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!

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Fates Worse Than Death: Flash Gordon (1936)

FGtitles

A strange planet is moving through the Solar system on a collision course with Earth, Velikovsky-style, bringing meteor showers and global panic with it.  Professor Gordon, stationed at an observatory, receives word that his son, Flash, has postponed his polo game so that he can take a transcontinental flight to return home before (presumably) the end of the world.  While on that flight, Flash (Buster Crabbe) and a female stranger (Jean Rogers) bail out at the same time, just before meteors cause the plane to crash.  They’ve landed near the rocket ship of Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon), a scientist (and former colleague of old Professor Gordon) whose plan is to fly to the invading planet and redirect it away from earth.  Needing an assistant, Zarkov coerces Gordon and the young woman, Dale Arden, into the ship.  The three blast off and soon arrive on the mysterious planet.

Zarkov

The planet Mongo, as it turns out to be, is ruled by Emperor Ming (Charles Middleton), to whom the three are taken as prisoners.  Upon seeing the beautiful Dale, Ming desires to take her for his bride; upon learning that Zarkov built the rocket ship that brought them there, Ming puts him to work in his own laboratory, in order to conquer the Earth instead of destroying it.  As for Flash, his attempts to free his friends awaken Ming’s ire; he has him thrown into the arena to battle three beast men.  Ming’s daughter, Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson), however, has other ideas, and schemes to keep Flash alive for herself.

MongoLanding

Thus begins the epic, thirteen-episode Flash Gordon, which puts Flash and company into cliffhanging perils that include a flooding underwater palace, fights with fearsome beasts, torture, and even a machine that makes Flash disappear completely.  And did I mention the rays?  In addition to ray guns, there are gravity rays, melting rays, rays that restore health, and an invisibility ray (the explanation for Flash’s previous disappearance, of course).  Throughout the serial, our heroes encounter Shark Men, Lion Men, and Hawk Men, all with their own leaders and complex political relationships with Ming.  (Whatever its crimes against realism may be, you can’t accuse Mongo of being a monocultural “Planet of Hats” in the Star Trek vein.)  Beyond the physical threats, there are shifting alliances and treachery, and all the while Princess Aura plays both sides, helping Flash escape but working to keep him separate from Dale.

Alex Raymond’s comic strip had only been running for two years when Universal Pictures released its serial adaptation in 1936, scripted by Frederick Stephani, George Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Ella O’Neill, and directed by Stephani.  The producer was Henry MacRae, who had been a director of serials since the silent era and knew how to get the most bang for the buck. Although serials were known for their low budgets, Flash Gordon was lavish by comparison (the claim that it cost a million dollars has been disputed, but it is still easy to believe that it was more expensive than the average chapter play); it was the first serial to play in a Broadway movie theater and set the tone for much of the cinematic science fiction that followed.

rocketship

It would be damning with faint praise to say Flash Gordon looks good “for its time;” many of the shortcuts taken in its production—the use of stock footage, recycled sets and costumes, and a score cobbled together from previous Universal horror and adventure films—would have been more obvious to viewers at the time than they are now.  Three years after Willis O’Brien wowed audiences with the stop-motion in King Kong, the many monsters that Flash battles are either familiar animals with some outer space bling attached, or small animals filmed against miniature sets to make them appear gigantic—or both, like the dragon-sized finned iguanas that prowl the valley where Flash and his compatriots first land.  The exception is the bipedal papier-mâché dragon with lobster claws that inhabits the “Tunnel of Terror” in Chapter Two; with the addition of horns and a wall of flame, it doubles as the “Sacred Fire Dragon” in Chapter Nine.

