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!

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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: 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: 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!”

DT37.Moloch

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!

Fates Worse Than Death: The Phantom (1943)

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At Sai Pana, a trading post in an unspecified part of Africa, an expedition led by Professor Davidson is preparing to enter the jungle in search of the lost city of Zoloz, with the help of a map made of six pieces of ivory that fit together like a puzzle. Only the central seventh piece, which shows the exact location of Zoloz, is missing. Among those traveling with the Professor are his niece Diana Palmer and Geoffrey Prescott, a colleague from Melville University.

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Sai Pana’s resident physician, Dr. Bremmer, shows interest in Davidson’s search, but for his own reasons: Bremmer is actually the head of a ring of saboteurs who are building a secret air base in Zoloz, and he will use any connivance to throw Davidson off the scent so he can keep his activities hidden. At the same time, Singapore Smith, owner of the Trade Winds hotel in Sai Pana, schemes to get his hands on the Professor’s ivory keys (and the treasure it leads to) himself.

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Meanwhile, deep in the jungle at Tonga village, the mysterious figure known as the Phantom has summoned the chiefs of the area tribes for a gathering. The Phantom, through his appearance of immortality and supernatural powers, has kept the peace between the tribes for centuries, but a thug named Long, disguised as a native, strikes the Phantom with a poison dart (an attack instigated by Bremmer, because he needs to be able to control the natives to get his airfield built). The Phantom’s assistant, Suba, ends the ceremony with a puff of smoke, but the damage is already done: the Phantom will die. The only hope for peace between the tribes is to find his son to take his place, as the Phantom identity has been passed down from father to son for generations. In this way, the Phantom is “the man who never dies.”

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The Phantom’s son? Geoffrey Prescott, currently in Sai Pana with Professor Davidson’s expedition! After tracking him down with the aid of trapper Rusty Fenton, Suba brings Prescott to his father, who lives just long enough to pass on the mantle of the Phantom. Now it’s up to the new Phantom to protect Davidson, unravel the mystery of the saboteurs, and keep the peace in the jungle, in the 1943 Columbia serial The Phantom!

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Although never as high profile as Batman or Tarzan, the Phantom has elements in common with both characters and has a long history as the star of a comic strip created by Lee Falk in 1936 (and still running in newspapers with the creative team of Tony DePaul, Mike Manley, and Terry Beatty). According to the strip’s mythology, the first Phantom was shipwrecked by pirates on the African coast in the 16th century. He was adopted by a peaceful tribe who both set him on his mission of fighting evil and taught him the many combat disciplines and sleight-of-hand tricks he uses to further that goal. The 1943 serial doesn’t go into that in any detail beyond the handing down of the Phantom’s identity; serials in general were much less concerned with origin stories than superhero movies in recent decades (the 1996 feature film starring Billy Zane makes for an instructive contrast), but unlike many serials The Phantom is reasonably faithful to the comics (and it’s a damn sight better than the Batman serial that immediately preceded it!).

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The first chapter is entitled “The Sign of the Skull,” and indeed the skull is an important part of the Phantom’s iconography, particularly the carved ring he wears which leaves the imprint of a skull on those on whom he metes justice. Instead of the remote and forbidding Skull Cave, however, the Phantom of the serial keeps his throne in public, in the center of Tonga village, where he ceremoniously makes appearances to speak to the natives and pass judgment on lawbreakers. There’s quite a bit of flair to these proceedings, as Suba uses flash powder to create bursts of flame and smoke, making it look as if the Phantom appears and disappears by magic. (Interestingly, Bremmer manages to use that same sense of theatricality against the Phantom, first setting up a fraudulent “Fire Princess” whose supposed control of flame makes her a challenger to the Phantom’s authority in the jungle, and later putting a Phantom costume on one of his henchmen after thinking he had eliminated the real one, in order to control the natives.)

