By Ed Garea
If you’re a fan of Dick Tracy, you either want to stay home Friday or set the recorder for a full night of films starring Chester Gould’s celebrated detective.
Dick Tracy has been a part of American pop culture since artist Chester Gould debuted the comic strip in 1931 for the Detroit Mirror. The strip proved so popular that a radio series of Tracy’s adventures went on the air in 1934 with voice actor Bob Burlen as Tracy. In 1937, Republic debuted a 15-chapter serial simply titled Dick Tracy with Ralph Byrd in the title role. It proved so popular that two other serials followed: Dick Tracy Returns (1938), Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939), and Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. (1941). Unlike the comic strip, where Tracy was a detective in a large Midwestern city, Dick was now a G-Man working out of California. He’s also somewhat of a superhero along the lines of Batman as he faces villains named The Spider, mad scientist Dr. Zarnoff, Pa Stark (think Ma Barker), and the Ghost. Movie buffs might just want to check out Dick Tracy’s G-Men, because in the role of Tracy’s girl Friday, Gwen Andrews, is a young Jennifer Jones.
In 1945, RKO brought Tracy back to the screen in a series of four quickly made B’s that ran about an hour each: Dick Tracy, Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946), Dick Tracy’s Dilemma (1947), and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947). Morgan Conway starred as Tracy in the first two and Ralph Byrd was brought back to reprise the role in the last two.
Byrd also starred in a short-lived television adaptation for ABC. It ran only one year, 1950-51, but additional episodes were filmed for syndication until 1952 when Byrd’s sudden death brought the series to a close. There was also a cartoon series produced by UPA (1960-61), where Tracy sits in his office and doles out the work to his detectives, Hemlock Holmes, Heap O’Calorie, Joe Jitsu, and Go-Go Gomez. The cartoons are considered way too politically incorrect to be aired in these puritanical times, but can be purchased on DVD.
Following is the lineup on TCM. All times are Eastern:
8 pm: DICK TRACY (Touchstone, 1990) – The background of this film goes back to 1975 when Warner Brothers developed the concept of a big-screen adaptation of Dick Tracy. It went through many studios, from Warners to United Artists to Paramount to Universal, and finally, to Disney. Directors like Steven Spielberg, John Landis, Richard Benjamin, and even Martin Scorsese were considered for the project, and actors such as Clint Eastwood, Tom Selleck, Richard Gere, Harrison Ford, and Mel Gibson were considered for the lead. Finally, Warren Beatty agreed to star in the film – if he could also direct. Disney was hesitant at first, because Beatty’s last directorial project, Reds, lost over $40 million at the box office. But finally a deal was struck that Beatty could direct and star if he kept the costs under control. The result was a splashy Technicolor-stylized homage to the strip by simply using the colors yellow, blue and red to maximum effect. The plot, originally developed by Landis, is centered about villain Alphone “Big Boy” Caprice and his plan to control crime in the city by uniting all the classic Tracy gangsters and eliminating Tracy. Caprice finds himself bedeviled not only by Tracy, but also by a criminal known as The Blank. In the climatic showdown on a raised drawbridge, the only ones left as Caprice, the Blank, and Tracy. Caprice shoots The Blank, who turns out to be Madonna (she was a singer he inherited when he took over a nightclub for his headquarters from his former mentor Lipps Manlis, played by Paul Sorvino). Tracy then knocks Caprice down into the bridge’s gears, killing him. No gangsters are left to survive in a later sequel, which, I suspect, is the way Beatty plotted it all long.
9:55 pm: DICK TRACY SPECIAL (Turner, 2009) – Leonard Maltin hosts this half-hour retrospective on the history of the comic strip and the many spinoffs it as produced over the years.
10:30 pm: DICK TRACY (RKO, 1945) – The first of four RKO productions featuring the detective. Tracy must go up against Splitface (Mike Mazurki), a vicious killer who has escaped from jail and is intent on killing every member of the jury that found him guilty. Though it’s somewhat plodding, the nourish B&W photography is wonderful and Mazurki makes for an effective villain. With Anne Jeffreys as Tracy’s sweetheart, Tess Trueheart; Lyle Lattell as Pat Patton, and the always great Milton Parsons as Deathridge the Undertaker. Also, keep a sharp eye out for Jane Greer in an early role as Judith Owens.
11:45 pm: DICK TRACY vs. CUEBALL (RKO, 1946) – Morgan Conway is back as Tracy as he goes up against another vindictive criminal. This time it’s Cueball (Dick Wessel) who is intent on rubbing out the former gang members that double-crossed him. Along with his sidekicks Simon Little (Byron Foulger) and Rudolph (Skelton Knaggs), Cueball is in possession of a cache of stolen diamonds and operates out of the Dripping Dagger, a run-down gin-joint managed by Filthy Flora (Esther Howard). To trap Cueball, Tracy uses Tess Trueheart to act as a buyer, but things go wrong. Anne Jeffreys is back as Tess.
1:00 am: DICK TRACY’S DILEMMA (RKO, 1947) – Ralph Byrd replaced Conway as Tracy in a film closer to the spirit of the comic strip than the previous two. This time Tracy’s antagonist is The Claw (Jack Lambert), a criminal so named for the various tools he attaches to the appendage he wears in place of his missing right hand. This film is faster-paced and has good comic relief in the character of Tracy’s friend Vitamin Flintheart (Ian Keith) and “Sightless” (Jimmy Conlin), an informant who hangs out in front of The Claw’s watering hole, The Blazing Skull. Like the others, it clocks in at an economic 60 minutes.
. . . AND ONE TAKE ON DICK TRACY WE HOPE TCM DOES SHOW:
THE GREAT PIGGY BANK ROBBERY (WB, 1946): This spoof of Dick Tracy, done by director Bob Clampett, story writer Warren Foster and animators Bill Melendez and Rod Scribner, is one the best cartoons ever to come out of Termite Terrace, if not Hollywood. The premise is simple: Daffy Duck is ga-ga over Dick Tracy and gets so involved while reading Tracy’s adventures in a comic book that he knocks himself unconscious. In his dream he is Duck Twacy and must solve the mystery of who is stealing all the piggy banks. During his quest he runs into such characters as Mouse Man, Pumpkin Head, Double Header, 88 Teeth, Wolf Man, Rubber Head, Pickle Puss, and finally, Neon Noodle. It’s a smart and funny take on Chester Gould and his roster of outrageous villains. Flattop is even seen launching planes from the top of his head. (A nice play on words because the slang term for an aircraft carrier was “flat top.”) Since Turner owns the rights to the cartoon it would be a shame if they skipped it.