Tomorrow is Halloween, a holiday which some celebrate by watching scary movies. The 1940s were a wonderful time for scary movies with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Gaslight. And don’t forget The Wolf Man, Ghost of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and then of course House of Frankenstein which featured Frank, the Wolf Man, Dracula, an evil scientist, and a hunchback. That pretty well covered all the bases. Think of it as The Avengers for horror fans – combining all of their favorite characters into one movie.
The head honcho of horror movies at the time was writer and producer Val Lewton. Russian-born but having moved to the United States as a child, Lewton began writing at an early age and dabbled in everything from newspapers and magazines to novels and film scripts. He hired on at RKO movie studio in 1942 to head their new horror unit. He initially made B movies that were cheap but profitable and eventually moved his way up to the A list films and actors. His credits include these horror classics:
Cat People (1942)
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
The Seventh Victim (1943)
The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
The Body Snatcher (1945)
Isle of the Dead (1945)
The last two films starred none other than Boris Karloff of Frankenstein fame. In The Body Snatcher, Karloff stars as a “resurrection man” (more commonly known as a graverobber) who relentlessly torments and blackmails the doctor to whom he provides bodies. Isle of the Dead depicts Karloff as a Greek general who quarantines an island after a mysterious outbreak starts killing inhabitants and giving power to a vampire. Spooky stuff.
Perhaps one or more of these movies played at the Spann Theater here in Forney. The movie theater was on Main St. near present-day City Hall and was owned by Milburn Mitchell, part of the same family who also had Margaret Mitchell Furniture across the street (present-day Eric Davis). In Forney Country, Jerry Flook relates this remembrance of a local boy visiting the Spann movie theater in the 1940s:
“On occasion, when a horror movie was showing, an employee of the Spann would come down the aisles costumed as one of the creepy characters of the movie. One Forney resident tells a childhood story of fleeing the theater in fright after a mummy unexpectedly appeared in the aisle during the midnight movie. As he ran for home a few blocks away, he encountered the Forney night watchman, Bob Crawford, on his nightly rounds. The surprise meeting of Crawford, who was a hulking figure himself, turned fright into outright terror and the young man never looked back until he stumbled breathless through his front door and locked it behind him.”
We don’t have night watchmen any more, of course, because we have a full time police force. Forney had only one law enforcement officer, the marshal, up until the 1950s. But fire insurance companies required that commercial structures have 24-hour surveillance in order for their rates to be affordable. One marshal couldn’t patrol downtown at all hours, so business owners pooled resources to hire a night watchman. He watched for fires downtown during the night but also possessed a certain degree of police power. He was assigned a specific route around the business district and checked in at each building by inserting a key from their front firebox into a time-clock which he carried. That record could tell where he had been throughout the night and when. The city of Forney took over the watchman’s salary beginning in 1924. The last record of a marshal being elected was in 1948 with Bondie Richman. I suspect that means that by the time the position was up again in 1950, the city had hired a more complete police force at which time the need for a night watchman would have been eliminated. Some of the Forney night watchmen over the years were: (?) Eudy, W.J. Pettigrew, Jesse Hawks, Robert W. Crawford, Ed Davis, Elvis Hamm, B.B. Henderson, J.H. Frame, and John Freeman.
If you’re out and about after dark this Saturday night and see a hulking figure in the street, it’s probably not the friendly night watchman of 60 years ago.
Or is it?
<dun dun DUN!>
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