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The Phantom plays on the superstitions of the natives one-on-one, as well: confronting the rebellious chief Chota, the Phantom “summons the spirit of fire” to burn Chota’s village unless he tells the truth. In another episode, he smokes out a murderer by pretending to put poison into glasses of wine, saying it will only harm the guilty; of course, the killer is betrayed by his own fear rather than by the wine, which is harmless. Like many pulp heroes, the Phantom wins by his wits and his powers of psychology and detection as much as by his fists and weapons. (And like those heroes, there’s a certain unapologetic ruthlessness to his methods.)

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There are certainly enough villains to choose from: right off the bat, Professor Davidson is victimized by both Dr. Bremmer and his saboteurs and the competing forces of Singapore Smith (the “outlaws”). There’s quite a bit of jockeying by both groups as they each try to steal the ivory keys from Davidson, and at times they work together against their common enemy. Given that both groups are white men with stubble wearing khakis and pith helmets, it’s easy to get them mixed up. However, Singapore Smith is so obviously shady that he doesn’t make it to the end of the serial; even in death he causes trouble for the Phantom, who pays him a visit (in disguise as “Mr. Walker”) and is then blamed for Smith’s murder. Meanwhile, Dr. Bremmer, like most classic serial villains, works his evil through proxies (including traitors within the expedition), avoiding suspicion until the final chapter.

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In a late part of the story, the Phantom and Davidson’s expedition run afoul of the Tartar, the strict ruler of a kingdom that resembles Mongolia. The incongruity of a Mongol fortress in the middle of an African jungle, combined with the kingdom’s extreme isolationism (normally, all outsiders are put to death if they enter the Tartar’s kingdom, but naturally the Phantom wins him over), mark this episode as an example of the “lost world” genre embedded in the larger story. However, not even the Professor comments on its strangeness, and there is no explanation offered as to its presence and survival. (Also, it practically goes without saying that all the major characters speak English; there are a few scenes in which natives speak their own language and somebody has to translate, but not so many that it slows down the action.)

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As the Phantom, Tom Tyler is nicely physical and has a commanding presence, and Jeanne Bates is adequate as the headstrong Diana Palmer, but the only antagonist to have much character is oily Singapore Smith (Joe Devlin). As Dr. Bremmer, Kenneth MacDonald has some good moments and is smooth enough to convincingly play both sides, but didn’t leave a strong impression on me. Frank Shannon (Flash Gordon‘s Dr. Zarkov) plays Professor Davidson, but the decline in energy obvious in the later Flash Gordon serials is in evidence here as well. The Phantom’s animal companion Devil, a wolf in the comics, is played in the serial by a German Shepherd, Ace the Wonder Dog.

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Beyond that, the casting of the many African tribesmen seems to have been mixed up with casting for a Western. Serials are not documentaries, of course, but the best of them make some effort to draw inspiration from the real world. In The Phantom, the natives resemble Hollywood Indians, (mostly) white actors with stilted accents and war paint. The Internet Movie Database lists among the uncredited actors playing natives Jay Silverheels (later TV’s Tonto) and Iron Eyes Cody, an Italian immigrant who adopted an Indian identity and made a specialty of playing Indian characters. This knot of tangled ethnic representation is not terribly unusual for the time, but compared to the actual black actors I just saw in Tim Tyler’s Luck, it’s especially phony.

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What I Watched: The Phantom (Columbia, 1943)

Where I Watched It: The whole thing can be watched on YouTube.

No. of Chapters: 15

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Best Chapter Title: “The Road to Zoloz” (Chapter Thirteen) is nicely specific, and also suggests an entirely different film starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. It’s worth pointing out that both of the Phantom’s catch phrases, “The Man Who Never Dies” and “The Ghost Who Walks” are used as chapter titles (Chapters Two and Five, respectively).

