A Eulogy For Chester Morris

permalink         categories: eulogies         originally posted: 2017-09-11 23:00:00

Chester Morris was an actor on stage, film, and radio. He died forty-seven years ago today. He's mostly forgotten now, but I still enjoy his work, particularly his most famous movie and radio role: Boston Blackie.

Early Success

John Chester Brooks Morris was born February 16, 1901 in New York City. His parents were stage actors, and at 15 he dropped out of school and began his lifelong career on the stage, on Broadway—opposite famous actor Lionel Barrymore.

Chester's film career began in the silent movie era, in 1917. His "talkie" debut, 1929's "Alibi", got him a nomination for an Oscar for Best Actor. This landed him firmly in the rolls of top, or "A-list", actors, and he got a lot of movie work for most of the 1930s. But lightning never struck again, and by the late 1930s he was only making "B movies".

A "B movie" is a low-budget movie. Everything is cheaper—the writer, director, actors, sets, music, and special effects. Like many actors, once he joined the ranks of the "B actors", he never really escaped.

Boston Blackie

In 1941 he was cast as the lead in a revival of the character "Boston Blackie" in a new Columbia movie. Boston Blackie was invented in 1914 by writer Jack Boyle. Blackie's a reformed gentleman thief; he could crack any safe or pick any lock. But he'd given up crime and now spent his time helping anybody in a jam. Always a bachelor, he was accompanied on his adventures by his faithful street-smart sidekick "Shorty", although in later radio series he acquired faithful girlfriend Mary Westley.

The movie, "Meet Boston Blackie," was so popular, it launched an entire series of sequels—one of Columbia's most profitable. Over the next eight years Chester starred in fourteen "Boston Blackie" movies. (One can only imagine what sort of assembly-line process that was!)

Chester Morris also reprised the role of Blackie for a new summer-replacement radio series in 1944. This version of the show only lasted eight episodes, over two months, and then it went off the air. When it started again in 1945 Blackie was played by Richard Kollmar. I have no idea why they changed lead actors—my guess is it was a combination of Chester's availability and a cost-cutting move.

Boston Blackie is well-known to fans of old-time radio dramas. I first heard of him when he was cited by Japanese comic author Monkey Punch as one of the inspirations for "Arsene Lupin III"; listening to the old Boston Blackie serials was my first introduction to "old time radio".

After Boston Blackie

Once the Boston Blackie movie series was played out, Chester worked only sporadically in movies. In the 1950s he was only in three; he spent that decade mostly working on the stage and in television.

Of particular interest to me was his next-to-last film role. He played the sinister Dr. Carlo Lombardi in the 1956 grade-Z horror movie "The She-Creature". This stinker has the honor of being both a "Mystery Science Theater 3000" episode and the genesis of a techno song—Chester's spooky dialogue was sampled for "Leave Your Body" by The Grid, an early-90s favorite of mine.

The Mystery Science Theater guys made constant comments about that vile, oily character Lombardi—a far cry from the wholesome Blackie. What a difference a decade makes!

I once listened to a radio interview with Chester from the 1960s. I enjoyed his polite irascibility; he seemed to take a dim view of modern life, and what he saw as the ongoing slide of civility in modern civilization.

Chester's Final Days

Chester's final film role was as the character "Pop Weaver" in the 1970 boxing movie "The Great White Hope" starring James Earl Jones. By that time he was living with stomach cancer. He was still able to work, but I suspect his long-term outlook was poor and he was living with a lot of pain.

Later that year he joined a stage production of "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial" in Pennsylvania. One Friday in September Chester was supposed to have lunch with the play's director. When Chester missed the lunch, the director called Chester's room—no answer. He eventually got into Chester's room and found Chester lying on the floor... dead. The coroner determined Chester died from an overdose of barbituates; it wasn't clear whether this was suicide or accidental poisoning.

Chester Morris died at age 69 of barbituate poisoning, in New Hope, Pennsylvania, on September 11, 1970. Sadly, thirty-one years later, that day on the calendar would become famous for a different event.

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