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!”

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

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