Fates Worse Than Death: Dick Tracy Returns

Dick Tracy, still a plainclothes G-Man with the Western Division of the FBI, is lecturing a new class of incoming agents: “Remember,” he tells them, “there are no rules in the game of justice versus crime,” giving a bracing wake-up call to the new agents while reminding viewers that this serial will involve the nuts and bolts of serious police work. Tracy and his colleagues are trained and careful policemen, vulnerable to bullets, not costumed superheroes. Afterward, Tracy greets one of the new agents, Ron Merton (David Sharpe), a promising symbol of the Bureau’s bright future. (Gosh, I hope something bad doesn’t happen to him!)

Special Agent Merton’s first big assignment is to ride along with a bank shipment of half a million dollars in cash. At the same time, Tracy is concerned about a criminal recently released by a “soft-hearted parole board”: Pa Stark, who, along with his gang of five sons, is thought to be operating out West. Could it be that Tracy is about to cross paths with the Starks, and that the bank shipment Merton is guarding is their next target?

Dick Tracy Returns is the second serial based on Chester Gould’s long-running newspaper comic strip (begun in 1931), and it is, in the words of mystery writer (and sometime Dick Tracy writer) Max Allan Collins, “the serial most like the strip.” This is true not just in the emphasis on solid police work over fantastic special effects or melodrama–unlike the previous serial, there are no “flying wings” or “sound disintegrators,” no mad scientists, and even the main villain, Pa Stark, is known and unmasked from the beginning (catching him is another matter)–but in the assortment of colorful side characters, the devious ways the criminals attempt to worm their way out of the various jams they find themselves in, and even the tendency of characters (heroes and villains alike) to hide in unlikely places that turn out to be potential deathtraps.

The few high-tech wonders that are included in the story are much more modest–no synthetic radium here–and serve to move the story forward rather than thrilling in themselves: a super cutting torch is stolen from the Navy so that the Starks can use it to cut into a jewelry store’s vault; a “torpedo speedboat” is stolen to sell it to a foreign power; likewise a scheme to steal the motor of an experimental airplane. (One exception is a remote television viewer that allows Tracy to witness the hijacking of the torpedo boat out at sea while he is on the shore, but even then it’s presented matter-of-factly.) As Collins points out (in his introduction on the DVD copy I watched), “Of all the Dick Tracy serials, this is the Dick Traciest!”

Having said all that, Dick Tracy Returns clearly follows Dick Tracy (1937) in continuity, however loosely: Ralph Byrd returns in the starring role; Tracy is still a G-Man in the West rather than a Chicago police detective; and the supporting characters surrounding him are the same, although recast: Steve Lockwood (Michael Kent, replacing Fred Hamilton) is Tracy’s partner, Gwen Andrews (Lynn Roberts, replacing Kay Hughes) his assistant, Mike McGurk (Lee Ford, replacing Smiley Burnette) is the bumbling comic relief, and Junior (Jerry Tucker, replacing Lee van Atta) is still present, now officially Tracy’s ward and attending military school.

A subvillain from the first serial, foreign agent Baron Kroner (Harrison Greene), makes an appearance (or does he?), commissioning the Starks to steal a remote-control tank for his government. (Greene’s character was listed under a different name in the 1937 serial, but come on–in an era of interchangeable gangsters in fedoras and pinstripe suits, there are two monocle-wearing German spies, played by the same actor?) Tracy’s brother Gordon, turned evil and then killed in the previous serial, is never mentioned, of course: the demands of continuity only extend so far.

Despite the somewhat lower stakes in this serial (the Starks are extortionists and racketeers with their hands in many criminal enterprises, but they’re mostly in it for the money), the action and cliffhangers are just as exciting; in this case, the (relative) plausibility helps sell the danger and increase the stakes. The colorful staging areas for fight scenes and cliffhangers include a powerhouse, railroad yards, a fertilizer plant, a multilevel parking garage, and a mine tunnel under an observatory (just in case you thought Gotham City had a corner on abandoned facilities used as criminal hideouts!).