Best Cliffhanger: Despite my criticisms of the acting in The Phantom, at least the action is pretty good, and there are not only several good cliffhangers but some exciting action sequences within the chapters. A very well-done cliffhanger ends Chapter Five (“The Ghost Who Walks”), in which the Phantom fights with the saboteurs on a rope bridge overhanging a deep gorge. Earlier, the Phantom, stalking the saboteurs as they drove an oxcart full of contraband ammunition to the secret airfield, had cut partially through the bridge’s ropes to weaken them. When he ends up fighting the saboteurs directly, of course the fight spills onto the damaged bridge, and the ropes give way, (seemingly) dropping them into the river far below.

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Sample Dialogue: In the first chapter, Long (Wade Crosby) returns to witness a gathering at the Tonga village after killing the Phantom, along with fellow saboteur Andy (Sol Gorss) and upstart chief Chota (Stanley Price). To his chagrin, the new Phantom is accepted without question by the natives.

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Long: Why, that can’t be the real Phantom. I know I killed him! This is just a trick to fool the natives.
Chota: No, him Phantom. Him Phantom! Man who never dies.
Andy: Looks like him to me.
Long: Why, it can’t be! He’s a much younger and taller guy than the real Phantom. I’m telling you that guy’s a fake.
Andy: Looks like you missed, Long.
Long: Let’s tell the natives that guy’s a phony.
Andy: Yeah? And when they ask us how we know, we tell ’em you killed the real Phantom. Why, you’d have your head drying over a fire in no time.

What Others Have Said: “Occasionally there was a shock when a player you had always associated as a good guy turned up in a serial as a crook. . . . You just couldn’t believe that lovable old rascal was really one of the baddies. . . . But, the real test of credibility came when Ernie Adams, who portrayed not only bad guys, but sneaky, yellow, cowardly bad guys, was cast in the role of Rusty Fenton in The Phantom in 1943, and you had to believe that the hero would have in him a good, trusted ally.” –William C. Cline, “When the Leopard Changed Its Spots” in Serials-ly Speaking

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(Serials I’ve reviewed in which Adams appeared include The Miracle Rider, in which he played the shady store operator’s clerk, and Tim Tyler’s Luck: Adams played Becker, the henchman whose death by gorilla meant so little to Spider Webb.)

What’s Next: For my final installment of Summer 2016’s Fates Worse Than Death, I will return to the air with Flying G-Men. See you in two weeks!

Fates Worse Than Death: Tim Tyler’s Luck

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A young man attempts to stow away on a boat going upriver, into the dense African jungle. When asked why, Tim Tyler explains that he is looking for his father, Professor Tyler, an expert on gorillas who hasn’t been heard from in some time. Big game hunter Lora Lacey offers to pay Tim’s way, but the captain refuses; no matter, Tim finds his way onboard anyway. Also making the river trek is explorer Garry Drake. However, not all is as it seems: Lora Lacey is actually Lora Graham, looking for the master criminal Spider Webb, who committed a diamond theft for which Lora’s brother is serving the sentence. Her real plan is to search for Spider in the jungle and “bring him back alive” to prove her brother’s innocence, and she recognizes Drake as one of Spider’s men.

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Sure enough, as soon as night falls Drake and his allies kill the captain, taking over the boat and steering it to the shore, where the rest of Spider’s gang will take possession of the weapons and ammunition intended for the Ivory Patrol, the colonial police force. With Tim’s help, Lora escapes the boat and the pair make their way to the Ivory Patrol’s base. With their help, Lora hopes to bring Spider to justice and Tim hopes to find his missing father. But it turns out their goals are related, as Tim learns when he sees that Spider’s men are driving the “jungle cruiser” (an armored tank) Professor Tyler had built for his work. The Professor has a secret, too: he’s located the legendary “elephant’s burial ground,” and men like Spider would kill to find it. It’s man vs. gorilla, horse vs. tank, and good vs. evil, with tons of ivory at stake, in the twelve-part serial Tim Tyler’s Luck!

