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The Front Page

The Dastardly Past:  The Front Page.

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On August 14, 1928, a new kind of play debuted at the Time Square Theatre in Manhattan.  Called The Front Page, it was a raucous comedy about unscrupulous pressmen and crooked politicians, set against the impending execution of a wrongly convicted criminal.  The playwrights, Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht, drew from their own days as journalists in the Chicago of the 1910s and 1920s.  While some critics complained of the play’s coarseness and cynicism, it was nevertheless a smash hit.  It has been revived successfully on Broadway numerous times and made into successful films, including Howard Hawks’ deft adaptation entitled His Girl Friday (1940), with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in the lead roles.

The Tangled Web of “Keggy” Jones

The Dastardly Past:  the Tangled Web of “Keggy” Jones.

On Monday, August 31, 1931, in Houston, shots rang out in an upscale apartment building in Montrose, one of the prosperous new developments southwest of downtown.  An alarmed tenant reported the noise to C. C. Bell, the building’s owner.  He called the police.  When Bell let the officers into the apartment, they found the “Anvil Chorus” blaring on the radio and the apartment’s occupants dead from multiple bullet wounds.

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The victims were Mr. and Mrs. A. C. Jones, a young couple who had been married about five years.  Chester Jones, 35, was a rising oil executive with the firm of Martin, Drake, & Jones.  Jane Stackhouse Martin Jones, 25, was the daughter of Chester’s business partner, a respected oil and cattleman named W. F. Martin.  Chester was slumped in a chair in his pajamas, with a shot to the head, four to the chest, and one in the hip.  Jane, daringly dressed in pajamas as well, had been shot four times and had also been beaten.  Under her sprawled body they found a floor scarred by several more bullet holes.

The police concluded that there was more than one intruder:  they found two sets of footprints outside the apartment’s back door and two different kinds of bullets in the apartment.  As to suspects, they were baffled.  But not for long.  As detectives dug deeper into the case, they latched onto the end of a thread that at their touch, began to unravel a convoluted web of criminal activity.

Chester Jones, nicknamed “Keggy,” was not the promising businessman he appeared to be—news that stunned his senior partners W. F. Martin and Ed J. Drake.  Whether Jane Jones knew of her husband’s hidden life is a matter of conjecture; she certainly found out about it.  Through his fingerprints, police determined that Jones was actually a career felon with a number of aliases, who had served three terms in the state penitentiary and still moved in a wide circle of unsavory characters.  As the police rounded up some of Jones’ associates and persuaded them to talk, more of the story of the “Bayou Gangsters” as one journalist called them came out.

Jones headline

Chester “Keggy” Jones, along with his brother, Jack, had been involved in the armed robbery of the Union Planters National Bank in Memphis in May.  Those actually arrested for the crime were Herbert Scales, “a socially prominent young Dallas sportsman and clubman,” Ralph Arnold, and John “The Greek” Cherris.  Cherris was released from jail on a $7500 bail posted by Keggy, but Keggy and Cherris argued over the division of the Memphis loot.  Violently as it turned out, because Keggy, Jack Jones, and another crook named Barney McGanagel killed Cherris and dumped him in the Brazos River near East Columbia, Texas.

Within hours of the murder of her husband, Lola Cherris enlisted the aid of seasoned gangsters Del McCabe and Shiloh Scrivnor to do away with Keggy Jones.  At the end of September McCabe’s wife in St. Louis gave police the whole story from a hospital bed.  She was laid up with a broken leg that she sustained in a car accident that had killed Lola Cherris.  McCabe and Scrivnor entered the apartment to kill Jones, making him sit in a chair and firing point blank, as the powder burns on his clothing proved.  Jane had tried to fight off the killers but they beat her back, shot her, and fled.  Lola Cherris drove the getaway car.  McCabe and Scrivnor were now on the run.

By October 10th, authorities caught up with McCabe and Scrivnor in Des Moines, Iowa.  They had booked into a downtown hotel posing as machine-gun salesmen (seriously?).  As police approached his hotel room McCabe engaged them in a gun fight and was killed.  Scrivnor turned up at the hotel a few hours later, was arrested, and brought back to Texas to stand trial along with Jack Jones and Barry McGanegal.  And so the mystery of who killed the affluent young oilman and his wife was resolved.

Keggy Jones grave

As a postscript to the story, the apartment building where the bloodbath occurred was torn down.  According to the city of Houston web site, Mr. C. C. Bell eventually donated the land on which it stood to the city to be made into a park.  Bell Park, with its statue of Christopher Columbus, still exists on Montrose Blvd., just a few blocks away from Houston’s Museum District.

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Anthony Ernest Pratt

The Dastardly Past:  Anthony Ernest Pratt.