As the title character, Ralph Byrd is good-natured, sociable, but deadly serious when it comes down to it. And true to the comic strip, many of the clues the G-Men track down are of the mundane, forensic variety: dusting for fingerprints, tracing tire impressions, recovering serial numbers ground off of metal, and interviewing suspects. True, many of the leads Tracy and company follow up are arrived at by coincidence, and the serial doesn’t show the huge number of dead ends that usually crop up in investigation, and it’s awfully convenient that pretty much everything that happens in the serial is related to the Stark case, but by the standards of many other serials, it’s gritty realism.

Lee Ford, who replaces Smiley Burnette as Mike McGurk, doesn’t really hit the comic relief notes as effectively as Burnette did. As cliché as the “funny fat man” role could be, and as stupid as Burnette’s clowning often was, Burnette played the role (like most of his comic roles) as essentially a grown-up kid, a well-meaning but innocent blowhard: in Dick Tracy (’37) the character is introduced trying to impress a group of children with his (imagined) football prowess, and the pranks Junior pulls on him are in part justified by McGurk’s attempts to pull rank on Junior. The fact that Junior is more capable than him, and they are essentially equals, is part of the joke. In Dick Tracy Returns, Ford’s McGurk is more pathetic than funny, the pratfalls even more pandering.

Where Dick Tracy Returns really soars is in its focus on the villain: Pa Stark, the patriarch of the criminal family (partially based on Ma Barker), is played by Charles Middleton, Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials and frequent serial heavy. Free of the ornate costume of Mongo and the aristocratic pretensions of some of his other roles, what is most striking is Middleton’s craggy face, and the directness of his character, free of fussy high-toned verbiage, stripped down to the essence: Pa Stark is mean and ruthless, and he doesn’t accept excuses or pussyfoot around. It’s the kind of characterization we might get today from James Cromwell or Liam Neeson, and like them Middleton’s Stark has a particular set of skills and woe to any who underestimate him.

Of special interest is this spin on the typical criminal mastermind: like many serial villains, Pa Stark works through underlings, but since they are his sons, there is a poignant sting when they are caught or killed, and since he works alongside them, he faces off against the G-Men and is nearly caught himself several times (distinctly unusual for a serial, but true to the comic strip). As the noose tightens around Stark, and his sons fall one by one, his motivation becomes focused on revenge against Dick Tracy. Stark may die, but he’ll take Tracy with him if it’s the last thing he does.

What I Watched: Dick Tracy’s Return (Republic, 1938)

Where I Watched It: Dick Tracy Complete Serial Collection from VCI Entertainment

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Four Seconds to Live” (Chapter Four)

Best Cliffhanger: Chapter Nine, “The Clock of Doom,” is an unexceptional “economy chapter” (i.e. a recap using footage from earlier chapters), but the cliffhanger that ends it is so simple, and so satisfying, that it is easily my favorite. In the chapter, Dick Tracy meets with a group of civic leaders to allay their concerns that the Bureau isn’t doing everything it can to halt the Stark-led crime wave. Attracted by the publicity for the get-together, Pa Stark hires a killer whose face is unknown to Tracy or the Bureau, a smug prick dapper, meticulous fellow known only as “The Duke.” The Duke (Larry Steers) comes to the meeting as “Mr. Reeves” from the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, just one of several interested parties. While Tracy describes the case and its challenges (the perfect opportunity for copious flashbacks to chapters two and three), the Duke activates the timer on a bomb hidden in his briefcase.

Soon, at Gwen’s summons, Tracy excuses himself to hear what she has to say: there is no Mr. Reeves on the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce! Tracy returns to his office to find that “Mr. Reeves” has been called away suddenly and has “accidentally” left his briefcase there, and that Junior, unaware of the danger, has picked it up and is attempting to return to its owner, even chasing the hit-man’s car down the street yelling “HEY, MISTER! WAIT!”