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Like several of the serials I’ve covered this summer, Tim Tyler’s Luck, about “the All-American boy in Africa,” is based on a comic strip, albeit one I won’t even pretend to be familiar with (but holy cow, it ran until 1996!?). Played by Frankie Thomas (aka Frank Thomas, Jr.), Tim is a happy medium between the unrealistically-competent kid character who can handle any situation like an old pro and the helpless tagalong who’s in constant need of rescue. (Thomas’ career included stints in Broadway, radio, film, and television; after playing Tim Tyler, he appeared as Ted Nickerson in four Nancy Drew films; later, he played Tom Corbett, Space Cadet on TV.) Tim is self-sufficient and can handle himself in the wilderness, and he gets himself and his friends out of a number of jams, but he’s not a superhero; when things get hot, particularly when Spider Webb (Norman Willis) and his gang start shooting, Tim falls back on the support of the Ivory Patrol. (And, as I note below, Tim has a knack for making friends, an invaluable survival skill.)

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Typically, Tim Tyler’s Luck has several connections to other serials: right from the start, the theme music and much of the underscore was familiar to me from the later Buck Rogers serial (which I wrote about this spring for The Solute); Garry Drake, Webb’s right-hand man, is played by Anthony Warde, Buck Rogers‘ Killer Kane; Sergeant Gates of the Ivory Patrol is played by Jack Mulhall, Captain Rankin in Buck Rogers; and the “jungle cruiser,” so prominently featured, had served as the “juggernaut” in Undersea Kingdom the year before (instead of the electric whine the juggernaut produced, the jungle cruiser simply makes engine noises like a truck).

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Frances Robinson plays Lora Lacey/Graham (and yes, she’s the only woman in the cast, but she has much more to do than scream for rescue); she is another resourceful character, but one who can’t do everything herself. Robinson is lovely, with expressive features that serve her in a variety of moods and emotions. A high point is a sequence in Chapter Six (“The Jaws of the Jungle”) in which she pretends to be a criminal herself and demands a cut of Webb’s payday, with her access to Tim as leverage. She adopts a clipped, hard-edged voice for these scenes, playing off Willis’ low-rent Bogart impression with a little Katherine Hepburn of her own.

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Earlier this summer, I described Pirate Treasure as the serial that was “maybe the most elemental in its appeal” for the way it deployed adventure tropes in bold, simplified form. Similarly, Tim Tyler’s Luck may be the most direct expression of the “jungle” genre in anything without Tarzan in its name. Among the touchstones of the genre encountered here are big game hunters, ivory traders, a colonial army, a missing scientist, wild animals, volcanos, quicksand, “talking” drums, and natives both helpful and hostile; there is the theme of man and his technology vs. nature; the man of civilization who has cast off his old identity in the wilderness; and the connection between man and animal. The central conceit of Tarzan and She, the white god or goddess lording it over the black natives, is the only major element of the genre that goes unused (although there are references to a hostile tribe ruled by a white man who has gone native and now directs the tribe to war on other whites; perhaps this character played a greater role in the comic strip, but in the serial he never appears on screen).

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Of course, the “elephant’s graveyard” is a myth, based on the observation that remains of dead elephants were never found in the jungle, but in Tim Tyler’s Luck it turns out to be real, a desolate volcanic region to which elephants instinctively return before dying. Conway (Frank Mayo), one of the heroes’ allies, is an ivory hunter (it wasn’t until the very end of the serial that I realized the title card isn’t meant to resemble Chinese writing: the words are made of piled-up elephant tusks); ivory is just one more natural resource to be plundered, not the moral and environmental outrage it is seen as today. In other words, this story is a product of its time.

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As is almost always the case during this time period, the plot and characters are products of the colonialist imagination. The main characters are white Americans or Europeans adventuring in Africa, with the native tribesmen largely serving as extras in the background; the most notable exception, Mogu (Everette Brown), is one of Spider Webb’s henchmen, and a few others get lines here or there. I haven’t returned to the discussion of representation lately, mainly because there isn’t much new to say: racism and colonialism were so prevalent in the 1930s that it’s less repetitive to point out positive developments such as color-blind casting (such as Philson Ahn’s Prince Tallen in Buck Rogers) or well-developed non-white characters when they do occur. If you’ve followed me this long in this series, the portrayal of Africans in Tim Tyler’s Luck will not surprise you.

