Sunday, March 05, 2017

Alias Jimmy Valentine

Several months ago at a local antique store mall, I came across a bunch of these movie flyers from the early days of film making. They were from silent movies and early "talkies" and some illustrating movies that are now considered lost.

I bought several of them, basing my choice on subject matter and overall sense of design and artwork.

This first one satisfied all of my criteria. It has some interesting art along with photos of the stars. The character of Jimmy Valentine is interesting for a couple of reasons of his own merit. He also is the creation of famed short-story writer O'Henry. I don't know if I was a fan of O'Henry because he was from my hometown, and where I currently call home, Greensboro, NC or if that was just happenstance.

While O'Henry was from NC, most of his stories were written while he was a resident of New York in the early part of the 20th Century. Before M. Night Shyalaman, O'Henry specialized in the ironic and twist ending to his tales. He wrote around 600 short-stories but four are especially notable for their fame extending past the stories themselves.

Before Hallmark started making so many Christmas themed movies that they could show them without repeating 24/7 weeks before Christmas, us older folks watched many of the same Christmas specials over and over and read many of the same stories. It was fairly popular for television shows to do a Christmas episode, usually borrowing the plot from "A Christmas Carol", "It's a Wonderful Life", and, a little more infrequently, "The Gift of the Magi" (1905). Like the other two stories, it has been formally adapted in film and plays as well. No doubt many are aware of the story without having actually read it. Interestingly, almost all adaptations that I can remember seeing, most tend to ignore one of the more unique aspects of this story that separates it from other O'Henry stories (at least of the paltry 20% I have read from that prodigious 600 total). It is one of the few stories written that the 3rd person narrative has a personality. The narrator is a cynic and presents the story as a cautionary tale, the young poor couple described as being foolish and for readers to not emulate them.

"The Ransom of Red Chief" (1910) is one of several stories featuring Bill and Sam, a pair of somewhat scoundrels always pursuing a quick buck or easy path to fortune. In this story they decide to kidnap the boy of a local prominent citizen and end up getting far more than they bargained for. Like the above story, it has been filmed and adapted for stage many times. Its plot has become a standard comedy trope, showing up in movies and television shows. Most recently, the plot showed up just a couple of weeks ago in television's Grimm when a crooked cop kidnaps Renaud's daughter to force him to honor his end of a bargain and not knowing how powerful of a little witch she actually is.

"The Caballero's Way" (1907) is notable for two things. One, it introduces a specific character who becomes famous beyond the original story, in this case, the Cisco Kid. Two, it does not have the wit and humor generally found in O'Henry stories. It is a dark tale. Readers expecting the Cisco Kid of television and comics are in for a surprise as he is a clever, ruthless and murderous outlaw. In 1914 a silent version of the story was filmed and apparently a fairly faithful adaptation of the plot. In 1928, a sound film, In Old Arizona, was released with a more heroic Cisco, albeit still an outlaw. The movies would continue, he'd have various sidekicks before settling on the familiar Pancho. The characters made the transition to a 1950s television series. In 1972, he even made it into a pop song. Sing it with me, "The Cisco Kid, was a good friend of miine." In 1994, Jimmy Smits and Cheech Marin would saddle up for a tv movie featuring the characters. Moonstone Comics did a series several years ago that walked the line between the two versions of the Cisco Kid.

This brings us to "A Retrieved Reformation" (1903) which introduced the world to the safe-cracker Jimmy Valentine. Jimmy is known to be able to break into any safe or vault and is casing a small town bank with a state of the art new vault. However, he sees the bank manager's daughter and falls in love. He passes himself off with a new name and endeavors to go straight. However, a detective rolls into town and is positive he recognizes Jimmy but has no proof. That's when a young girl gets accidentally locked in the safe. Jimmy can save her but it means revealing who he is and sacrificing his chance for happiness. The story was adapted for a play which was then filmed as a movie three times. The above images are from the third film, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's first sound film with dialogue sequences. The story would also make it onto radio. He would achieve a different kind of fame outside his story than the Cisco Kid. His name became synonymous for skilled safe crackers and became a somewhat slang term. Reading mysteries and pulp novels, it would not be surprising to come across a sentence that read something like: "he wasn't a Jimmy Valentine, but this old safe shouldn't give him too much trouble he thought." These days, his name has drifted into the past as money is stolen more through computer hacking than safe cracking. With all of the meta-fiction out there and people dusting off old characters and concepts for new stories, I am a bit surprised that we have not seen "The Return of Jimmy Valentine" as a series of historical mysteries set in the early pre-WWI days of 20th century New York. Or, maybe we have and it has just slipped by me.

No comments: