Spooktober: The Aftermath

It is November first, the day after Halloween. The candy has been handed out, and all that remains is to put away the costumes and take the decorations out of the yard. Elsewhere online, people are already gearing up for Noirvember or NaNoWriMo or “No-Shave November.” As I write this I am watching a compilation of horror movie trailers to keep the mood going, after having hit the Spirit Halloween Store to check out the after-holiday sales.

I usually like to post this October summary on the 31st, but the holiday itself turned out to be busy with work during the day and taking the kids trick-or-treating in the evening (this year I went as my namesake, celebrity chef Guy Fieri), not to mention cramming in a few last-minute horror movies. As always, I kept track of my viewing in the last month: the results are a little less varied than in some years, partly because I watched more series and sequels this time. I had a pile of movies set aside for this month, and watched quite a few of them, but since I bought more movies during the month, the pile I have left is almost as big.

Blade Runner 2049 was the only film I watched that isn’t horror, but in the past I’ve included movies that are better described as fantasy or science fiction or that belong to horror-adjacent genres such as thrillers or kaiju eiga; I’m not much for splitting hairs. (It was good, by the way.)

There were also theatrical screenings at the Warren Oldtown Horrorfest (formerly October at the Oldtown), organized by local filmmaker and presenter Leif Jonker (and shown nationwide by the Regal Cinemas chain, which purchased the Warren theaters earlier this year). The only Horrorfest film I skipped was Jaws, which is great but feels more like a summer movie to me. In addition to the Horrorfest screenings, my viewing included films on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, YouTube, and cable television (thanks, TCM!). (I’m not really a VHS collector, but I appreciate a bargain, and when I found a copy of Saturday the 14th at a church flea market on Saturday the 14th, how could I not pick it up?)

1. The Awakening (Mike Newell, 1980)
2. Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb (Seth Holt, 1971)
3. Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)*
4. Fright Night (Tom Holland, 1985)*,**
5. Blade (Stephen Norrington, 1998)
6. Blade II (Guillermo del Toro, 2002)
7. Blade: Trinity (David S. Goyer, 2004)
8. Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012)
9. The Dead Zone (David Cronenberg, 1983)*
10. Pet Sematary (Mary Lambert, 1989)*
11. The Monster Squad (Fred Dekker, 1987)*
12. Slave of the Cannibal God aka Mountain of the Cannibal God (Sergio Martino, 1978)
13. At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (José Mojica Marins, 1964)
14. This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (José Mojica Marins, 1967)
15. Embodiment of Evil (José Mojica Marins, 2008)
16. Saturday the 14th (Howard R. Cohen, 1981)
17. Saturday the 14th Strikes Back (Howard R. Cohen, 1988)
18. Blacula (William Crain, 1972)
19. King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933)*, **
20. Them! (Gordon Douglas, 1954)*, **
21. A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)*
22. Scream, Blacula, Scream (Bob Kelljan, 1973)
23. Society (Brian Yuzna, 1989)
24. The Mad Executioners (Edwin Zbonek, 1963)
25. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)*
26. Vampires (John Carpenter, 1998)
27. Cat People (Paul Schrader, 1982)*
28. Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)*
29. Torture Dungeon (Andy Milligan, 1970)
30. The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöström, 1921)
31. Salem’s Lot (Tobe Hooper, 1979)
32. The Ghost of Frankenstein (Erle C. Kenton, 1942)
33. The Vault of Horror (Roy Ward Baker, 1973)
34. The Whip and the Body (Mario Bava, 1963)
35. The Crimson Cult (Vernon Sewell, 1968)
36. House of the Long Shadows (Pete Walker, 1983)
37. The Secret of the Mummy (Ivan Cardoso, 1982)
38. Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968)*, **
39. Theater of Blood (Douglas Hickox, 1973)

* theatrical screening
** rewatch

Best movie: It’s hard to pick a clear-cut winner out of so many films. Aside from rewatches, Suspiria, Theater of Blood, Frankenweenie, and Blacula were all very solid films. I was also very taken by A Nightmare on Elm Street after years of thinking I wouldn’t like it. In fact, I enjoyed most of the movies I watched for the first time this month, with only a few duds.

Ultimately, I think David Cronenberg’s prescient media fantasia Videodrome (which, admittedly, I had seen bits and pieces of previously) is going to stay with me the longest. In addition to its Philip K. Dick-like meditations on perception vs. reality and weird body horror (an element Cronenberg is obviously known for), Videodrome captures and anticipates the reality of lives half lived through screens and the attendant social changes. I hadn’t realized just how much Max Headroom and The Matrix owed to Videodrome, from the analog futurism of hand-delivered videotape messages (maybe we could call it . . . “v-mail”?) to the overwhelming importance of television for people’s spiritual well-being (the “Cathode Ray Mission,” where the homeless could get a meal and some precious screen-time, being an obvious example, and one that Max Headroom borrowed almost verbatim). And, as in They Live (another film that could almost fit in the same universe), the question of who is ultimately behind the signals the TV stations broadcast, and what impact they have, has an answer that is anything but reassuring.

Scariest movie: I had waited to see Dario Argento’s giallo-inflected supernatural mystery Suspiria until I could see it on the big screen, and my patience wasn’t disappointed: the colors were vibrant and the story suitably suspenseful and frightening. And I’ve come to look forward to performances by lead Jessica Harper, who around this time seemed to specialize in movies that made use of her uneasy brittleness. However, the most surprising revelation of all was finding an Italian horror movie with a plot that makes sense!

Goriest movie(s): Two movies are tied for this category. The first, Slave of the Cannibal God, has many of the hallmarks of the Italian cannibal genre, including an emphasis on realism (although unlike many cannibal films, Slave does not pretend to be a documentary) that extends to filming the real deaths of animals in both native rituals and in (staged) fights that purport to show the cruelty of the jungle. No thanks. There is also a tremendous amount of (hopefully simulated!) human gore once the fearsome cannibal tribe is reached, and a third-act sequence of horrors that gets hard to take long before it is over. No wonder it was included on the infamous “video nasties” list by censors in the United Kingdom.

