Dick Tracy (1937)
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There isn't all that much care put to keeping the serial like the comic strip. Tracy became a g-man instead of a city police detective and gone are the maladjusted and malformed villains of his colorful rogues gallery. The Lame One, the villain of this chapterplay, doesn't compare to the grotesqueries of The Brow or Little Face.
Ralph Byrd is excellent as Tracy...in fact he IS Dick Tracy. Forget Morgan Conway's forgettable appearances in Dick Tracy's Dilemma and Dick Tracy Vs. Cueball (a horrible film)...and especially forget the primary color extravaganza that Warren Beatty put out. Ralph Byrd does them both in...stolid, straight forward and eager for action.
I would rate this serial right up there with other great chapterplays, like The Adventures of Captain Marvel, The Masked Marvel and the like.
In this installment Tracy and his assistants Steve Lockwood (Fred Hamilton), Junior (Lee Van Atta) and Mike McGurk (Smiley Burnette) are up against a terrorist organization known as the Spider Ring. The gang is led my a mysterious shadowy figure known only as the Lame One.
The gang tries among other things, to destroy the Golden Gate Bridge with a sonic sound wave machine, take over a gold mine and steal the plans for a new high speed aircraft. Tracy and his pals are kept busy trying to foil the gang's moves over 15 fast-paced chapters. Co-directors Ray Taylor and Alan James keep the action moving and provide us with plenty of excitement. There is a least one fight in every chapter. There is also the requisite "flashback" chapter which Republic used in most of their serials. The unmasking of the Lame One in Chapter 15 is almost anti-climatic. I challenge you to remember who the character was who turns out to be the Lame One.
The DVD which I purchased was produced by Marengo Films. The print from which it was duplicated was apparently borrowed from a collector so IT WAS NOT duplicated from the fuzzy public domain print that has been used for several years. The picture quality is very good and the sound crisp and clear.
Some interesting notes. The shooting down of a dirigible foreshadowed the real life Hindenberg disaster the following year. The high speed plane forecast the development of jet planes by some ten years. The Flying Wing used by the gang almost reminds one of the Stealth Bomber even though this was the 30s. And yes there's those great vintage 30s cars too. The running time of 290 minutes makes this I believe, the longest running serial of all time.
Francis X. Bushman who plays G-Man chief, Clive Anderson had been in films since 1911 and was one of the first matinee idols. He is probably best remembered for his role as Messala in the silent "Ben-Hur" (1927). Lee Van Atta and Smiley Burnette both appeared in the serial "Undersea Kingdom" (1936). Burnette of course would go on to be one of the best known "B" western sidekicks riding with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Charles Starrett (The Durango Kid).
Also in the cast in assorted roles, are Roy Barcroft as an air crewman on The Flying Wing, Milburn Morante as "Death Valley Johnny", I. Stanford Jolley as an intern and veteran silent heavy Walter Long in a bit. Future serial director William Witney served as a film editor on this project.
Followed by "Dick Tracy Returns" (1938) and "Dick Tracy's G-Men" (1939).
There are a lot of pretty cool effects considering when this was made. The flying wing was my favourite. It looked like an old Northrop YB-35 with the props in front---and was obviously supposed to be bigger. Nice model though. Some other notable effects were the zeppelin crash and the shaking Golden Gate bridge.
Some other decent stuff I liked was the speeded-up secret message on the phonograph disc, the mad doctor with the cat (he was cool), the little belt morse code transmitter (reminded me of Batman's utility belt), and Gwen (I liked how she could fly a plane, and do most other stuff the men did---what surprised me is that they didn't have her get captured by the spider gang at some point).
One particularly goofy effect gave me a laugh: At the end of one chapter Dick Tracy's plane crashes into a bridge. The beginning of the next chapter shows the crash and then Dick getting up out of the plane wreckage, brushing off his clothes, and walking off. Pretty hokey there. And it seems Dick was fond of double-parachuting to get out of trouble---sorta funny.
The stories were not bad. There was plenty of plot to keep me interested and it was plausible---except maybe for a couple of the escapes after the disastrous endings of the previous chapter like I mentioned above. Now it seems the spider gang tried its hand at almost every type of crime before finally getting squashed by Dick Tracy. Let's see...there was bridge-wrecking, plane-motor-stealing, counterfeiting (attempted anyway), illegal brain surgery (on Tracy's bro), gold stealing (2 instances of this...the prospector's mine and the ship), and stealing jewellery.
