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).
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.
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.
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!!
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.
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).
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).