The other contender is Embodiment of Evil by Brazilian writer-director-star José Mojica Marins, who has made an industry of his character Zé do Caixão, better known in English as “Coffin Joe.” The evil undertaker, who began his career in the 1960s with At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, demonstrates a cruelty and indifference to conventional morality that makes him a unique antihero for a conservative society, with many similarities to the characters of the Marquis de Sade. Embodiment of Evil, Coffin Joe’s 2008 “comeback,” bears that comparison even more than his earlier films, since sophisticated special effects and more relaxed mores make it possible for Joe to terrorize his victims with much more graphic punishments (the cast also appears to include a number of body-modification practitioners, so it’s not even obvious to me that all of the piercings and other mortifications are strictly fake). I found the Coffin Joe movies interesting (and I liked the second one, This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse, quite a bit), but ultimately Embodiment of Evil was as close to “torture porn” as I care to explore.

Dumbest movie I will probably watch again: Several of the movies I watched were either comedies or included frequent humor. Saturday the 14th was the most obviously jokey, a spoof of all kinds of horror movies thrown into a blender of a story about a book that will release all the evil in the world if read on the titular date. Jeffrey Tambor (in one of his first movie roles) appears as a vampire who appears to be going through a mid-life crisis, and the comedy really takes off when the monster hunter Van Helsing (Severn Darden) shows up as an “exterminator.” Silly stuff, but amusing for what it is and I could see it becoming an every few years tradition.

Worst movie: The first movie spawned a sequel, Saturday the 14th Strikes Back, a few years later, so of course I had to watch it. The good news is that there is no narrative connection or continuity to the first one beyond the simple idea that bad things are going to happen on the date in question. Also, while researching this, I discovered that none other than Gahan Wilson created the poster for the film, so there’s that. The bad news is that the movie is cheaply made and even dopier in its humor than the first one. It’s a candidate for weirdest movie, but the substitution of wackiness and off-the-wall behavior for actual jokes feels desperate. It also doesn’t make much sense: the premise of the film is that an ordinary family starts acting strangely when a crack in the basement begins releasing evil into the world, but they’re pretty nutty to begin with, eating candy for every meal and going through OCD-like precautions to protect themselves from germs. It feels like a movie straight from the imagination of the little boy in “It’s a Good Life.”

Actual Weirdest movie: In addition to the Saturday the 14th movies, there was quite a bit of weirdness in Videodrome and the similarly ooky Society; The Crimson Cult was frankly not weird enough for a film supposedly based on H. P. Lovecraft’s “Dreams in the Witch-House,” and its Scooby-Doo-like ending bummed me out. I have in the past made a distinction between movies that are weird in themselves and movies that appear to have been made by weirdoes: The Secret of the Mummy, by Brazilian provocateur Ivan Cardoso, qualifies as both. Jumping between black and white and color and incorporating stock travelogue and newsreel footage, as well as impressionistic montages and rapid cuts between isolated details, The Secret of the Mummy tells the story of an obsessed scientist who recovers an Egyptian mummy in order to test out his elixir of life and revive it. The fact that the young Pharaoh was a sex-crazed serial killer in life doesn’t faze the scientist, and once the mummy is up and about he resumes his favorite pastime. It feels like a collision of a Universal monster movie (as well as the sexed-up mummy, there are shades of Frankenstein, including a hunchbacked lab assistant) and a Carry On sex comedy. The Secret of the Mummy is unapologetically kinky, but extremely stylish, and Cardoso reminds me (based on this single film–I have three more to watch) of a straight, Brazilian John Waters.

Horror on a Budget: The crudeness of The Secret of the Mummy‘s production also reminds me of another outsider filmmaker I encountered this month, Andy Milligan, who in Torture Dungeon attempts to stage a medieval “epic” with a shoestring budget on Staten Island. One of Milligan’s techniques is to hide the paltriness of his sets by filming in tight close-up–so tight, in fact, that I didn’t realize until halfway through the movie that a main character only has one arm. Torture Dungeon is as raw as I was led to expect–the titular dungeon is onscreen for not more than three or four minutes, and the gore is of the Herschell Gordon Lewis papier-mâché variety–but was mostly enjoyable. It helps that I enjoy movies in which the seams show. By far the worst parts were the walk-on characters who do nothing to advance the story but deliver community theater-style stage business.

Finally, for the first time this year I took part in an October horror movie challenge, watching films to match specific categories. I generally just follow my whims when choosing what to watch, but it was fun expanding my horizons with some of the requirements. The Spooktober Challenge consisted of 31 categories, voted on from a list of nominees by members of The HORRORS . . . of THE DISSOLVE! Facebook group, with one movie counting for each category. Here are the categories and the movies that satisfied each one:

1. A horror movie by a female director: Pet Sematary (Mary Lambert)
2. A black and white horror movie: King Kong
3. A horror movie from a country other than your own: The Mad Executioners (Germany)
4. A horror anthology: The Vault of Horror
5. A horror movie marketed to kids: The Monster Squad
6. A horror-comedy: Saturday the 14th
7. A silent horror movie: The Phantom Carriage
8. An avant-garde or experimental horror movie: Videodrome
9. A horror movie featuring a non-white protagonist: Blade
10. A classic Universal monster movie: The Ghost of Frankenstein
11. A horror movie by an LGBTQ writer or director: Torture Dungeon (Andy Milligan)
12. A Hammer horror movie: Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb
13. A horror movie involving a non-Christian/Satanic religion: Scream, Blacula, Scream (Voodoo)
14. A horror movie from the year you were born: Theater of Blood (1973)
15. An “all-time great” horror movie that you’ve never seen: A Nightmare on Elm Street
16. A giallo: Suspiria
17. A horror movie starring Vincent Price: House of the Long Shadows
18. A horror movie from Latin America: The Secret of the Mummy (Brazil)
19. A Mario Bava movie: The Whip and the Body
20. A made-for-TV horror movie: Salem’s Lot
21. A horror movie that terrified you as a child: Them!
22. A John Carpenter movie: Vampires
23. A Lovecraftian horror movie: The Crimson Cult
24. A horror movie by a non-white director: Blacula (William Crain)
25. A slasher movie that is not part of a franchise: Corruption (Robert Hartford-Davis, 1968)
26. A video nasty: Slave of the Cannibal God
27. A body horror: Society
28. A horror movie featuring a witch or witchcraft: Embodiment of Evil
29. A horror movie where someone turns into an animal – but NOT a werewolf: Cat People
30. An animated horror movie or short: Frankenweenie
31. A horror movie by a typically non-horror director: The Awakening (Mike Newell)

The terms of the challenge allowed for movies viewed in September to count, but I only needed to count one: Corruption is something of a proto-slasher, with Peter Cushing as an increasingly-unhinged surgeon who kills women to supply his disfigured girlfriend with the pituitary gland extract that keeps her beautiful. I’m not a huge fan of slashers, anyway, so this was close enough for me.