The last shot of the chapter shows Dick Tracy on the sidewalk, recoiling in horror as an explosion is heard from offscreen. Well, of course it’s obvious what happens, but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying: sure enough, as the next chapter begins, Junior flings the briefcase into the Duke’s car, seconds before it explodes, destroying the car and taking the Duke with him. It’s a well-deserved end to a somewhat less than foolproof plot, and the fact that Junior was just trying to help out that nice Mr. Reeves makes it all the more deliciously ironic.

Best Stark Son: Like any good gang, Pa Stark’s five adult sons come furnished with nicknames (Kid, Trigger, Dude, Slasher, and Champ) that telegraph their personalities (and to a lesser extent their criminal specialties). But which one steals the spotlight?

Although he is the first one eliminated, Kid Stark (Ned Glass) has the most clearly defined personality, combining swagger and snottiness (and a near-Bugs Bunny Brooklyn accent none of the other brothers share) like a serial-budget Jimmy Cagney. After the Starks plug Ron Merton during the armored car holdup, the Kid goes back to the scene of the crime to make sure the job is finished, holding an innocent cab driver at gunpoint. Chased by Dick Tracy, the cab crashes, and when Tracy pulls up to the accident scene, Kid has the balls to pretend that he was merely an onlooker. “Worst one I ever seen. . . . Poor fellas, they never had a chance,” he says, holding his arm in hopes that Tracy won’t notice how battered he is. But with a broken ankle the Kid is in no shape to run away, and he is promptly arrested. The Starks gamely make an attempt to secure the Kid’s release, but (in a montage of newspaper headlines) he’s tried and sentenced to die before the second chapter is even over. R.I.P. Kid Stark

Sample Dialogue: “Your real teachers are the criminals you’re going to run into from now on. They’ll chalk up a lesson every time you meet them. If you don’t pass . . . curtains.” –Dick Tracy to Ron Merton, Chapter One (“The Sky Wreckers”)

What Others Have Said:Dick Tracy Returns was a more polished serial than its predecessor, because it was made a crucial year after Dick Tracy, and primarily due to the directing team of William Witney and John English. It provided much action that could be later reused in the further serial adventures of Dick Tracy. Its main drawback was in the use of economy chapters.” (see above) –Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury

What’s Next: I return to the city of Metropolis with the 1950 superhero epic Atom Man vs. Superman!


Fates Worse Than Death: Superman (1948)

Unlike many of the costumed heroes who made the leap to serials, not only does Superman not need an introduction, but the 1948 Columbia serial bearing his name is remarkably faithful to the comic books in which he regularly appeared. Any modern reader or viewer should recognize the character’s origin, set forth in the first chapter, “Superman Comes to Earth”: on the faraway planet Krypton, scientist Jor-El attempts to convince the ruling council that the planet is doomed, a victim of gravitational forces that will soon lead to its complete destruction. Unable to convince them, Jor-El places his infant son Kal-El in a test rocket and launches him to Earth, just before the planet explodes. After landing in a rural part of America (not yet “Smallville”) on Earth, baby Kal-El is adopted and raised by the Kents, a childless couple who instill in their adopted son “Clark” a sense of justice and fair play, even as he develops superhuman strength and incredible abilities. Chapter One ends with Clark Kent on his way to Metropolis to use his powers for the good of mankind.

Also unlike some other serial heroes, Superman wasn’t the character’s first representation outside of comics. Since the first publication of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation in Action Comics no. 1 in 1938, Superman had been a best-selling comic book and newspaper strip character; headlined a radio show (since 1940); and appeared in animated shorts (seventeen cartoons from Fleischer and Famous Studios between 1941 and 1943). It would have been hard to find even a casual follower of popular fiction who didn’t know who Superman was, and that above all may have encouraged producer Sam Katzman to stick to the established mythology. That meant not only keeping Superman’s origin the same, but keeping him at the Daily Planet with Lois Lane, Perry White, and Jimmy Olsen (who first appeared as a named character on the radio show in 1940), rather than creating a new cast of characters. It also meant including Kryptonite (introduced on the radio in 1943 and the comics only in 1947), the fragments of Superman’s exploded home planet, the radiation of which was the one force on Earth that could weaken him.