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Anthony Ernest Pratt was born in obscurity in England on August 10, 1903.  He died in obscurity ninety years later.  In between, Mr. Pratt undertook many occupations, including apprentice in a chemistry lab, professional musician, civil servant, and shopkeeper.  In World War II he worked in a factory making tank components and volunteered as a fired warden.  It was during the tedium of his wartime occupations that Pratt conceived his most remunerative idea.  He invented a board game called Clue (Cluedo in Great Britain), immortalizing the likes of Col. Mustard, Mrs. Peacock, and Prof. Plum.  The game went on the market in 1949 and has remained in the ranks of top-selling board games ever since.  In 1985 it was made into a movie with an all-star cast.  Adapting to the changing times, it is currently available in a variety of versions, including the Big Bang Theory, Dr. Who, Firefly, Game of Thrones, Golden Girls, Harry Potter, the Legend of Zelda, Scooby Doo, the Simpsons, Star Wars, and Twilight.

Robert Shaw

The Dastardly Past:  Robert Shaw.

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On August 9 in 1927, actor and writer Robert Shaw was born in Lancashire, England.  Known for playing tough guys, Shaw was a Bond villain opposite Sean Connery in From Russia with Love (1963).  My favorite of his roles, however, is Doyle Lonnegan, the gangster who menaces Robert Redford and Paul Newman in The Sting (1973).  His character’s distinctive limp was an actual injury Shaw sustained a week before filming began.  He wore a leg brace throughout the movie’s production, which somehow made his character even more threatening.  Shaw went on to play several more distinctive parts until 1978 when his life was cut short by a heart attack at the age of 51.

 

HM Holloway Prison

The Dastardly Past:  HM Holloway Prison.

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In London in 1903, HM Holloway Prison became a single-sex prison for women.  For the previous fifty years it housed both men and women, but the growing number of female felons demanded a larger facility for housing them.  At one point, Holloway was the largest institution for the incarceration of women in Europe.  In the twentieth century it housed many of Britain’s notable suffragettes, including Emmeline Pankhurst and, during the second world war, several English fascists, including Diana Mitford (wife of Sir Oswald Mosley).  Holloway was rebuilt during the 1970s and 1980s and closed in 2016.

Mata Hari

The Dastardly Past:  Mata Hari.

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On August 7, 1876, a baby girl called Margaretha Geertruida Zelle entered the world in the Netherlands.  Forty years later she would be executed as a German spy in France under the name of Mata Hari.  The details of her life read like something from the tabloids including, as they did, an affluent childhood, a bankrupt father, a wicked step-mother, a mail-order husband who turned alcoholic and abusive, a sojurn in the Dutch East Indies, bouts with syphilis that would claim the lives of her two children, work with a dance troupe, a circus, and as an artist’s model, and much more.  Openly promiscuous, she wound up an exotic dancer and “courtesan,” who mingled in high society and slept with Europe’s important politicians and high-ranking military officers.  The ease and frequency with which she crossed national borders made her an ideal candidate for espionage in World War I.  Whether Mata Hari actually passed along information or was merely set up by those wanting to rid themselves of her, her name has become synonymous with femmes fatale since her death by firing squad in 1917.

Revisiting Charlie Chan

The Dastardly Past:  Revisiting Charlie Chan.

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Several weeks ago, I posted about Charlie Chan at the movies in The Scarlet Clue.  The question came up about why the world’s most famous Chinese detective was played by European-American actors?  This led me to pick up a book by Yunte Huang entitled Charlie Chan: the Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History (2011).  The book itself is well written in an academic way although, as some reviewers have mentioned, it regularly strays from its subject.  Nevertheless, I found much of interest.  Charlie Chan fans should definitely take a look at it.

So why didn’t they use Asian actors for Chan?  Well, in the first two Charlie Chan productions, filmed in the silent era, they did.  The first starred George Kuwa, the second Kamiyama Sojin.  So, on the plus side, the first two Charlie Chans were Asian.  On the minus side, they were both natives of Japan—and let’s not delve any further into the thought processes of the producers who cast them.  As it turned out, neither of these Chan films proved popular at the box office.

So when it came to sound motion pictures, why did Hollywood break with recent precedent by casting European-American actors?  If I understand him correctly, Huang attributes the reason to what he calls “cultural ventriloquism.”  He uses 19th century minstrel shows to illustrate what he means.  In minstrelsy, black and white entertainers alike put on blackface to “safely” caricature African Americans and diminish their perceived threat to the social order.  In the 1930s and 1940s audiences concerned about immigration and international unrest would pay to see racial stereotypes, but the real thing was far too scary.  So in the same way that Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood caricatured a real theatre in China, Warner Oland and Sidney Toller provided a caricature of what a real Chinese detective might be.

To his credit, Warner Oland did study the philosophy and art of China and worked at learning Mandarin.  He also wore minimal make-up, attributing his appearance to his Russian mother’s central Asian ancestry.  In contrast, Sidney Toller’s ancestry derived from central Missouri, and he relied on heavier treatments from the make-up department.