In addition, there were three “bonus challenges” that I successfully completed: at least one movie from each decade, 1920s to 2010s; no more than five movies that you have already seen (King Kong and Them! were the only rewatches I counted toward the challenge); and only one movie per director (it was lucky for me that Blacula and its sequel Scream, Blacula, Scream didn’t have the same director!).

I hope you had a happy Halloween and saw something good or at least surprising in the past month. Let me know if you recommend anything else based on what I’ve listed here or if you just have a horror movie you’re enthusiastic about. I’ve already got my list for next year started: after all, it’s only twelve months until next Halloween!

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Fates Worse Than Death: Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc.

Criminologist Stephen Chandler is a haunted man: after the deaths of his colleagues Allison and Thornton, he is now in the sights of the mysterious killer known only as “the Ghost.” Even the nearness of his adult daughter, June, and the watchful police officers that surround his estate cannot reassure him. Even Dick Tracy himself, on his way from his headquarters in Washington, D.C., cannot guarantee Chandler’s safety, for who could possibly be on guard against an invisible man?

Yes, at his secret headquarters, with the assistance of mad inventor Lucifer, the Ghost plots to strike. The mask the Ghost wears hides his identity should he be spotted, but it is with the “contact disc” he wears around his neck that he truly lives up to his namesake. With the twist of a few dials on Lucifer’s console, the Ghost fades from view, with only an eerie whistling sound to indicate his presence. And it is in this form that the Ghost sneaks past Chandler’s guard and into his study, shooting him dead. By the time Tracy arrives, it’s too late.

It should be clear from this opening chapter (a chapter that also includes a plot to destroy New York City by dropping depth charges on a hidden faultline) that Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc., the fourth and final Republic Dick Tracy serial, has left Chester Gould’s comic strip behind and is content to dwell full-time in serial land. It is most similar to the first Tracy serial from 1937, but even that serial, with its flying wing and personality-altering surgery, didn’t commit to anything as fantastic as invisibility, and it occasionally slowed down for mundane police work, which Crime, Inc. has little time for.

It is the humble finger print, however, that provides a hint to the nature of the Ghost and his vendetta: the only prints left behind after Chandler’s murder belong to “Rackets” Regan, a criminal executed at Sing Sing a few years before. Chandler and the first two victims had been a member of the secret Council of Eight, a group of influential citizens united to stop the scourge of organized crime. It was the Council of Eight who, along with Tracy, brought down Regan, and since the Ghost is Regan’s surviving brother (as he reveals to Lucifer in one of those “as you know” monologues that once lubricated all kinds of genre narratives), the motive for his killing spree is clear: revenge first, and resuming Regan’s criminal regime, nicknamed “Crime, Inc.”, later.

Of course, Tracy and his colleagues don’t know all that at first. In fact, they don’t even realize they’re dealing with an invisible man until nearly the last chapter (for a while, everyone who realizes the Ghost’s secret winds up dead before they can tell anyone else). But the seeming return of “Rackets” Regan leads to a reconvening of the surviving members of the Council; Tracy’s regular meetings with the group and the Ghost’s gradual reduction of their numbers, And Then There Were None-style, forms the spine of the plot. And not surprisingly (if you’ve seen more than a few of these serials), it is soon apparent that the Ghost is secretly a member of the Council himself! Once Tracy realizes that, he goes on the offensive, feeding the Council information with which he hopes to trap the Ghost and discover his identity.

Since Tracy, having been promoted at the end of Dick Tracy’s G-Men, is now based in Washington, he has an all-new supporting cast. Billy Carr (Michael Owen) fills the role of Tracy’s partner/sidekick, replacing Steve Lockwood. June Chandler (Jan Wiley), daughter of the man murdered in Chapter One, sticks around to assist Tracy, help run Council meetings, and later turns out to have her own scientific skills as a “sound expert,” helping Tracy analyze the whistling sound that accompanies the Ghost’s crimes (before they understand that he is invisible). June is more involved and gets more screen time than Gwen Andrews did in the earlier serials, but it would still be a stretch to refer to her as a “love interest” as Max Allan Collins does in his commentary. In my opinion she fits the category of “strictly Platonic, but the only major female character in the film,” but without his comic strip paramour Tess Trueheart around, Tracy is married to the law alone. (Of course Ralph Byrd is still in the title role, making him the only cast member to appear in all four serials.)

On the villains’ side, the Ghost gets his own credit, keeping his identity secret from the audience until the end. His main associate Lucifer is played by John Davidson, the cadaverous character actor with the sepulchral voice, whom we have encountered several times before in this series, and who almost always appears as a heavy. Other henchmen include Anthony Warde (who played the main bad guy in Buck Rogers) and Stanley Price, who makes an uncredited appearance in only one chapter, but whose intensity (imagine a teleporter accident fusing Peter Lorre and James Cagney) is always welcome.

Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. is a mixed bag: the emphasis on unrelenting action makes for some ambitious and boisterous fight scenes, with actors and stuntmen really throwing themselves into it. A knockdown-drag-out between Tracy and a henchman impersonating a butler in Chapter Two is typical, and one gets the sense that each chapter’s fight is meant to top the last, with more men fighting and each location more dangerous. On the other hand, there are quite a few shoot-outs with men blasting at each other from behind walls, and lots of car chases, which I just don’t find that exciting, no matter how much the black sedans squeal their tires or fishtail around tight corners. Several perils are lifted from previous Tracy serials; in some chapters that means there are actually two big action set pieces, which would have been more impressive if I hadn’t seen them before.

However, the Ghost’s invisibility is a gimmick that lends itself to atmospheric effects, bringing back elements of suspense and horror not seen since the 1937 serial. Simple devices like doors and windows that open by themselves, characters disturbed by a bump or stray gust of wind from an unknown source, or the disembodied voice of the Ghost himself (“I’m in the room even though you can’t see me. . . . Now you know why I’m called the Ghost. . . .”) are quite creepy, and (lest we forget) are always accompanied by the spooky electronic whistling of the invisibility mechanism. When the Ghost strikes, his weapon, be it a gun or knife, floats in mid-air; the Ghost’s clothes or other accessories aren’t visible, but the terrifying sight of a gun, seemingly pointing by itself, is enough of a spectacle that the filmmakers weren’t going to let logic stop them from using it.