On the other hand, in comparison to some serials, there is clearly more of an effort to present a multi-faceted Africa: some tribes are friendly, some are hostile, and they are given their own beliefs and motivations. And there are more black faces on screen than in many films of the time: many are bearers and servants, and many are half-dressed tribesmen with spears and shields, but there are also black troops in the Ivory Patrol, and there’s Mogu. The African characters are no more uniformly good or evil than the white characters. That’s not to say that Tim Tyler’s Luck is “realistic,” exactly–this is a film in which the hero befriends a black panther, and his scientist father has learned to speak gorilla–but the world feels full, complex, and lived in. Africa is more than just an empty playground for whites: there are other stories going on all around them.

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For that matter, and for want of a better term, Tim Tyler’s Luck feels like a movie, not just a serial: throughout this series I’ve been fascinated by the mechanics of serial storytelling: how rhythms are built up, the use of foreshadowing and red herrings to keep the wheels turning, and above all the formal necessity of setting up and resolving cliffhangers. Tim Tyler’s Luck has those things, but it also slows down enough to establish mood and character; the cliffhangers aren’t the most important part of the chapters, and there is enough action that most chapters have at least one or two good set pieces that aren’t tied to the chapter-ending cliffhanger. The scene in which reformed criminal Lazarre (Earl Douglas) tries to silently point out the Professor’s diary to Lora, held prisoner by Garry Drake, succeeds in creating something that is theoretically central to the serial format, but which isn’t always delivered: suspense.

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Obviously, the Indiana Jones films draw from the globetrotting adventure genre liberally: I previously compared The Perils of Pauline to Raiders of the Lost Ark, but Tim Tyler’s Luck, with its missing scientist (complete with a diary containing a map to the treasure), shifting loyalties, and running tank battles, feels like a strong influence on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (And tell me that Tim Tyler doesn’t look like River Pheonix as young Indy in his scout uniform from that film’s prologue!)

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And what of the title character’s “luck”? Again, since I’m not familiar with the comic strip this was based on, perhaps it’s a bigger deal in the ongoing story, but there doesn’t seem to be anything notable or supernatural favoring Tim Tyler. One may count his tendency to always be in the right place at the right time, but that’s a trait shared by many serial heroes. (Without the lubricating oil of coincidence, how many pulp-era plots would sputter and grind to a halt before they could even get off the ground?) No, if anything, Tim Tyler’s luck is his knack for winning others to his side by his goodness: he tames the black panther Fang by bandaging him up and treating him well; he wins over Spider Webb’s henchman Lazarre by saving his life, even when it would be to his benefit to let him die; and he offers water and comfort to the dying elephant handler who almost killed him, winning the elephant’s trust and loyalty. It simply doesn’t occur to Tim to act any other way, and his good acts return to him in the form of supportive allies.

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Compare that to Spider Webb, who seems to neither regret nor relish his evil: he simply looks out for number one, and everyone else be damned. Other people are so little to him he can’t even pretend to care what happens to them (watching one of his henchmen sink into the quicksand that surrounds his base, Webb says only, “well, let’s get going”); the Professor, Tim, and Lora are left alive at key moments only because Webb needs them alive for leverage or information. Unlike many serial villains who rant theatrically, Webb is coldly sociopathic, and because of this comes across as more modern than his contemporaries; and just as importantly, he remains cool even as things unravel and he meets his inevitable comeuppance. Webb berates and bullies his underlings, and because of it he dies alone, unloved, and unrepentant; in comparison to many serials about heroes who save the day single-handedly, Tim Tyler’s Luck makes a solid case for the value of friendship and teamwork.

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What I Watched: Tim Tyler’s Luck (Universal, 1937)

Where I Watched It: A non-commercial DVD from the batch I got on eBay earlier this summer. It doesn’t appear to be available to view online.