dragon

None of that matters, however, as the story unfolds with a swiftness that encourages suspension of disbelief, and a game cast that takes the material only as seriously as it needs to be, but no more.  First among them is Buster Crabbe as the title character, and I think it’s fair to say that Crabbe is ideal for the part.  Like Tarzan (whom Crabbe had also played), Flash Gordon isn’t a role to be acted: it’s a role to be embodied, and Crabbe has the physique (he had been a champion Olympic swimmer, winning a Gold Medal in 1932) and movie-star looks (with hair bleached to match Gordon’s comic-strip appearance) to pull it off.  That’s not to impugn Crabbe’s acting: while he isn’t called on to chew the scenery like Middleton as Ming or John Lipson as the Hawk Men’s King Vultan, he has a natural, unaffected screen presence, perfect for the kind of all-American hero who finds himself at the center of all this craziness.  Crabbe is engaged with the material and never sounds like he’s reciting lines from a cue card (more than can be said of James Pierce as Prince Thun of the Lion Men).

Torture

Flash’s adversary, Ming the Merciless, is played by Charles Middleton, who long specialized in “heavies,” and brings a prickly grandiloquence to the role.  He’s the kind of seasoned actor who can deliver lines like, “Why did not the sacred gong sound the final note which completes the marriage ceremony?” and make it sound perfectly natural.  Ming is one of the great pulp villains, of course, and with his arched eyebrows, pointed beard and mustache, bald head, and long fingernails, he shares a great deal of DNA with that poster child of Yellow Peril racism, Fu Manchu. Like Sax Rohmer’s criminal mastermind, Ming is an invasive force, the perfect stand-in for overseas threats from Europe or Asia (before Pearl Harbor, the pulps and comics often replaced Japan and Germany with their own invented enemies, such as the “Purple Empire” that Operator #5 battled; sometimes such threats were even described as “Eurasian,” covering all the bases).  Hailing from outer space instead of a foreign country, however, Ming has a veneer of plausible deniability that has made it easier to keep him around in later decades. Opposing him, Flash Gordon is the ideal American of the 1930s who doesn’t start fights but isn’t afraid to finish them.

Ming2

Beyond his name and visual appearance, Ming embodies the stereotype of the “Oriental potentate,” cruel, decadent, and treacherous.  In the Universal production, Ming entertains himself watching combat in the arena and gaudy choreographic displays (courtesy of Universal’s library of stock footage); the costume of his empire is a mix of spage-age tunics, medieval robes, and Roman centurion armor for the men, and harem outfits for the women. The costumes (and most of the set dressing) are straight from Universal’s warehouses, but the mixture of styles isn’t that far off from Raymond’s comic strip design, which also borrowed freely from distant times and places from Earth’s history.  The question of how people on other planets might dress hadn’t really been settled: when Edgar Rice Burroughs (creator of Tarzan) sent John Carter to the planet Mars, he described the inhabitants as nude, or nearly so.  Artists illustrating his books preserved Earth standards of modesty by draping Dejah Thoris in Roman togas and other stylized garb.  While the comic strip Buck Rogers, which premiered in 1929, gave a more fantastical, futuristic appearance to its space travelers, Flash Gordon was mostly content to be Prince Valiant in space; despite the rocket ships and ray guns, Gordon was often shown fighting with a sword like John Carter.  It’s not for nothing that this genre became known as “space opera.”

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No character in the 1936 production illustrates this better than King Vultan of the Hawk Men.  All the Hawk Men (there are no Hawk Women, near as I can tell) have enormous, feathery wings sprouting from their backs, and wear Viking horned helmets and armor.  With his boisterous laugh and enormous appetites, Vultan is clearly modeled after Henry VIII (he’s even shown feasting on the drumsticks of what I assume is some kind of space chicken, and mention is made of his numerous wives).  However, with his truly over-the-top headdress and the exaggerated pectorals of his breastplate, he looks like Luciano Pavarotti as Brünnhilde in a drag production of Die Walküre.