Finally, the Ghost’s invisibility inspires an equally audacious countermeasure, matching pseudoscience for pseudoscience. In the final trap Tracy lays for the Ghost, he uses a special “infra-red X-ray” light that not only renders invisible things visible, but inverts the spectrum, making everything look like a photo negative. It’s a satisfying and memorably strange ending to one of the G-man’s weirdest adventures.

What I Watched: Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. (Republic, 1941)

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

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Doom Patrol” (Chapter Three). Nothing to do with the wild DC comic of the same name, of course, but an exciting, evocative title for a chapter that ends up recycling footage from earlier Dick Tracy serials. (At least there is no economy chapter, so nothing is repeated from earlier chapters.)

Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter Thirteen (“The Challenge”), Dick Tracy has spotted the Ghost, momentarily visible but still masked, in the halls of the Ambassador Hotel. After a chase, both end up on the roof, where a fight ensues. While grappling, the Ghost pushes Tracy out over the ledge; Tracy grabs at the Ambassador’s sign, pulling the A off accidentally so we get a good sense of how far down it is to the sidewalk below. Eventually, Tracy is clinging to the sign, which pulls away from the wall under his weight. The sign plummets to the ground, surely taking Tracy with it. . . .

Sample Dialogue: “That explains a lot of things.” –Dick Tracy, after discovering that the Ghost can make himself invisible in Chapter Fourteen (“Invisible Terror”)

The Dick Tracy serials ranked, best to worst:
1. Dick Tracy Returns (1938)
2. Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939)
3. Dick Tracy (1937)
4. Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. (1941)

Points of connection: Crime, Inc. was the last Dick Tracy serial and the last Tracy outing from Republic. Between 1945 and 1947, RKO would produce four Dick Tracy feature films, leaning into the darker elements of the character’s setting and spotlighting grotesque villains like Splitface and Gruesome. Morgan Conway played the title role in the first two films, but then Ralph Byrd came back to portray the character with which he was most identified. After several live-action and animated television series, the next big screen outing was the 1990 feature film starring and directed by Warren Beatty, who realized a long-held dream by putting his stamp on the character. As of this writing, Beatty still holds the movie rights to the comic strip and insists he will one day make another Tracy film.

What Others Have Said: “The times are changing–note the swing music coming out of jukeboxes–and the next time Byrd plays Tracy, the innocent serial world of Republic will be traded in for the film noir universe of RKO, but in 1941, Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. is sheer, serialized fun.” –Max Allan Collins, in his introduction to the VCI DVD

What’s Next: That wraps up “Fates Worse Than Death” for the summer, but I have a few serials on DVD I didn’t get to this year, so I may or may not wait until next summer to cover them. Keep watching this space, and thanks for reading!

Fates Worse Than Death: Dick Tracy’s G-Men

Dick Tracy’s G-Men begins where most serials end: with the capture and execution of a supervillain. A newsreel begins the first chapter by introducing Nicolas Zarnoff (Irving Pichel), a “master spy” with a hand in disrupting and overthrowing governments all over the world. The newsreel shows footage of Dick Tracy and the men of the FBI’s Western Division capturing Zarnoff in a daring raid, and concludes with Zarnoff’s sentence of death in the gas chamber. After viewing the newsreel and approving it, Tracy is summoned to Zarnoff’s cell for a few last words, and we learn through dialogue just how wily and dangerous he is: he attempts to direct Tracy to a previously undisclosed hideout, but Tracy cuts him off. The G-men have already been there and defused the bomb Zarnoff had hidden in a safe to finish them off. This sets the tone for the serial: trap and counter-trap.

Tracy departs after Zarnoff vows his revenge. Then Zarnoff receives his last request: copies of all the major daily newspapers. Finding a hidden message from his associates in one of them, he tears up strips of the paper and moistens it in a cup. Drinking the water, he goes quietly to the gas chamber, only for his body to be stolen by his underlings and revived later. After investigating, Tracy learns that a drug known only to the Kali* priests of India was mixed into the ink at the newspaper printing press; by ingesting it, Zarnoff was able to stop his heart and breathing and insulate himself from the lethal gas for a time until he could be revived. Once free, he takes up his criminal enterprises where he left off, with an extra dose of vengeance for the only man to ever capture him: Dick Tracy!

* Pronounced “Kay-lie.” Pronunciation in these films is something I haven’t mentioned before, but there are a few that sound eccentric to modern ears, and not only foreign terms that are now more familiar. Columbia’s announcer habitually pronounces “ally” with the emphasis on the second syllable, as “al-LIE,” and in this serial a henchmen speaks of “DEE-tonating” a bomb. Whether these are relics of older accents or pronunciations from a time when such things were less standardized in broadcasting than they are now, or simply slips of the tongue that were left in due to the hurried “one take” method of filming serials, I’m not sure.

Where 1937’s Dick Tracy has much in common with other serials in its masked mastermind and brainwashed brother, and Dick Tracy Returns is tonally similar to Chester Gould’s comic strip, Dick Tracy’s G-Men seems to draw a great deal of inspiration from the pulp magazines that were contemporary to it. For one thing, there is a great deal of well-executed action, including excellent fight choreography and stuntwork. More importantly, the exoticism of a secret drug mixed into newsprint is just one of many examples of bizarre gimmicks that could be torn from a Ripley’s Believe it or Not! strip, or from the adventures of the Shadow or one of the many knock-offs of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu (or, looking ahead a few decades, the kind of thing Ian Fleming’s James Bond might run into). In another chapter, Zarnoff traps Tracy and his partner Steve Lockwood in a barred room, electrified by a sparking dynamo, and the settings in this serial are even more wide-ranging and colorful than usual, from a lighthouse to a deserted Old West ghost town. Like many serial villains, Zarnoff has hideouts and connections in all manner of places: an abandoned cannery, a fur store, a diving bell hidden beneath a dam, and several houses, cabins, and hotel rooms. Even the conclusion, with Tracy and Zarnoff stranded alone together in the desert, is different in character from the typical serial confrontation, like something out of a men’s adventure magazine and featuring a moralistic O. Henry twist (although it is similar to the ending of Dick Tracy Returns in that it gets the hero and villain alone together by means of an attempted airplane escape).