And of course there are the typical fist fights that everyone expects. As usual, everyone involved gets up and walks away unharmed, without even any dirt or wrinkles on their clothes (as per the unwritten code of all serials it seems). Gun battles occur frequently, but no one notable ever gets hit (well Dick got hit at the end of one chapter, but by the next chapter he was miraculously healed). Additionally, there is no lack of car, boat, airplane, and zeppelin crashes.
I really did have a good time with this serial. I gave it an 8 because it had decent stories along with some better-than-average effects. Old movie fans, and anyone who likes serials, shouldn't miss this one.
Folks who don't really like serials are....well, they're folks who don't like serials (probably don't much like Christmas either). For those who do like serials, this is like a trip to the circus. Good action and WAY better than usual script and acting. As movies go, this probably only deserves a 7 but for a serial it deserves a perfect 10.
THE TITLE THAT the young Mr. Gould had conjured up was "PLAINCLOTHES TRACY". The editor gave the subject a little thought and suggested that Gould ought to reconsider and change the first name to "Dick"; which was the nickname, even then, already well known for a Detective. With the surname of Tracy being suggestive of tracing a wanted subject, the two would be a perfect match.
SO, THE COMIC strip was launched and DICK TRACY became an almost overnight success; soon being syndicated and appearing in hundreds of newspapers. With such success, it should be no surprise that Hollywood would soon be calling. It did and within the span of 6 short years, DICK TRACY was on the silver screen; now in the format of a 15 chapter Movie Serial, Cliff Hangere type.
WE HAVE VIEWED the serial several times; some years ago. In fact, we do have video copies of all four of the Republic DICK TRACY Chapterplays. Today, Turner Classic Movies began a weekly presentation of the first one with the showing of Chapters 1-3. After the programing was over, many of our impressions and opinions surfaced once again.
FIRST OF ALL, the casting of Ralph Byrd in the title role was a case of near perfection. Talented, athletic and possessing a very likable screen persona; Mr. Byrd was an immediate hit with the movie going public. What's more, he even bore a sort of real world resemblance to the Tracy of the print medium.
THE SERIAL DID a fine job of bringing a great amount of action (the life blood of the movie serial); while at the same time taking the story to a great variety of locales. There appears to be as much time spent outdoors, as there is in studio sound-stages; which is always a plus in giving a picture a good, polished and luxurious appearance about it.
THE CREATION OF a dark, menacing and sinister world is accomplished with the highest degree of success. The characterization of so many of the denizens who inhabit the shadowy underworld is a definite plus and serves to evoke the kind of mysterious horror as did so many of those great covers from so many pulp crime-mystery magazines of the 1920's-'40's.
THE ONE ELEMENT that would become a hallmark for the Republic Serial, the greatest of special effects from Howard Lydecker (later joined by his brother, Theodore Lydecker) was present here. Mysterious rays, great explosions,realistic miniatures and a futuristic aeroplane; all add up to a fantastic, though believable world.
ADDED TO ALL of that is the old Republic assembly line's creative use of stock footage, scenes from other productions and real life newsreel footage. Everything is blended almost flawlessly.
ON THE DOWN side of things, unlike most of their future serials, there is no original musical score, but rather liberal doses of classical selections; including excerpts from Rossini's WILLIAM TELL OVERTURE and Lizst's LES PRELUDES.
ALSO ON THE negative side of the ledger is Republic's habit of taking an existing feature (The Lone Ranger, Captain Marvel, Spy Smasher and especially Captain America) and radically changing it for the screen. In DICK TRACY and its 3 sequels, they make Tracy an F.B.I. Agent, exclude regular partner Pat Patton and make no mention of female lead and love interest in the comic pages, Tess Trueheart; who is Tracy's Fiancé!
IN PLACE OF a regular detective partner, we are given a couple of hereto-for unknown commodities; including a comic relief buffoon portrayed by Smiley Burnette and a mysteriously vague version of Junior.
Copyright 5 March 1937 (chapters 1-6) and 13 May 1937 (chapters 7- 15) by Republic Pictures Corporation. U.S. release: 20 February 1937. Each chapter consists of two reels, except for the first which has three. Total running time: 290 minutes.
Chapter titles: (1) The Spider Strikes; (2) The Bridge of Terror; (3) The Fur Pirates; (4) Death Rides the Sky; (5) Brother Against Brother; (6) Dangerous Waters; (7) The Ghost Town Mystery; (8) Battle in the Clouds; (9) The Stratosphere Adventure; (10) The Gold Ship; (11) Harbor Pursuit; (12) The Trail of the Spider; (13) The Fire Trap; (14) The Devil in White; (15) Brothers United.
