s suicide…
Although the script of Obeah is well worn B-material, these moments of horror could elicit shivers if handled properly. The ending, too, has potential for pathos that transcends the genre. With the ship’s appointed diver already injured, Lord goes into the ocean to retrieve the treasure chest in shark-infested waters. By this point the reality is becoming more apparent: the Obeah curse is real. The mysterious Gara maintains that one person must die to end the spell. The conclusion of the story is remarkably downbeat, something which separates this script from the Hollywood norm.
If I’m to give this script a rating, it’s this: reading Obeah makes me want to see this film even more.
After Obeah: Hollywood, The Moon, and Other Ports of Call
It’s almost too obvious an observation, but it sure seems like Obeah had a curse upon it. Broken cameras, exploding flares, and noisy onlookers were the warnings that a line had been crossed. Phillips Lord ending his around-the-world journey with his tail between his legs, the film failing to find U.S. distribution, and the original negative winding its way into the atmosphere as toxic fumes seem like the punishment. Extending this theory, Alice Wessler had some trouble of her own. Although her movie career came to an abrupt close after Obeah, she managed to climb the social ladder by breaking up Viscount Michael Berkeley Portman’s marriage. In 1936, Portman was arrested for shooting a gun at Wessler. (All charges were later dropped, the Detective assigned to the case reportedly commenting, “He was just trying to scare the girl. He’s a pretty good guy.”)
Jean Kelly went on to have a career in movies, most of her success coming after she married rising talent Richard Brooks and adopted his surname. Her star eventually faded due to alcoholism, and she died from cirrhosis of the liver at 47. Her best-known role is the mysterious Jacqueline Gibson in The Seventh Victim, where she seems to carry the burden of the Obeah curse to the bitter final scene.
The curse, having done its desired amount of damage, mostly spared the star and director. Lord soon found his second wave of success post-Seth Parker with his new radio program Gang Busters. F. Herrick Herrick went back to his vagabond ways, popping up in a surprising number of places.
Through the sale of Obeah to British International Pictures, Herrick established connections in London. In 1936, he was able to raise enough capital to form yet another company, Cumulus Pictures, Ltd., but like so many initiatives before, nothing came of this enterprise. The director was soon back in Hollywood where he joined the board of directors of the fledgling Screen Directors Guild. A 1938 Boxoffice article notes that Herrick attended a Paramount luncheon celebrating a visit from Alfred Hitchcock alongside such notables as Adolph and Eugene Zukor, Bing Crosby, Howard Hawks, Rouben Mamoulian, and George Cukor. Around this time Herrick appeared in two minor roles for Republic Pictures, a fight promoter in the Three Mesquiteers oater Ghost Town Gold and supporting Buck the Dog and Rex the Wonder Horse in the serial Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island. Around this time, he also produced a documentary short for Paramount’s Paragraphics series entitled Public Hobby Number One, all about stamps from printing to collecting. Herrick had proposed a film series about stamps in 1935 for Arcturus, so being involved in this well-reviewed Paramount short must have been gratifying to the avid philatelist.
Citing ill health, Herrick left the SDG in 1938 but he would find a more public-facing way to advocate for his profession two years later. The Golden Gate International Exposition kicked off in 1939, but the 1940 season featured a unique building devoted to moviemaking. Hollywood columnist Jimmie Fidler, who hosted the opening ceremony, explained:
Millions will visit the San Francisco Exposition this summer. A great percentage of them will see “Hollywood Show, Stage 9.” They’ll see Neil Hamilton, Marian Marsh, Sam (Schlepperman) Hearn (Jack Benny’s Jewish dialect comedian), F. Herrick Herrick and others in an interesting, authentic presentation of movie production. Guest stars will appear from time to time and the performance should be entertaining as well as informative.
It's odd that Schlepperman got an introduction while F. Herrick Herrick needed none, but so be it. The Hollywood exhibition added some showiness to the already jam-packed world’s fair on the newly built Treasure Island. The 1940 official guidebook has a full-page advertisement for the Herrick production on the back cover—for 40 cents (15 cents for children) the attendee got an hour-long show revealing the “secrets of a Hollywood sound stage.” Herrick pitched that they were really making a feature film while the audience watched. In classic F. Herrick Herrick tradition, the director announced he was also conducting screen tests at the fair, and as Boxoffice reported, “…anything [sic?] showing promise will be forwarded to Hollywood for expert scrutiny.” On a less farfetched note, the Hollywood Show also featured a vast collection of movie stills from a collector in Portland to transport the attendee back to the matinee days of yore.