Allowing for the generally vague politics of serials, Dick Tracy’s G-Men is also more political than its predecessors: as mentioned, Zarnoff is a “master spy” credited with destabilizing democratic governments. A few years earlier, such a villain would have probably been described as a “revolutionary” (code for an anarchist or communist, matching Zarnoff’s beard and Russian name), but Zarnoff is more of a mercenary terrorist, selling his services to the “Three Powers,” a consortium of foreign governments (unnamed, but guess which “three powers” were causing anxiety in the U.S. in 1939?). Zarnoff’s plots include trying to kill the visiting President of a Latin American country, the sabotage of major installations like dams and canals, and the theft of secret plans for weapons and military operations. Whatever his motives, the fact that he is haughty, cynical and almost unnaturally cool-headed (one might say cold-blooded) makes it easy to root against him.

Ralph Byrd returns in the lead role, even more jolly than usual, but the supporting cast has once again been shuffled: Junior and Mike McGurk are nowhere to be found in this serial. Steve Lockwood (Ted Pearson) and Gwen Andrews (Phyllis Isely, who would soon change her stage name to Jennifer Jones) remain in Tracy’s office, played by different actors, and additional support comes from interchangeable agents Scott (Robert Carson) and Foster (Julian Madison).

Zarnoff’s main henchman, Robal, is played by Walter Miller, and to me he looks an awful lot like Ralph Byrd. The fact that he generally wears dark suits and Dick Tracy wears light ones makes it easier to tell them apart, so I guess the cliché about white hats and black hats holds true. It’s a pity that nothing is ever made of their resemblance, like Robal trying to infiltrate the FBI or something like that; maybe Miller should have played Gordon Tracy in the 1937 serial. (And as for that name: “Robal” sounds like something from a Steve Ditko comic, but Chester Gould did have a penchant for using backwards spellings for character names–Professor Emirc, anyone? So was Robal a hidden commentary connecting Labor and un-American activity, or is it simply that Robal is Zarnoff’s “workhorse”? Who knows?)

An uncredited appearance is made by Sammy McKim, who played young Kit Carson in The Painted Stallion, as a boy who helps Tracy get out of an explosive-filled mineshaft in the ghost town chapter. As a child actor, McKim specialized in Western types, so it’s fitting that he makes an appearance for the Old West themed episode.

Interestingly, Harrison Greene, this time credited, returns for one scene as “the Baron,” a representative of the Three Powers interested in obtaining military secrets. Whether he is the same Baron seen in the previous two serials is anyone’s guess, but Greene is apparently the only actor besides Ralph Byrd to appear consistently in the Dick Tracy serials.

What I Watched: Dick Tracy’s G-Men (Republic, 1939)

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

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: Chapter titles include both “Sunken Peril” (Chapter Six) and “Caverns of Peril” (Chapter Eleven), but my favorite is Chapter Ten, “Crackling Fury” (an apt description of the sparking dynamo that Tracy and Steve are locked in with).

Best Cliffhanger: One thing that can be said of Republic’s cliffhangers is that they are almost always well-integrated into the plot. The chapter title frequently gives a hint as to the peril that the hero will face at the end, and enough foreshadowing is given–a bit of dialogue or a close-up on some innocuous prop that will become the instrument of doom–that the danger can be seen coming–or could have been seen if only the hero had been more careful. In Dick Tracy’s G-Men, the typical car, airplane, autogyro (!), and dirigible (!!) mishaps are alternated with some truly fiendish and inventive death traps. This is the real stuff, serial fans.

Yes, Dick Tracy’s G-Men uses stock footage of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster as part of a cliffhanger.

In Chapter Two (“Captured”), Dick Tracy is bound and gagged and placed behind a locked door with a pistol rigged to shoot at whomever tries to open it; Zarnoff figures that the stray shot will force the trigger-happy G-men to spray the door with machine gun fire, executing their helpless boss. (And it almost works, too!) In Chapter Eight (“Chamber of Doom”), Tracy is nearly asphyxiated in a furrier’s fumigation room (surely a source of ironic satisfaction for Zarnoff, who faced his own gas chamber in Chapter One!); in Chapter Thirteen (“The Fatal Ride”), Tracy, Lockwood, and FBI Director Anderson are nearly gassed again in the sealed back seat of a taxi cab driven by one of Zarnoff’s men. Only a convenient air tube gets them through that one.

Upon reflection, however, my favorite cliffhanger is the one closing Chapter Four (“The Enemy Strikes”). This chapter takes place in and around a barge filled with explosives. Zarnoff knows that Tracy has tracked him to a dockside salvage outfitter, so he lays a trap, putting a time bomb in the hold of the barge. While Tracy and the G-men shoot it out with the bad guys on the multi-level barge, the timer ticks away; the cliffhanger, however, is not the explosion of the bomb. Dick Tracy discovers the time bomb and throws it overboard, where it explodes harmlessly. Rather, it is set in motion when Robal throws a barrel at Tracy. Tracy dodges the barrel, but instead of continuing to focus on their fight, the camera follows the barrel as it rolls from one ledge to another, Donkey Kong-style, until it lands in the water. There it bobs between the barge and another barge next to it, until the current brings them together: at first, the barrel bulges as it is squeezed, but it eventually splinters beneath the pressure. The danger is clear. Sure enough, Tracy is knocked out and falls into the water, between the two barges, where it is only a matter of time before he suffers the same fate as the poor barrel. Here comes the tugboat to push the barges together. . . .

Sample Dialogue: “I have cheated the law, outwitted the deadly science of the lethal chamber, but at a price no mortal man was ever expected to pay. That ancient drug was brewed by the alchemists of Satan. Tracy forced me to it. Tracy must die.” –Zarnoff in Chapter One, “The Master Spy” (Zarnoff was supposedly modeled after Boris Karloff, but only Chapter One, with its echoes of Frankenstein, really leans into the horror elements; at first after his resurrection, Zarnoff is shaken, and his appearance frightens his henchmen, but in later chapters he appears to have recovered his equilibrium.)

What Others Have Said: “These serials were a definite departure from the comic strip, omitting key characters such as Tess, Pat Patton and Chief Brandon, and emphasized Tracy as the ultimate dedicated lawman, asking no quarter and giving none in his battle against crime. Even as kids we knew that liberties had been taken in transferring Dick Tracy to the screen, but as action fans we didn’t care.” –William C. Cline, “Remakes and Side Effects” in Serials-ly Speaking: Essays on Cliffhangers

What’s Next: My schedule permitting, I should have just enough time to watch and write up the fourth and final Dick Tracy serial, Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. before the end of summer!