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Jungle Pirates” (Chapter One). As I said, this serial has something of a primal appeal, and the first chapter sets the tone by asking what could possibly make a jungle adventure more exciting: how about jungle pirates?

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Best Cliffhanger: The gorillas of Gorilla Canyon are essentially a force of nature in Tim Tyler’s Luck, a natural obstacle to anyone who ventures into their territory. In other chapters, they throw boulders at intruders, resulting in the destruction of Conway’s ivory safari, and they’re an unpredictable danger to anyone who ventures into the caves that riddle the canyon. Only Professor Tyler, who was lived among them for months, has their trust, and even he has succeeded in taming only one of the beasts. In Chapter Seven (“The King of the Gorillas”), the Professor and Lora are forced by Spider Webb to return to Gorilla Canyon to retrieve the Professor’s map to the elephant’s burial ground. While there, the Professor releases the caged gorilla he had trained in hopes of freeing himself and Lora from Spider’s grasp, but the tame gorilla gets in a fight with an aggressive male, still wild. Meanwhile, Tim and Sergeant Gates of the Ivory Patrol have tracked the cruiser to the canyon and make their way into the caves. Professor Tyler is shot by Becker, one of Spider’s men, just before being killed himself by a gorilla (Spider, ever the practical one, only says “Becker’s done for. Never knew what hit him.”). The Ivory Patrol attacks, driving Spider’s men away, but just as Tim finds the cave with Lora and his father, the bull gorilla attacks and carries him away.

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Honorable mention: Several of the cliffhangers involve animals, wild or otherwise. There is actually a second cliffhanger that involves Tim being carried, unconscious, this time by an elephant (in Chapter Nine, “The Gates of Doom”). Spider’s inside man in the Ivory Patrol, Rocky, has bribed the elephant’s handler to help Spider escape the Patrol’s fort, but once cornered by, he has the elephant grab Tim. The elephant will crush Tim unless the Patrol lets him escape. The fort’s guards close the heavy doors, but the elephant smashes through them with Tim in its trunk!

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Sample Dialogue: “Get this, Tyler: if you don’t tell me where the elephant’s burial ground is, there will be a death in the Tyler family.” –Spider Webb, Chapter Six (“The Jaws of the Jungle”)

What Others Have Said: “Working with the heavies. You ask any actor: the heavies are the nicest people in the world. That’s just the way it works.” –Frankie Thomas, asked in an interview, “What was the high point of working on Tim Tyler?”

What’s Next: Keeping with the jungle theme, let’s check out The Phantom, starring Tom Tyler. That’s not confusing at all!

Fates Worse Than Death: Ace Drummond

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International Airways is under attack! The fledgling enterprise, assembled by a multinational group of businessmen with the intent of uniting the world through travel and trade, is suffering mysterious air wrecks in its Mongolian territory. Construction on the airfield is threatened, and if the wrecks persist it will mean the end of the entire operation. The disasters are the work of the elusive “Dragon,” a faceless criminal mastermind who speaks through special radio receivers hidden in prayer wheels, fans, and even airplane propellers. In response to the attacks, Ace Drummond, “G-Man of the Air,” arrives from his base in Washington to investigate.

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Although he finds many allies–among them young Billy Meredith, son of one of the Airway board members; Jerry, an enthusiastic mechanic and pilot at the airfield; and Peggy Trainor, who has come to Mongolia in search of her missing archeologist father–this foreign territory is filled with potential enemies, any one of whom may be the Dragon or one of his subordinates. Is it Dr. Bauer, the explorer who holds Professor Trainor hostage in hopes of wresting the secret location of a mountain of jade from him? Or is it the monk Kai-Chek, who rails against the intrusion of foreigners and their “devil birds” in Mongolia? Or perhaps it is Henry Kee, the Mongolian member of the committee, or Johnny Wong, the furtive Chinese radio operator. Or it could also be Winston, a member of the committee eager to shut down operations in the face of the Dragon’s terrorism. Or it could be one of the other dozen characters who come under Drummond’s suspicion: the G-Man of the Air has his work cut out for him in the thirteen-chapter serial, Ace Drummond!