SYNOPSIS: A notorious criminal, known as The Lame One or The Spider, kidnaps Dick Tracy's brother and turns him into a zombie who will obey the most fiendish orders without question, including the execution of his own brother!
NOTES: Number five of Republic's 66 serials, filming commenced on 30 November 1936 and concluded on 24 December 1936. Negative cost: $127,640. Sequels: Dick Tracy Returns (1938), Dick Tracy's G-Men (1939), Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. (1941). All three of these serials starred Ralph Byrd in the title role.
COMMENT: One of Republic's most exciting and ingenious efforts, this solidly-made serial offers high-flying, non-stop entertainment from stop to finish, with only one exception. The economy chapter is number twelve. All the others are almost equally thrilling, combining an intriguing mystery element with super-fast action and stunts galore.
There's little time for romance. Despite her billing, Kay Hughes has precious little to do. It's Fred Hamilton who makes a major contribution in each cliffhanger as Tracy's sidekick, with an assist from Smiley Burnette who offers a fair amount of comedy relief.
Ralph Byrd is great in the role he was born to play. Also on hand is that glorious old trooper, Francis X. Bushman, who plays Tracy's boss, and Carleton Young who does a grand job in a role that actually amounts to chief heavy. (Fortunately, despite his elaborate introduction in Chapter One, Junior doesn't get into the line of fire too much and is not unduly in the way).
The directors make absolutely brilliant use of their real locations including San Francisco's Oakland Bay Bridge and a disused power plant at San Pedro. And as for the Flying Wing, what a marvelous creation it is! Republic special effects wizardry at its zenith!
Smart direction combined with impeccable photography and zestful film editing also deserve our unstinting applause. Each cliff- hanging dilemma presents us with a cleverly super-suspenseful fade- out too — except, of course, for that economy-conscious Chapter Twelve. In fact, (that dud twelfth episode notwithstanding) I would rate this entire serial as one of the Ten Best of All Time!
Ralph Byrd is perfect as Dick Tracy, determined and dedicated to to his task. The identity of The Lame One is kept to the end. He hobbles about wearing a built up shoe and barks out orders from a desk. The mad Moloch is played by the creepy John Picorri (often stroking a black cat) and Carleton Young is effective as the changed Gordon Tracy, a streak of white hair on his head after his character changing operation, with an air of sadness about him that is poignant. Unfortunately the great Byron Foulger is only in it briefly as the gangster Korvitch.
Smiley Burnette is one of Tracy's assistants Mike McGurk and is supposed to be the comic relief but who isn't at all funny. Also appearing in a couple of scenes are 'Oscar' and 'Elmer' who were a comic team at the time but they aren't funny either. Lee Van Atta as Junior gets more laughs. I. Stanford Jolley plays 'Roadside Thug' and 'G-Man' and 'Reporter' and 'Intern' to show his versatility.
It has great model work by the Lydecker brothers including a wonderful flying wing that is used a lot. Indeed a lot of the scenes take place in the air. The fifteen packed episodes are a great start to the Dick Tracy serials.
There's a wealth of action to bolster a flagging storyline that ends up getting repetitive, one of the constraints of this genre. Still, the central characters are fun and the film is a little better quality and higher budget than some from this era. The main problem with it is that the opening titles go on for too long and there's too much time spent recapping the previous episode, pointless really when your running time for each chapter is so short.
to, but so far it's easily the worst of the lot. The overlap from
chapter to chapter is too great (too much material repeated in the
new episode that was seen in the previous episode). The acting is
poor, especially Ralph Byrd (if he stood still for a moment, he'd be
attacked by a woodpecker). The "comedy" of Smiley Burnett is
nothing to smile about (he's even worse here than in the Gene
Autry movies). The character with the most brains in this serial is
actually the 12 year old kid, played by Lee Van Atta. And perhaps
most of all, has anybody seen Dick Tracy in this film? I must have
missed him, because no one in this movie even remotely
resembled the comic strip character. Low budget is not enough of
an excuse for low tech here. At least the director could have put a
watch on Ralph Byrd's wrist, & pretended it was radio controlled.
The two low budget jungle serials I watched with Phyllis Coates
("Panther Girl of the Congo" & "Jungle Drums of Africa") were way
better than this, & so was a low budget jungle serial with Clyde
Beatty ("Lost Jungle"). Not that those were great serials, but they
were better than this one, so tells you something about Dick Tracy.
If you'd like to watch a better crime serial, I recommend "The Green
Archer." That & the serial I'm in the middle of now, "Captain
Marvel," are far superior to Dick Tracy. I rate it 3/10.