Fates Worse Than Death: Atom Man vs. Superman

As Atom Man vs. Superman begins, a crime wave has overtaken Metropolis, the kind of multi-pronged gang assault on property and lives that frequently opens the first chapter of serials, even though the Depression-era violence that inspired it was long-gone by 1950. Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent* suspects that a single criminal mastermind is behind it, secretly organizing and coordinating the atrocities. But who? A bulbous, oversized helmet is superimposed over the montage of stock footage and spinning newspaper headlines, the “Atom Man” of the title, but Clark believes that to be merely a cover for Superman’s arch-enemy, Lex Luthor. In this very first chapter (“Superman Flies Again”), Superman uses his X-ray vision to locate Luthor’s hideout and capture him. Yet over the next year, the crimes continue! Was Clark Kent wrong about Luthor (who claims to have gone straight and is applying for parole)? Is the Atom Man an entirely different villain?

What’s notable here is the degree to which the characters and their relationship are already established at the outset: not only is it taken for granted that audiences will know Lex Luthor, but he is caught and imprisoned within the first episode in the manner of a modern action film’s “cold open.” (Of course, Luthor is up to something, but that’s beside the point.) The assumption that audiences wouldn’t need to have things explained to them was a safe one for the filmmakers, of course: Superman was widely read in comic book form and heard on his own radio show (from which the plot of this serial was adapted); as I mentioned in my review of the previous Superman serial, that familiarity kept the producers from making too many changes to the source material in adapting it, and the faithfulness to the original says as much about the popularity of Superman as it does about the fickleness of filmmakers. It’s worth noting, in fact, that serial adaptations from comic strips were generally more faithful than those from comic books, a reflection of the newspaper strips’ higher status in those days. (It’s possible that the subtle touches in Atom Man vs. Superman also reflect an awareness of the audience’s greater sophistication by 1950, as well.)

In any case, Atom Man vs. Superman is one of the few serials I’ve seen that takes its audience’s awareness of the characters and setup for granted, going so far as to subvert their expectations for suspense or comic relief. For example, more than once when Clark Kent ducks into a doorway to transform into his alter ego, fellow reporter Lois Lane follows him under the impression that Clark is trying to scoop her or keep himself out of danger. If he can’t turn into Superman, how will he save the day? Or will Lois learn his secret identity? Something always comes along to protect Clark’s secret and allow him to make the switch, but Lois’s growing suspicions are a major subplot: not only does she ask out loud, “Is Clark Superman?”, she has Daily Planet editor Perry White so convinced that he almost publishes a front page story saying so. Ultimately, the status quo is preserved, but rarely short of Superman II have I seen a Superman film in which the truth floats so close to the surface.

It makes a difference, as well, that Atom Man vs. Superman is the sequel to an earlier serial that does begin with the hero’s origin, and this particular story was adapted from a storyline from the radio show The Adventures of Superman. (And how odd is it that the title follows the familiar “______ vs. ______” format, but unusually puts the antagonist’s name first?) All of the major players from the first serial return (including leading man Kirk Alyn, credited as only “Superman,” maintaining the fiction that the man himself showed up to film his own adventures), with the addition of Lyle Talbot as Lex Luthor. Talbot’s Luthor is just like we remember him: brilliant, egotistical, and bald; he is both the “mad scientist” of his earliest comic book incarnations and the smooth-talking public figure of later stories. Luthor has always been a complex and captivating foil for Superman, but his human strengths and failings are especially clear in comparison to the masked villains typical of the serials. (The serial hardly makes a secret of the fact that Atom Man is a convenient front for Luthor: while he “goes straight,” he receives threats from the Atom Man on behalf of the criminal underworld Luthor has supposedly turned his back on. But everyone knows that Atom Man’s plans and Luthor’s are one and the same.)

The main plot involves criminals, including one already in custody of the police, who mysteriously disappear whenever they flash a particular silver coin, making for some miraculous escapes and frustrating Superman’s attempts to connect their crimes to the Atom Man. As it turns out, these “activated coins” are signal beacons for a “space transporter,” a teleportation beam developed by Lex Luthor (and the solution to his continued leadership even while in solitary confinement: he just uses his own coin and has his henchmen beam him to his hideout for an hour or two, and then he goes back before the prison guards are any wiser). The coins and the transporter are significant devices throughout the serial, with Luthor using them to slip from one hiding place to another; help his underlings stay out of the grasp of Superman or the police; bait traps for Superman and the Daily Planet reporters; and even kidnap Lois Lane (Noel Neill) by sending her one of these medallions. The coins also further the plot when one of the coins is recovered and Luthor schemes to get it back before it can be analyzed.

But the technology underlying the space transporter is also capable of sending its target’s atoms into space, “where they will circle endlessly” without solidity, a fate Luthor refers to as “the Empty Doom.” At one point he uses it briefly on one of his underlings as punishment for failure, demonstrating its effectiveness but also revealing that the effects can be undone. Luthor’s ultimate plan is to consign Superman to the Empty Doom, ridding himself of his archenemy forever; he succeeds, but only for a chapter. While in this state, Superman is insubstantial and invisible (except to the audience, through the miracle of double exposure), as if on the astral plane, or like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. The scenes in which Superman, in double exposure against a background of planets and stars, struggles with a henchman sent to check on him (and here the Empty Doom functions more like the comics’ Phantom Zone), are great fun, and in some ways closer to the loopier sci-fi elements of the comics than we usually get when the character is adapted to film. Through great effort, he is able to communicate with Lois through her electric typewriter, and eventually his instructions to her help him break free.

The space transporter isn’t the only high-tech invention Luthor brings to bear in his war against Superman, but it does get the most screen time. Luthor also has an “atomic projectile” (a high-powered mortar shell that Superman simply catches and returns against its operator, exactly the same as when the Spider Lady tried the same thing in the last Superman serial); a remote control flying saucer; a robot (spoiler!); an earthquake machine; an atom bomb (there’s a lot of nuclear anxiety in this serial, from the title on down); and even a spaceship! At one point, Luthor synthesizes his own Kryptonite, a step up from the “synthetic radium” that so many serials feature; however, to make it work correctly, Luthor’s Kryptonite requires just one ingredient he must steal: radium! Oh, well. There is a clever sequence in which Luthor manipulates Superman into using his X-ray vision on a box of nails: Luthor has prepared an alloy that turns into plutonium when bombarded with X-rays, tricking Superman into generating the fuel that will be used against him.

