Saturday, March 22, 2014

Guest Review: Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939)

By Philip Schweier

Ivan’s note: I’m still having trouble jumpstarting Riders of Death Valley (1941) for Serial Saturdays…so for the next two weeks, we’ll hear from Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s utility reviewer, Mr. Schweier…who’s finished watching all of the Republic Dick Tracy chapter plays that he won in the blog’s giveaway back in November of 2012.

Once more, Ralph Byrd takes to the silver screen in the 15-chapter serial, Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939). In my opinion, it’s a weaker outing than its predecessor, Dick Tracy Returns (1938), but one thing in its favor is it does away with the character of Junior, who in the Republic serials has become a bit of a twerp.

Tracy’s nemesis this time out is Zarnoff, a foreign spy whose capture by Tracy is recounted via newsreel in the opening chapter. However, he manages to escape the death penalty (how? By dying!) and carry on his fifth columnist activities.

Zarnoff is played by Irving Pichel, who in his Van Dyke beard and bouffant hair style comes across as a cheap imitation of Paul Muni as Emile Zola (I’ll confess, I’ve never actually seen that movie, so your mileage may vary). Zarnoff’s senior henchman, Robal, is played by Walter Miller, his swan song as an actor, as he died shortly afterwards.

Tracy’s assistants, agents Steve Lockwood and Gwen Andrews, are once again re-cast. Pearson plays Tracy’s #2 man, Lockwood. Gwen Andrews, seen in previous Dick Tracy serials, returns also, her role progressively being diminished to that of a mere secretary. However, this time she is played by Phyllis Isley, who would later change her name to Jennifer Jones before winning a Best Actress Oscar in 1943 for The Song of Bernadette.

Zarnoff works for the “the Three Powers,” a thinly veiled reference to the Axis, and spends his screen time attempting to steal formulas, assassinate dignitaries and cause other forms of political mayhem, all under the nose of uber-cop, Tracy.

As serials go, it is full of the typical last-moment escapes one might expect, but with three of them under my belt in recent months, it’s clear to me the writers went the extra mile to create more imaginative death traps. The first chapter ("The Master Spy") features Dick Tracy descending from an airplane onto a boatload of explosives in effort to keep the craft from blowing up a nearby dam. Later, Chapter 9 (“Flames of Jeopardy”) incorporates footage from the Hindenburg disaster.

Danger comes in various forms, but never as often as it does when involving Ralph Byrd getting wet. Dumped in the harbor, squeezed into a diving helmet, fighting the enemy on the shore of the lake, Byrd ends up almost as waterlogged as Jack Larson would later become in The Adventures of Superman.

Speaking of kid sidekicks, while Junior is absent, the audience is forced to endure the brief (two chapters) appearance of Sammy (Sam McKim), a young cowpoke with all the sophistication of a pre-adolescent Jimmy Dean. When Tracy determines Zarnoff’s radio transmissions are originating in a ghost town, Sammy and his invalid grandpa (George Cleveland), lend assistance.

Overall, Dick Tracy’s G-Men lacks the punch of Dick Tracy Returns, but one might argue that that serial’s villain, played by Charles Middleton, is a hard act to follow.

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