Herrick’s next major project heralded another shift in his career, this time towards non-theatrical educational and documentary films. In 1943, the Motion Picture Herald reported that he was producing and directing Norway Replies, a recruiting documentary sponsored by The Royal Norwegian Information Service. This was followed-up with a series of sponsored films under Herrick’s new company, the Visual Arts Corporation. These include Let’s Go Skiing, produced for the New Haven and Hartford Railroad Company to promote their service to various ski resorts, and Children of Tragedy, sponsored by The Save the Children Federation. The latter film starred Charles Boyer—at his zenith, the same year he appeared in Gaslight—and was made, according to the press release, “…to enlist audiences all over the nation in sharing their good fortune with the less happy youngsters overseas.”
The next few years of Herrick’s career are not well documented. In 1949, a Washington Post sportswriter praised a movie about the Cat Cay Tuna Tournament, “…the work of F. Herrick Herrick (his name, honest), former Hollywood director who has turned his talents to sports movies…”
At least one of these sports movies is extant. Four decades before John Lurie did Fishing with John, F. Herrick Herrick directed Fish Story with John Carradine. While maybe not as sly and self-aware as the 90s series, Herrick’s film still has a tiny niche appeal. The prerequisites to fully enjoy Fish Story are a fondness for actor John Carradine, a completist’s obsession with Herrick, a predilection for freshwater angling, and, most importantly, a vested interest in The South Bend Bait Company, Evinrude Motors, The Mishawaka Rubber and Woolen Mfg. Co., and/or Penn Yan Boats. Those that don’t meet all those conditions will likely find this a dull 55 minutes. The best that can be said about the film is that the Kodachrome 16mm photography and bucolic Wisconsin locales act as a pleasant sedative.
Herrick made a few more uncredited appearances in Hollywood features in the early 1950s. At this time, his name began appearing in the trade magazines again. Whether he was trying to broker a feature film deal with Eagle-Lion Classics or make a movie about a tiger in India in the style of Disney’s True-Life Adventures, the plans sound enticing but overly ambitious. No project reflects Herrick’s outsized vision better than his proposed film about the Matabele War to be filmed where it took place, in Southern Rhodesia. Just like thirty years earlier when Herrick was trying to make Florida a hotspot for filmmakers, in the mid-60s Herrick was in the press promoting southern Africa as a moviemaking nexus. In their inimitable style, Variety published the article “Pix As Key to O’Seas Currency,” in which the director pitches the idea:
Herrick feels that the area has many advantages for filmmaking. For one thing, it is scenically perfect for the appropriate project or anything for that matter which needs space and personnel. Laborers are available for 75c to $1 a day and dress extras can be gotten for $6 a day, while native extras are there for $1 per diem. Also, there is the availability of considerable livestock and other items at very low rates. Additionally, there are experienced cameramen, soundmen, and others, he says, from both the Rhodesian and S.A. film units […]
Round trip fare per person from Gotham to Johannesburg is $1,200, Herrick reports, but this can be circumvented by flying large groups by charter, which represents considerable saving.
A consummate salesman, Herrick’s richly detailed plans always sound alluring but, by this point, the movers and the shakers of the industry had probably heard enough of his spiels.
Nevertheless, Herrick’s persuasiveness was responsible for getting him his last great publicity—and it also contributed to a nationwide disgrace. Besides the first use of the Lunar Roving Vehicle, the 1971 Apollo 15 mission—in which a three-man crew spent nearly a day on the Moon’s surface—is best known for a scandal involving 100 unauthorized Postal Service covers smuggled aboard the spacecraft. The astronauts had been paid by a German philatelist to postmark them before launch and again on the Naval recovery ship when they returned, after which they were surreptitiously sold to other collectors. Herrick’s involvement in this story was less brazen. Having befriended the astronauts, he got NASA authorization for 144 covers to be cancelled after splashdown on the condition that these mementos went to NASA workers as a gift for their hard work. Astronaut Alfred Worden was also permitted to give a couple dozen of these covers to friends. Stealthily, Herrick released a handful of these covers to the black market, netting him over $7,000 profit.
This embarrassing incident was all over the news in 1972 and, with the fixedness of an Obeah curse, remains Herrick’s greatest claim to fame.