And of course there’s television; at first, Luthor earns his parole by offering a new invention to the government, a “combination of radar and television.” Regular readers of this series will be aware of my interest in how television was presented in the serials, as an almost-magical scrying device that allowed remote viewing even of places inaccessible to cameras. By 1950, television was less a futuristic pipe-dream than a definite reality with a growing audience, and viewers and filmmakers alike were now aware of the medium’s limitations, so super-science was invoked to make it exciting (and useful to the plot) again. The only difference between the fantastical view of television common in the 1930s and its use in Atom Man is the gloss that presents Luthor’s device as a new spin on the now-familiar medium. At the same time, television is an everyday occurrence, with Luthor setting up a mundane television studio as a cover for his more esoteric spying. (Hilariously, the cover blurb on the DVD claims that Luthor “says he’s just a simple repairman for those new devices called televisions!”, a synopsis that is garbled at best.) At one point, Lois Lane goes to work for Luthor as an on-camera personality, mostly for tepid “man-on-the-street” interviews. Although regular broadcast television is shown in a decidedly unthrilling light, it wouldn’t be long before the new medium killed theatrical serials for good, or rather absorbed them, as low-budget storytelling-by-installment became the default mode of TV entertainment, even including the Man of Steel himself.

What I Watched: Atom Man vs. Superman (Columbia, 1950)

Where I Watched It: Superman: The Theatrical Serials Collection DVD set

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Superman Saves the Universe” (Chapter Fifteen) Well, what else would we expect Superman to do?

Best Cliffhanger: Although there are more than a few classic perils here, Atom Man vs. Superman finds the filmmakers chafing at the formal restriction of the end-of-chapter cliffhanger. Some of the chapters end with one or more characters in a state of uncertainty rather than immediate peril: at the end of Chapter Seven (“At the Mercy of Atom Man!”), Superman, weakened by Luthor’s synthetic Kryptonite, is loaded unconscious onto an ambulance which the audience knows is being driven by Luthor’s henchmen. Not only does Superman not get out of trouble immediately in the next chapter by escaping or undoing the peril as in so many serials, he is forced to step into Luthor’s matter transporter and face the “empty doom,” from which he doesn’t escape until the next chapter after that!

In other cases, the cliffhangers are perfunctory: rather than being set up with the heavy-handed foreshadowing so common to the Republic formula, dangers are thrown up at the last minute, as when Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond), chasing an escaping henchman, gets his foot stuck in a railroad bed and can’t escape an oncoming train. The train has nothing to do with the events that have come before, but it’s the end of the chapter, so something has to happen. Both examples are probably extensions of the playful formula-tweaking mentioned above: by 1950, even kid audiences were ready for twists on familiar material. Fortunately, the awareness that cliffhangers alone weren’t enough to satisfy audiences pushed the filmmakers to create interest in other ways, through character and novel special effects. (As in the previous serial, animation is used to depict Superman’s flight as well as other effects too expensive to create otherwise.)

Having said that, there is at least one truly great cliffhanger in this serial: in Chapter Fourteen, “Rocket of Vengeance,” Lex Luthor sends a missile loaded with an atomic bomb to destroy Metropolis, his final act of defiance before taking off into space, leaving the Earth behind forever. Superman intercepts the missile, climbing on top and riding it, Dr. Strangelove-style, as it heads straight for the Daily Planet building and the office of Perry White (Pierre Watkin). The sequence, which cuts between close-ups of Superman riding the missile, shots of the city from the missile’s point of view, and White, Lois, and Jimmy watching its approach, is among the most exciting in this serial.

Sample Dialogue:

Lois: Let’s head back to the office.
Jimmy: What for, to be hit by that rocket?
Lois: We’ll write the story, even if it’s our last one.
Jimmy: I’d rather read about it.
–Chapter Fourteen, “Rocket of Vengeance”

What Others Have Said:Atom Man vs. Superman was far more gimmicky and gadget-prone than the first serial, Superman, but was flawed by the same [producer Sam] Katzman cheapness in production values, despite the cast and crew.” –Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials

Well, I liked it.

What’s Next: Summer isn’t over yet! Join me next time as I explore Dick Tracy’s G-Men!

* (who is secretly Superman)

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!

Fates Worse Than Death: Dick Tracy (1937)

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Late at night, a band of disparate, seemingly unrelated men board a train and gather together in a private compartment, summoned by the one man they all fear–all but one! Korvitch swears that he bows to no man, and doubts that their master is even onboard the train. But then they hear it: shuffling, uneven footsteps, the steps of the criminal mastermind known only as the Lame One, whose mark is the Spider. The Lame One appears at the compartment’s door in shadows; Korvitch fires his gun, but the Lame One only laughs. Later, Korvitch wanders the empty streets, a haunted man, as behind him those uneven, shuffling footsteps pursue him relentlessly. When Korvitch’s body is found the next morning, a look of terror is frozen on his face, and branded on his skin is the mark of the Spider. Only one man can unravel this mystery and stand in the way of the Spider ring’s other crimes, and that man is Dick Tracy!

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We quickly join Tracy and his team at the Federal Office Building with Tracy answering phone calls and giving terse answers. “I think you’d better take that up with Anderson’s office. Yes, he has my report on it. . . . Well, I know all about that.” Et cetera. “You’re about the busiest man I ever saw,” Tracy’s visiting brother Gordon observes. The “Spider mark” cases are occupying the bureau’s attention, and Tracy remarks on the curious fact that each victim found with the mark has turned out to be a well-known criminal. On this day, Tracy’s birthday, Gordon and Tracy’s assistant Gwen try to drag Tracy to the estate of Ellery Brewster, who has set up a carnival, complete with circus performers, to entertain the children from the orphanage. Brewster was one of the men summoned to report to the Lame One on the train before, and when he too is murdered and left with the Spider’s mark, a day of pleasure turns into business for Dick Tracy. The murder is solved, but it was committed by an expendable underling, of course: the Spider ring remains as mysterious as ever.

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Gordon recalls receiving a sealed envelope from Brewster before his murder, which may have information about the Spider ring, but when he drives to his office to retrieve it, he is run off the road by more of the Spider’s men. Injured and taken to Moloch, the Lame One’s hunchbacked scientist, Gordon is operated on, with dramatic results: by “a simple altering of certain glands,” Moloch changes Gordon’s personality so that he does not know right from wrong and enlists him as a criminal associate. (In fact, it changes him so much that Gordon before and after the operation is played by two different actors!)

