Saturday, October 12, 2013

Guest Review: Dick Tracy (1937)

Now, class, settle down. Mr. Shreve, your regular Saturday Serial host, couldn’t be here today. I think I heard something about “court-mandated community service.” I am your substitute, Mr. Schweier, and today we will review the 15-chapter Republic serial, Dick Tracy (1937).

Dick Tracy burst onto the funny pages in America’s newspapers in 1931, courtesy of Chester Gould and the Chicago Tribune syndicate. He was portrayed as the leading police detective in an unnamed city, pitted against a ghoulish rogue’s gallery. When making the leap to the big screen, Tracy was recast as an F.B.I agent in the San Francisco area. It was never mentioned by name, but opening credits showed plenty of Bay-area sites.

The story opens with a small group of criminals gathering aboard a train. They’re all members of the Spider ring, headed by… The Spider?

WRONG! The master criminal in question is merely referred to as the Lame One. His connection to any kind of spider is never explained.

Suddenly, the thump-and-slide gait of their boss is heard in the corridor. The door opens, and a shadowy figure challenges his underlings, most of whom are eager to please. One remains defiant, challenging his boss before drawing a gun and shooting him. The shadowy figure merely laughs, reinforcing his men’s belief that “he’s not human.”

Later, as said henchman is making his way down the street in the dead of night, only to hear the thump-and-slide footsteps of his one-time superior. Suddenly, a light burns a spider brand into his forehead as he is gunned down.

CUT TO – Dick Tracy (Ralph Byrd), briefing his own underlings, Steve Lockwood (Fred Hamilton) and Mike McGurk (Smiley Burnette) on the mysterious “spider” deaths. Joining Dick is his lovely assistant Gwen Andrews (Kay Hughes) and his even lovelier brother Gordon (Carleton Young). Gwen and Gordo are keen on dragging Dick away from his duties with the F.B.I. for a birthday frolic at the estate of Gordon’s employer, Ellery Brewster (John Dilson). There, the wealthy businessman is hosting a carnival for the benefit of local orphan children.

Brewster unfortunately meets an untimely end, murdered in his study, with a spider brand burned into his forehead. Dick and his team investigate, aided by one of the orphan children, a defiant little delinquent who goes by the name of Junior (Lee Van Atta). With the boy’s help, Dick is able to identify the murderer.

Impressed with the boy’s ambition to someday be a G-man, Dick decides to take the kid home, an idea only happily agreed to by the orphanage matron (Alice Fleming). Back in those days, one could buy an orphan boy for less than the cost of a pair of shoes – or so it would seem.

As Gordon Tracy ferries a vital piece of evidence downtown for his brother, he is run off the road. Barely alive, he is taken to the lair of the Lame One. There, the mad scientist in residence Moloch Moloch (John Piccori), promises, “Gentlemen… we can rebuild him. Make him stronger… faster… evil-er. Okay, maybe just that last one, but we’ll try.”

Moloch is able to turn Gordon Tracy to the Dark Side, and the Lame One wastes no time in putting him in charge of all his evil operations. Sporting a white streak in his hair and a scar on his cheek (goatees were not in fashion at the time), Gordon Tracy rides herd on various schemes of the Lame One – the destruction of the new Bay Bridge, the swindle of an aged prospector Death Valley Johnny (Milburn Morante), and the theft of gold from a ship at sea.

Why is the Lame One masterminding these criminal activities? Because he’s EVIL!!

Each scheme takes up the bulk of the chapter, ending with the obligatory cliff-hanger as Dick’s speed-boat careens wildly out of control, or he’s about to be crushed beneath a mountain of collapsing steel girders. Naturally, as the next chapter begins, Dick amazingly gains control of his boat, or manages to roll out of the path of the falling metal.

These events are usually followed by, “Gee, it’s too bad the Lame One’s men got away. We’ll catch them next time.” Uh-huh.

Throughout all this, the paths of the Brothers Tracy crosses numerous times, yet Dick never recognizes his own brother. It isn’t until the near-final chapter when Moloch addresses Gordon by name that Dick gets a clue. Strapped down to the evil toadie’s operating table, Dick Tracy is stunned to learn his own brother has been in the thrall of his arch-enemy. The chapter ends as Moloch is about to perform his evil-making procedure on our helpless hero. “Next Chapter: Brothers United.”

WHAT?! Hello, spoiler alert! Thanks for ruining the ending, Misters Barry Shipman and
Winston Miller (screen writers).

As serials go, it’s typical of the era – lots of cliffhangers, but if you miss a chapter, you’re not missing much. Still, it’s ambitious in its scope, as the Lame One’s men pilot a flying wing throughout the skies over San Francisco, or his agents attempt to flee the country in a submarine (a set which no doubt cost some serious coin in those days).

Ralph Byrd is perfectly serviceable as Tracy. He became identified for the role which he played for more than a decade, until his death in 1952. To his credit, it seems there is no indignity which the screenwriters can dream up that Byrd isn’t game for. I’ve never seen an actor so willing to leap into water fully-clothed.

The supporting characters elevate the production. Gwen, Tracy’s assistant, is more than a mere secretary; she heads up Dick’s personal crime lab, and is treated about as equally as a woman could hope for in those days. Steve Lockwood is everything a competent assistant should be.

Mike McGurk (Smiley Burnette), not so much. He and Junior (Lee Van Atta) provide typical comedy relief antics as McGurk is shown up time and time again by someone half his age and twice his intelligence.

Thanks to luck on my part (and generosity on Ivan’s part), additional Dick Tracy serial reviews will be forthcoming. Three more were made: Dick Tracy Returns (1938); Dick Tracy's G-Men (1939); and Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (1941).

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