Before retiring from the public eye, Herrick had one last media landscape to explore: television. With his kingly girth and full head of white hair and beard to match, Herrick was central casting’s dream of a man who had trotted the globe, hunted big game, and lived to tell the tale. The 71-year-old sat on a peacock chair, wore an open-collar linen shirt, and smoked a pipe as he held court on the cathode ray tube. The show was called Ports of Call and it was broadcast from the Miami studios of WPLG from 1972 to 1974. Herrick brought guests on to talk travel and adventure and featured footage, including his own, of these excursions. A 1973 TV Guide profile, “Master of Magnificent Disasters,” is quick to point out that this show, unlike so many other travel programs, was no “droner.” Reporter Ted Crail writes, “In a world where too many old people are just old people, Herrick Herrick is that glorious thing—a pioneer.” Herrick admitted that some of the travel footage used in the show was “terrible,” but if this article is any indication, the director more than made up for it with his charisma and limitless ability to spin yarns.
Herrick eagerly showed Crail his scars from encounters with lions, car wrecks, and fights in Mexican cantinas. That last wound was from a stiletto jabbed so deep into the back of his neck that the blade entered his mouth. Herrick insisted that he wasn’t complaining: “I detest a man who lives on his wounds. Why, it’s part of the game! You take these things in your stride!”
Speaking of strides, Crail’s article mentions that Herrick walked with a permanent limp, a fact confirmed by his uncredited role in 1952’s Denver & Rio Grande, where his telegraph operator character awkwardly runs back to his machine as bandits invade. Herrick went further in depth about his leg injury in a later Florida Today interview. He explains that in 1938 he was giving a friend with a penchant for off-color humor a lift during a snowstorm. When the friend unleashed a barrage of dirty jokes, Herrick, furious at the “pure unadulterated filth,” drove the car into a wall to snuff out the jokester. Luckily, his friend survived, and Herrick got out of the accident with only a bum leg.
Another 1973 interview in The Palm Beach Post casts additional light on Herrick, the man. Reporter Jerry Renninger sets the scene of Herrick’s home in Dade County:
Inside, the living room is panelled in books, primitive artifacts, weapons, and paintings of eerie mountain scenes. Beautifully tanned skins of African animals are tossed over the backs of several chairs. A massive desk topped with mounds of mail, more books and an IBM electric typewriter dominates the scene, but the massive man seated there dominates the whole thing.
Some of the facts are way off in this piece—Renninger reports that Herrick made 52 “Fragments of Life” silent shorts, for example—but the last few paragraphs make it invaluable. The article paints a vivid portrait of a man who was simultaneously prideful, cantankerous, and sensitive. Herrick laments the way that developers had spoiled the beauty of the world, citing Jamaica and Australia as examples. He bristles at the reporter’s question about why he’s working so hard at his age. Herrick’s indominable spirit, that drive that made him reinvent himself over and over in an unforgiving industry, comes through as he talks about his limp:
There are legs in hospitals not one-tenth as bad as this one, but I told myself a long time ago that the pain is in my leg, not in my head, that I could isolate my pain if I wanted to badly enough.
I also made up my mind that no son-of-a-gun was going to knock me down to the ground and make me stay there.
That last statement explains F. Herrick Herrick’s fortitude, but what does that mysterious “F” stand for? The Florida Today interview leads with that question. Herrick’s response:
Well, you know what the sailor’s standard Three F’s are, don’t you? Take your choice; any one fits.
This sounds like it might be a dirty joke but as an advocate of clean humor, Herrick must mean fog, frost, and freeze—which makes the statement nonsensical. What was Herrick’s actual forename? Herrick’s 1940 draft card spells out his first name “F” then notes in parentheses: initial only. However, the list of passengers returning from James Boring’s Mediterranean cruise in 1933 contains a surprising revelation: “Fronie H. Reckhow” born in 1899 in Beloit, Wisconsin is listed along with his second wife, Myrtle, and their six-month-old daughter Rita. Reckhow was Herrick’s given name and Fronie is a nickname for Sophrona, Herrick’s mother’s name. A little more research revealed that Fronie Herrick Reckhow was also the name he used to enlist in the Navy in the days of the first World War, again embellishing his age by three years.
With that mystery solved, the incomparable story of F. Herrick Herrick comes to a close. There are many gaps in the story and a whole host of questions. What became of the elements of the “Fragments of Life” series, the community films, the educational films, the Ports of Call series, and, most prominently, Obeah? Is there a chance a print of that survives?
In the spirit of F. Herrick Herrick, giving up is not an option.
Dear reader: If you’ve made it this far—thank you. Hopefully, this is just the first draft of the piece. Once a subject gets a hold of me, it’s hard to shake it until I’ve exhausted all resources. That said, if you have any additional information about F. Herrick Herrick or Obeah, I would be eternally grateful if you could share it. Please leave a comment below or send me an email at adampatrick.prc(at)gmail.com (replace the (at) with a @).