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Like Tailspin Tommy, Ace Drummond was a comic strip that rode the wave of the public’s fascination with aviation in the 1930s before being adapted into a movie serial, but Ace Drummond relied on exotic locations and a global scale much more than the down-to-earth Tailspin Tommy. The comic strip was created by World War I hero Eddie Rickenbacker, who lent his name and expertise and contributed scripts to the strip. Every chapter of the serial opens with a portrait of Rickenbacker, “America’s Beloved Ace of Aces,” and recaps the previous chapter with a clip of a newspaper comics page being unfolded and a zoom-in on panels that relate previous events. Rickenbacker also took an active hand in promoting the Ace Drummond serial, forming a “Junior Pilots Club” to generate fan excitement.

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Ace Drummond is also a musical, sort of. Recall that in The Phantom Empire, Gene Autry had to perform a song every day in order to keep his radio contract. One might think that Ace Drummond had a similar contract, as he tends to burst into song whenever a chapter has some time it needs to fill. Leading man John King had been a popular singer before making the jump to acting, and after Ace Drummond he would go on to play a number of singing cowboy roles (most notably “Dusty” in Monogram’s Range Busters series), so it makes sense to feature his talents. Here’s the thing, though: it’s always the same song, “Give Me a Ship and a Song” by Kay Kellogg. Drummond first sings it on the clipper ship into Mongolia to calm down the passengers (understandably nervous, since apparently half a dozen planes have crashed, but this is the first passenger plane to make the trip): a passenger turning the dial on his radio tells a flight attendant, “I’d give a million dollars to hear a great jazz band.” The attendant suggests a station, and the music switches to something that isn’t jazz at all: the intro to “Give Me a Ship and a Song,” which Drummond sings in full to the appreciative passengers. Later, Drummond sings the same song to entertain Peggy Trainor; to entertain the mechanics at the airfield; to test a radio receiver; and he even plays a phonogram record of himself singing in order to fool one of the Dragon’s henchmen sneaking around the airfield. Obviously, the repetition would be less obnoxious if I were watching the serial week to week instead of all at once, but as a transparent attempt to generate a hit, it flopped.

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The action in Ace Drummond fares better: Ace saves the plane from an attack–the Dragon is able to zap the pilots with electric shocks through the radio, as well as having a ground-based “death ray” that can down smaller planes–and, spotting a biplane circling just before the attack, he bails out and tracks the plane to the camp of Dr. Bauer (Fredrik Vogeding) and his associate Wyckoff (Al Bridge). The two explorers claim to be searching for the lost tomb of Genghis Khan, but they have Professor Trainor (Montague Shaw) held prisoner in a dungeon. Trainor’s daughter Peggy (Jean Rogers) has just shown up on her father’s trail, and Bauer and Wyckoff hope to hold her as well in order to force her father to give up the jade mountain’s location, but Ace rescues her just in time and takes off in Bauer’s plane. Struck by the Dragon’s death ray, the plane crashes into the wall of the village monastery, bringing in another group of characters.

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The monk Kai-Chek (Chester Gan) calls for the foreigners to be punished for violating the sacred temple, but the Lama (Guy Bates Post) cautions against reacting with anger to what was obviously an accident. Throughout the remainder of the serial, the Lama and his fellow monks are an important resource for Drummond and his allies, translating and providing wisdom as well as communicating with the natives (who are never given much more characterization than a mob of undifferentiated foreigners). More importantly, the monastery is a colorful set full of secret passages and traps, including a room with a mechanized wall designed to close in and crush anyone unfortunate enough to be trapped within. The Lama pleads ignorance of the deadly trap; it’s left unclear until the very end whether the Dragon actually has a connection with the monastery or is simply taking advantage of its secrets.