Vultan2

I like Vultan, though: unlike the humorless Ming and colorless Kala (King of the Shark Men, who can’t breathe water—I mean, where to even start?), Vultan is the only one who seems to really enjoy his villainy.  He is, however, a strong argument against those who feel that the 1980 feature version of Flash Gordon was too campy compared to the original.  Upon capturing Dale and (inevitably) deciding to wed her himself, he courts her by first terrifying her with his pet “Urso” (a bear painted with badger stripes) and then tries to entertain her by making shadow puppets on the wall.  This guy is all over the place; naturally, he becomes Flash’s ally by the end of the serial.

shadows

And who is Dale Arden but a classic “damsel in distress?”  She mostly screams and faints and exists to be rescued (interestingly, only one cliffhanger actually puts her in danger); she is subjected to mind games by Princess Aura, who convinces her that she must make Vultan believe she loves him, or else he will kill Flash.  The role isn’t the fault of Jean Rogers, who does as much as she can with it and looks great in the part.  In fact, between Rogers as Dale and Lawson as Aura fighting over Flash, it’s not hard to imagine a Depression-era boy at a Saturday matinee developing a sudden, unexpected interest in polo.

An amnesiac Flash Gordon tries to decide between Dale Arden and Princess Aura, the Betty and Veronica of outer space.

An amnesiac Flash Gordon tries to decide between Dale Arden and Princess Aura, the Betty and Veronica of outer space.

And it’s not only for the boys (and their dads): I mentioned Buster Crabbe’s physique, but I didn’t get to how often he appears without his shirt, slick with sweat or bound and tortured.  The sensuality and overt (but still PG) eroticism of the 1980 version weren’t invented from whole cloth.

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When the plot isn’t being moved forward by Ming or one of the other rulers of Mongo, it’s often one of Princess Aura’s schemes that does the trick.  To my mind, she’s the real hero of the story, resourceful, determined, and intense.  No wonder she ends up on the throne at the end, paired up not with Flash but the loyal Prince Barin, who is so exciting and interesting that I didn’t even think to bring him up until now.

What I Watched: Flash Gordon (1936, Universal)

Where I Saw It: It’s on YouTube.  The first chapter is here.

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: “The Unseen Peril” (Chapter Ten)

Best Cliffhanger: “Shattering Doom” (Chapter Seven): Flash, enslaved in King Vultan’s atomic furnace room, has an electric wire attached to his wrist, to kill him instantly if he rebels.  Doctor Zarkov surreptitiously attaches the wire to the handle of Flash’s shovel and instructs him to throw the shovel into the furnace when the time for escape is right.  Flash orders the other slaves to duck behind the safety wall and makes his move, triggering a massive explosion.  Will he get to safety in time?

Sample Dialogue: “Is there no way a man can conquer the sacred orangopoid?” –Princess Aura, Chapter Nine

With a Dry, Cool Wit Like That: “Scared, huh?” –Flash, as he grabs Dale and pushes her out of the airplane in Chapter One

Cheapest Special Effect: As much as I’d like to, I can’t count King Vultan’s shadow puppets, which are certainly odd but aren’t meant to be taken for anything else. Instead, I choose this fellow, the terrifying giant lizard of Mongo:

Lizard

Most Embarrassing Costume: I’ve already addressed the costumes in some detail, and while King Vultan’s appearance is certainly memorable, I think I’m going to award this honor to the Hawk Man servant who briefly makes an appearance in a full chef’s uniform in Chapter Six:

Chef

Biggest Cop-Out: Does anyone believe Ming is dead at the end of Flash Gordon?  Even without the knowledge that there would be two sequels, did anyone believe it in 1936?

What Others Have Said: “They were flying over and they were forced down where there was a rocket ready to take off—I mean, if you accept that, you have no problem with anything. If it bothers you that they happened to be flying over a rocket made by Dr. Zarkov, why then, this movie isn’t for you.” –Lorenzo Semple, Jr., screenwriter of the 1980 Flash Gordon feature film

What’s next: In two weeks, join me again for a look at Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island.