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All of this, and more, takes place in just the first (extra-long) chapter of the 1937 Republic serial Dick Tracy. With a drastically changed appearance and a dead-eyed stare, Gordon effectively becomes the “spearhead villain” of the serial, conceiving and executing plots in each chapter on behalf of the Lame One (whose identity of course remains secret until the end). The other men seen in the train compartment at the beginning each take a turn, and the range of crimes is broad, whether it’s destroying a bridge, hijacking a gold shipment, or stealing an experimental aircraft for a foreign power. This “case of the week” format with a long-term arc that connects them all is not unusual for a serial, and it makes the middle chapters feel particularly episodic: with this format, the serial could be ten chapters or a hundred, and it’s not hard to see how later television series picked up this formula and ran with it.

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Written and drawn by cartoonist Chester Gould, Dick Tracy had been a smash success since its first appearance in newspapers in 1931, and began a radio series in 1934. It was only a matter of time before the famous detective made an appearance on film. 1937’s Dick Tracy was the first of four Republic serials, all starring Ralph Byrd in the title role, and there would later be four RKO feature films starring Morgan Conway and Byrd again, not to mention the 1990 film starring and directed by Warren Beatty. Although later famous for its grotesque villains and gimmicky gadgets, the newspaper strip was at first notable for its realism, both in the level of violence portrayed and in Tracy’s reliance on cutting-edge police techniques. While strongly influenced by the “hard-boiled” writers of the 1920s, Dick Tracy was one of the first police “procedurals,” influencing not only comics but television and prose detective fiction to come.

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A panel from Dick Tracy’s first adventure in 1931

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In fact, Max Allan Collins (Dick Tracy‘s writer after Gould retired, and a commentator on the disc I watched) makes the point that much of the grotesquerie and spy-fi for which Dick Tracy was later known is strongly present in the serials of the ’30s, and may have influenced Gould. While the famous two-way wrist radio wouldn’t appear in the comics until 1946, the 1937 film is full of the scientific wonders that serial viewers had come to expect, such as a disintegrator that used high-frequency sound vibrations to destroy buildings; a stratospheric “flying wing” airplane and a different high-speed plane; and even a special radio-equipped belt that allowed Tracy to communicate with his team while undercover. Contemporary technology, while now appearing quaint, also plays a part: a few chapters hinge on recordings made with phonographs, for example. There is also a strong element of the grotesque: while the Lame One’s infirmity and hideous appearance is a disguise, Moloch’s hunch back is the real thing. And once he has been turned to evil, Gordon Tracy (Carleton Young) makes for a striking, creepy villain: scarred, dead-eyed, and skunk-striped.

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Of course, some changes came with the adaptation to the serial format, as was almost always the case, but readers of Dick Tracy at least found a hero in the serial that they would have been able to recognize. Rather than a plainclothes detective, Republic’s Dick Tracy was a G-man, working for the FBI’s Western Division, and instead of Chicago he operated out of San Francisco. Gone was Tracy’s perennial love interest Tess Trueheart (there is, in fact, no romantic angle at all; the only woman in the serial is Tracy’s lab assistant Gwen, a purely professional relation). Tracy’s supporting cast is made up of typical serial character types: Steve Lockwood (Fred Hamilton) is a reliable tough guy and pilot; Mike McGurk (Smiley Burnette) is the comic relief; Junior (Lee Van Atta, seen in Republic’s Undersea Kingdom the previous year), as in the comics, is an orphan allowed to tag along and help Tracy (and occasionally get himself into trouble).

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Ralph Byrd is more baby-faced than the hawk-nosed Tracy of the comics, but that’s typical of leading men in general in the 1930s, who often seem a little soft in comparison to today’s standard; most lean or craggy character actors got typed as villains in the serials. Byrd fits the role in most other respects, though: he’s energetic, projecting a can-do magnetism but with enough warmth that it’s easy to see why his friends remain so devoted to him. And the serial itself gives him plenty of opportunities for heroism and detection, with most chapters combining furious action with slower-paced scenes of discovering and analyzing clues. Dick Tracy adheres to a common formula, but it executes it with such energy and flair that it could be taken as a model for producer Nat Levine’s ambitions for Republic; along with its able cast and well-paced story, it boasts impressive effects, exciting music, and a smattering of comic relief (in addition to Burnette, stuttering hillbilly comics Oscar and Elmer show up for a couple of scenes). The result is a very enjoyable serial and it is easy to see why it generated so many sequels.

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What I Watched: Dick Tracy (Republic, 1937)

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

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Death Rides the Sky” (Chapter Four)

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Best Cliffhanger: Dick Tracy includes several classic cliffhangers, including plane crashes (and the crash of a burning zeppelin!) and boat crashes (the ending of Chapter Three, “The Fur Pirates,” finds Tracy trapped between two giant steamers, threatening to crush his boat as they move closer; another chapter finds Tracy pulled into the water by a rope attached to a departing submarine). However, my favorite cliffhanger comes at the end of Chapter Twelve, “The Trail of the Spider,” an otherwise unremarkable recap episode. Tracy and his team have brought together witnesses to some of the events from earlier in the serial, prompting flashbacks to those scenes. (The only remarkable development in this chapter is that Tracy finally learns of Moloch’s operation on his brother Gordon.) After the flashbacks, the Lame One himself enters their headquarters and, after removing a fuse to black out the lights, shines the “spider signal” on Tracy and shoots him! At least, he appears to; viewers in 1937 had to wait a whole week to find out if Tracy got out alive.

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Sample Dialogue:
Moloch (stroking black cat): “Brother against brother. One good, one evil. Ah, I wonder which will win?”
The Lame One: “We shall eliminate the G-Man!”

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What Others Have Said: “Chester Gould produced a contemporary knight in shining armor who was ready, willing, and able to fight the criminal with, if necessary, the criminal’s own weapons, to fight the toughs with equal or even greater toughness. Chester Gould created Dick Tracy to meet the desperate need of the times. Dick Tracy’s job was to regain the almost vanished respect for the law and to be the instrument of his enforcement. As Gould once said in an interview, ‘I decided that if the police couldn’t catch the gangsters, I’d create a fellow who would.'” –Ellery Queen, “The Importance of Being Earnest; or, The Survival of the Finest”

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What’s Next: There are three more Dick Tracy serials, but I intend to space them out rather than plow straight through the series. So my next update will be on the 1948 Superman serial, starring Kirk Alyn!