There were still some differences, however, most notably the serial’s choice of villain: the Spider Lady, a blonde woman in a black evening gown and domino mask, is very much within the serial tradition: she has no origin or backstory, no powers of her own, and her persona is “criminal mastermind, but slightly vampier.” (Superman’s archenemy Lex Luthor would appear in the following serial, 1950’s Atom Man vs. Superman.) More importantly, she holds off on direct confrontations with Superman, prolonging the story by working through her agents, fedora-wearing henchmen with names like Driller and Brock. They may be caught, but she continues her evil work until the last chapter and her inevitable comeuppance. Like her namesake, she sits at the center of a web (literally–the web is an important backdrop of her scenes, and it proves to be electrified, a fitting method of punishing underlings who fail her), plotting and scheming.

Also true to the serial style is the macguffin, a sort of death ray called the Relativity Reducer Ray, developed for the government by Professor Graham, guarded by Superman (so it doesn’t “fall into the wrong hands”), and coveted by the Spider Lady. Described as more powerful than the atomic bomb, the Reducer Ray deals death by remote control: in Chapter Three, which introduces both the Ray and the Spider Lady, a test demonstrates its ability to destroy buildings at a distance by feeding coordinates into its internal computing mechanism. The Ray provides plenty of plot possibilities, whether it’s the Spider Lady’s attempts to stop the test; her attempts to steal, and later copy, the Ray; her kidnapping and later mind-control of the Ray’s inventor, Professor Graham; and her use of it to threaten the Daily Planet itself once she has a functioning copy.

Lois Lane: Poet of the Apocalypse

Finally, the Spider Lady has her own scientist, Dr. Hackett (Charles Quigley), described as “brilliant” but “with a warped mind,” whom she breaks out of jail to aid her; what his previous crimes were is never stated, but he proves to be an ambitious, treacherous character, and his alliance with his patroness an uneasy one. All of these elements serve to provide exciting, varied episodes of action and suspense, many of them based on classic serial premises (e.g., there are mine cave-ins and car chases, and Lois and Jimmy get tied up more than once), but each connected to the central threat of the Spider Lady and enlivened by clever plotting and witty dialogue.

Superman is played by Kirk Alyn (although not according to the title credits: Columbia’s marketers claimed that no actor could be found to convincingly portray the Man of Steel, so they simply got the real thing), who would go on to headline several more serials. Alyn mostly strikes a note of hearty good cheer and optimism as the hero (even when banging two gangsters’ heads together to knock them out he jokes “Sometimes I don’t know my own strength!”), and his Clark Kent is amusingly sketchy. In Chapter Two, Clark essentially gets his position on the Planet (with no prior experience or references) by scooping Lois, and throughout the serial she snipes at him for what she perceives as underhanded maneuvering (she gets her own back a few times as well). She rightly suspects that Clark is simply playing dumb when conversation turns to Superman and his tendency to show up when he’s gone, but she never suspects the truth.

Although Clark’s coworkers chide him for his tendency to duck out when trouble is brewing, Alyn makes this foible seem like the product of bumbling rather than cowardice (and of course, we in the audience know what he’s really up to). Through a variety of special effects, including undercranking (to depict Superman’s super-speed), double exposure (for X-ray vision), and hand-drawn animation for flying sequences, just about all of Superman’s established powers come into play during the story. And of course, the serial format guarantees that he’ll appear in costume at least once in every chapter, whether it’s to laugh off a gangster’s bullets (depicted bouncing off Superman’s chest, again with animation), stop a fire by blowing it out with his super breath, or to catch a flying shell and boomerang it back toward the gun that fired it. Superman even uses his X-ray vision to see through a disguise while looking at a photograph–quite a feat, even for him. Alyn distinguishes Clark from Superman with his voice as well, using a light, wishy-washy tone for Clark and a deeper chest voice for Superman, a transformation made audible (in imitation of the radio serial) every time Clark Kent in voice over says, “This looks like a job for [sudden drop to chest voice] SUPERMAN!”