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Ultimately, that points to the weakness of Ace Drummond: the excessive number of suspects and subplots grows wearisome in later chapters, and when some characters who were under suspicion are later revealed to be innocent, their earlier actions don’t make a lot of sense. It’s one thing for the audience to get confused–that’s part of the sleight-of-hand involved in mystery storytelling–but it’s less satisfying when one senses that the writers themselves don’t quite have a handle on the plot. There are simply too many red herrings, and it’s almost comical to hear the repeated exclamation, “So you’re the Dragon!” aimed at one character after another in the last few chapters, until at last the real Dragon is unmasked.

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Still, that complaint aside, the serial has many good qualities: although there is less time spent flying than in Tailspin Tommy, there is enough aerial action to demonstrate Drummond’s prowess and Rickenbacker’s expertise, and of course the entire plot is motivated by the defense of a commercial airline venture, a business Rickenbacker had also been intimately involved with as the manager (and later owner) of Eastern Air Lines. The Mongolian setting, while open to charges of exoticism (indeed, the lure of adventure in strange foreign places is the entire hook for this genre), is unusual and provides for some original locations and opportunities for action.

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In addition to the actors already mentioned, the cast includes a number of familiar faces: Lon Chaney, Jr. appears as Ivan, the lead henchman; Noah Beery, Jr. plays Jerry, who could be twins with Skeeter, the character he played in Tailspin Tommy; as Billy, Jackie Morrow provides the requisite spunk, without being too annoying; and veteran Montague Shaw is reliably paternal in the kindly old scientist role.

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Finally, the Dragon himself, unrevealed until the last chapter, makes for a dramatic presence, speaking in a booming voice through his spinning receivers, always closing his missives with an authoritative “THE DRAGON COMMANDS!” or “THE DRAGON HAS SPOKEN!” It makes a big enough impression that each chapter ends with the typical title card instructing audiences to see the continuation next week in the same theater, accompanied by a fire-breathing dragon and that same voice over: “THE DRAGON COMMANDS!” It’s not a request.

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What I Watched: Ace Drummond (Universal, 1936)

Where I Watched It: TCM ran several chapters of this serial earlier this summer, but for this article I watched it on (and collected screen shots from) YouTube.

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: “The Dragon Commands” (Chapter Eleven)

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Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Five, “Bullets of Sand,” Peggy and Billy investigate Dr. Bauer’s operation, hoping to find proof that the German explorer is secretly the Dragon. Bauer and Wyckoff are holed up in “the Hall of Dead Kings,” a tomb complex carved into a mountainside and full of treasures. Their camp employs a dozen natives, digging and cleaning up artifacts, including sand blasting jade urns. While snooping in Bauer’s office, a separate building, Peggy and Billy are locked in. Billy climbs up the chimney and escapes, but before he can let Peggy out from the outside, he must hide from the approaching workmen to escape detection. He hides in one of the urns, just before the workmen begin cleaning out the inside of it with the sand blaster! A shot straight up the barrel of the sand blaster ends the chapter, leaving us in suspense.

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Sample Dialogue (from Chapter Thirteen, “The World’s Akin”):
Dragon: “We have a saying in Mongolia: he who smiles at the grave’s edge takes happiness into the world beyond.”
Jerry: “We got a saying in America, too, though: don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched!”

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What Others Have Said: “For a time it was thought that the airplane film might supplant the Western in the affection of the young, but, air age and all, it didn’t happen. Situations involving airplanes were woven into many serials and adventure features; yet the number of serials centering upon aviation never matched that of films set in the West. Nonetheless, in the New Deal era at least one air adventure could be expected to appear each year among the ranks of serial dramas. . . . As a matter of fact, the aviation cycle would soon be lost in space–and in war clouds. Not many old-fashioned, seat-of-the-pants flying flims would be made after Flash Gordon took off for Mongo and World War II revolutionized aeronautics.” –Raymond W. Stedman, The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment

What’s Next: Join me next time as I examine Tim Tyler’s Luck.