Made in Berkeley: ‘Officer 444,’ featuring August Vollmer

Born in New Orleans in 1876, August Vollmer and his family moved to Berkeley in 1890, where he helped run a supplies store and organize the North Berkeley Volunteer Fire Department before being elected police marshal in 1905. Vollmer remained in office (later as police chief) until 1932, his tenure interrupted only by a brief, unhappy dalliance with the LAPD.

One of the most progressive lawmen of the early 20th century, Vollmer was instrumental in establishing the nation’s first motorized police units, encouraged the hiring of women and African-Americans into police ranks, eliminated use of the ‘third degree’, and considered drug prohibition a waste of police resources. He was, in sum, the answer to the question How Berkeley Can You Be? before the question was ever posed.

All this, of course, is no news to local history buffs, who are already well aware of Vollmer’s importance to both the city of Berkeley and to the development of modern law enforcement. Less, however, is known about his small but fascinating role in the motion picture industry.

It’s unclear how Vollmer briefly became a movie star in 1926, but his national renown presumably attracted the attention of independent producer Ben Wilson. Wilson and director Francis Ford (elder brother of John Ford) hired the chief to appear throughout their production of Officer 444, a ten-chapter serial set and (mostly?) filmed in Berkeley.

Wilson headlines his serial as the title character, a fearless flatfoot employed by the Berkeley Police Department and engaged in struggle against a criminal gang led by a hunchbacked, pop-eyed villain known as The Frog. The Frog is desperate to acquire the secret of ‘Haverlyite’, a chemical compound set to revolutionize medical science.

Apparently developed somewhere in West Berkeley by Professor Haverly, it’s never made clear exactly what the chemical actually does — or the danger it will pose in the hands of The Frog and his evil henchfolk, including The Vulture (Ruth Royce) and Dago Frank (Frank Baker) — but the serial makes clear that it must not fall into their hands. Over the course of its ten 20-minute chapters, Officer 444 documents the numerous car chases, fistfights, and romantic subplots that stem from the struggle for control of Haverlyite.

And where does Police Chief Vollmer fit into all this? He’s seen at least once in every chapter (identified by name and position, and as being ‘in person’), mostly reviewing correspondence or evidence at his desk. It’s clear Vollmer’s scenes were shot in a single sitting, but his national celebrity dictated he be present throughout the serial.

As for Berkeley itself, there are glimpses of two clearly identifiable landmarks: City Hall is featured in an establishing shot in Chapter 1, and there’s a brief glimpse of Sather Gate during a car chase in Chapter 6. I’m afraid I was unable to identify any other locations – apparently the city has changed a bit in the last 86 years. Let’s just say there seem to have been a lot of unpaved, trash-strewn Berkeley streets circa 1926!

The serial also takes numerous amusing geographic liberties: spunky nurse Gloria Grey (Neva Garber) lives in a non-existent neighborhood known as Malberry Heights; Berkeley now has its own Chinatown; and the city is surprisingly close to the Mexican border.

It’s a minor miracle that Officer 444 survives in full today. Produced on a very low budget, it would surely have been no surprise if it had long ago succumbed to nitrate decomposition or been engulfed in a warehouse fire. Luckily for us, however, Officer 444 is still here to enjoy, and can be ordered from Grapevine Video or viewed in part online.

This is the ninth article in an occasional series by John Seal on “locally grown” movies . The other movies reviewed in the series are: Along Came a SpiderThe Fear Woman (for which we are still looking for answers from historical sleuths), Shadow of the Thin ManChangesHarold and MaudeTear Gas and Law EnforcementThe Assassination of Richard Nixon and The Graduate.

Saving the history of the Berkeley Police Department [05.05.11]
Berkeley Police Department’s past continues to influence officers of today [03.26.10]
Remembering August Vollmer, the Berkeley Police Chief who created modern policing [01.27.10]

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. 

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  • History Buff

    Fascinating article but Vollmer wasn’t quite the progressive some want him to be. Known around town for his outsized ego, Police Chief Vollmer savaged the Asian community in Berkeley during his entire tenure.

  • guest

    Vollmer’s time with the LAPD is covered in part in Richard Raynor’s outstanding history of 1920s-30s SoCal politics “A Bright and Guilty Place”

  • Carlo

    What evidence is there of Vollmer’s “savage” treatment of the Asian community? Can you refer us to any books or articles?

  • BHS

    The Berkeley History Center, 1931 Center Street (Veterans’ Building) has episodes of Officer 444 for viewing. Hours are Thursday-Saturday, 1-4pm. Admission is free.

  • Officer 444

    If you look in the book “Eccentrics, Heroes, and Eccentrics of Old Berkeley” by Richard Schwartz, on page 128 you will see a image from “Officer 444” filmed at the old Standard Soap Works and some explaination. It is also mentioned on page 123. Great image of a guy jumping from high up on the building and the police trying to catch him.

  • Richard Schwartz

    I have seen the first episode of “Officer 444” which was released in about 1926 and called “The Flying Squadron.” It does indeed take place at the old Standard Soap Works, originally built by Richard Parks Thomas in 1876. I devote an entire chapter on this man and the Soap Works (and have included scores of photos and illustrations of it and am sure this is the building shown in this movie) and included mention and a still from “TheFlying Squadron” in this chapter in the book. Great old building and great old film. The film shows the Soap Works, which operated on and off as a soap manufacting plant until late in the teens. By the time Officer 444 was filmed, the building had been a home for hobos and had been damaged in a fire. That made it easy for the film to show the building on fire. It was really facinating to see the inside of the building in its delapadated condition but still with some machinery and furniture. Thomas had worked so hard to install all the equipment, so to actually see some was a rare thrill for a historian of Berkeley. I hope you can see this story, Chapter 9, in “Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley.” It adds a lot of depth to seeing the movie. Thanks for this article John.
    Richard Schwartz, Historian