Noel Neill (who passed away just last year) imbues Lois Lane with the brassy, no-nonsense quality the character had absorbed during the war years, inspired by His Girl Friday and the like (and which would largely be domesticated in the coming 1950s). The frequently-depicted romantic triangle between Clark, Lois, and Superman is absent in the serial, but is replaced by a professional rivalry; as mentioned, Lois takes potshots at Clark mercilessly (“What now, little man?” is a typical gibe), but it’s an understandable attitude when she is frequently consigned to writing “women’s stories” about recipes or fashion while Clark gets the headlines.

In addition to driving the plot, the tension between the pair is a natural source of comedy, with Perry White (Pierre Watkin)and Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond, formerly Butch in the Our Gang shorts) also contributing to the quippy, fast-paced scenes. (As an aside, it’s nice to have a humorous tone carried by dialogue and situation, rather than a single “comic relief” character, as in the Republic formula.)

As the Spider Lady, Carol Forman is a haughty, imperious villainess in the classic style. She doesn’t do much, but preening and pontificating are enough for this type of character: other than her electrified web, it appears to be the power of her will and ruthless pursuit of her goals alone that keep her underlings in line. There is one scene, however, probably meant as a throwaway, that deepens the character’s mystery: in Chapter Nine (“Irresistible Force!”), the only time in the serial that the Spider Lady leaves her lair, she goes to the airport disguised as Lois Lane to trick Professor Graham, the Reducer Ray’s inventor, into accompanying her. Throughout the serial, the Spider Lady has been a blonde, but in preparing to disguise herself, she removes a blonde wig to reveal a head of dark hair.

At no other time is it even suggested that she is wearing a disguise, and she’s a blonde for the rest of the serial. Visually, the Spider Lady (whom Harmon and Glut in The Great Movie Serials describe as “faintly foreign” in appearance) changes from a Veronica Lake type to a more fitting Myrna Loy type, perhaps revealing her true colors. (Or perhaps it’s nothing more than an inside joke: Forman was naturally a brunette, and had played another spider-themed villainess for Superman director Spencer Bennet the year before in The Black Widow. Forman didn’t want to be typecast as a villain, but she played several in the serials.) Serials didn’t generally go in for the duality of hero and villain, but when you have a blank slate of a character like the Spider Lady, any suggestion of depth, however subtle, makes an impression. As Clark Kent would be the first to acknowledge, sometimes it’s the appearance you wear every day that is the real disguise.

What I Watched: Superman (Columbia, 1948)

Where I Watched It: Superman: The Theatrical Serials Collection, a 4-DVD set from DC/Warner Home Video

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Superman to the Rescue” (Chapter Eight)

Best Cliffhanger: Superman features many good cliffhangers, including some classics, such as the car speeding off a cliff, and an unconscious victim placed on a conveyor belt, headed toward doom, among others. Wisely, once Superman’s invulnerability is established in the first few chapters, the filmmakers don’t try to convince us that the Man of Steel is going to be killed by something as pedestrian as a gunshot or an explosion, and the only cliffhangers that leave his fate in doubt involve Kryptonite. Rather, it’s Superman’s friends who face peril at the end of each chapter, the question being whether Superman will get there in time to rescue them (a few chapters end with Superman entangled in some other problem that will presumably leave him unavailable) or if they will find their own way out of the danger. (In the examples I mentioned above, it’s Lois Lane in the speeding car and Jimmy Olsen on the conveyor belt; at the end of another chapter, Perry White is thrown out the window of his office, hanging onto the ledge by his fingertips.)

At the end of Chapter Fourteen (“Superman at Bay”), the Spider Lady has finally gotten Professor Graham’s Reducer Ray working, and to test it she has the Professor aim its destructive force at the corner of the jail in which her henchman Anton and Dr. Hackett are being held (she will demonstrate the ray’s power and eliminate some “useless people” at one stroke). Unbeknownst to her (not that it would make any difference), Lois Lane is visiting the two inmates at the jail in hopes of persuading them to talk, and she is present when the power of the ray manifests in the form of an intense glow. An explosion ends the chapter. (At the beginning of Chapter Fifteen, Superman, having overheard the Spider Lady’s instructions, flies to the jail to swoop in and carry Lois to safety, leaving Hackett and the other inmates to suck eggs, I guess. A newspaper headline following the incident notes “Many Prisoners Killed.” They don’t get top billing, though.)

The Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: The resolution to the cliffhanger I described above involves a bit of a cheat, but the winner is the cliffhanger that ends Chapter Eleven (“Superman’s Dilemma”) and its resolution. Chapter Eleven focuses on “mono-chromite,” a secret ingredient needed for the Reducer Ray, and the lengths to which the Spider Lady’s henchmen go to obtain it. Two of the Spider Lady’s operatives show up at a chemical engineer’s office demanding mono-chromite. Since it’s a restricted material, the engineer puts the men off and contacts Perry White. Lois gets the jump on Clark by telling him to take her car and then reporting it stolen, so that Clark is picked up by the police and taken to jail: there may not be a jail built that can hold Superman, but he can’t afford to jeopardize his secret identity by breaking out or overpowering a policeman! In the mean time, Lois and Jimmy get to the engineer’s office and conceive a plan: Jimmy hides in a packing crate marked “mono-chromite” so that when the Spider Lady’s men pick it up, he’ll be taken straight to her lair! Unfortunately, when the crate comes open during the drive back, the drivers get suspicious and stop to check on it. One of the thugs sees Jimmy’s fingers closing the crate, so he and the other henchman open fire and shoot the crate full of holes.

But wait! As the next chapter begins, we see Clark Kent in his jail cell change into Superman. He bundles up Clark Kent’s clothing under the blanket on his bunk to hide his disappearance and, bending the bars on the window easily, flies off to rescue Jimmy. Not only does he know exactly where to find his pal (Jimmy doesn’t yet have his famous signal watch in this serial, but Superman finds him anyway), he has time to take his place in the crate, so that when the driver begins shooting (and it’s only one henchman shooting in this chapter, not both as in the previous cliffhanger), the bullets bounce harmlessly off him. After knocking out the gangsters and tying them up at super-speed, Superman flies back to the jail and resumes Clark Kent’s identity, just in time for the jailer to let him out, having confirmed his identity from Perry White. Whew! It’s all in a day’s work for (sudden basso profundo) Superman!

NOT a dream! NOT an imaginary story! “Clark Kent: Super-JAILBIRD!”

Sample Dialogue:

Lois (regaining consciousness): How did we get here?
Clark: Superman got us out through a hole he made in the side of that hill.
Lois: He’s wonderful isn’t he, Clark?
Clark: I guess so.
Lois: You guess so? . . . Say, weren’t these handcuffs on our other hands before?

–Chapter Thirteen, “Hurled to Destruction”

What Others Have Said: “As Superman, Kirk Alyn looks the part. He was a former Broadway chorus boy who’d worked his way up to become a Columbia day player, and his athletic form required little in the way of muscle padding. (If he doesn’t quite live up to the illustration on the serial’s movie poster–Superman as a downright steroidal mountain of muscle–few men of the day could.)”
–Glen Weldon, Superman: The Unauthorized Biography

What’s Next: Join me as I explore the second Dick Tracy serial, 1938’s Dick Tracy Returns!