SERIAL OF THE MONTH
"DICK TRACY" (1937)
Ex-Mascot Studios head Nat Levine's final serial production before he left Republic Studios was the first of four serials based on Chester Gould's famous comic strip crime buster. Republic, as would become standard for them, made considerable changes to the character like dropping girlfriend Tess Trueheart and making Tracy a member of the FBI.
The serial starts with several local heads of the notorius Spider Gang meeting. Korvitch (Byron K. Foulger) is very vocal about getting rid of their mysterious leader, the Lame One. Korvitch is later gunned down and left with a spider mark on his forehead.
Later Gordon Tracy (Richard Beach) is attending a carnival for orphans being held on the estate of his employer Brewster (John Dilson). When the man is found dead with a spider mark on his forehead Gordon calls his brother Dick Tracy (Ralph Byrd) at FBI Headquarters.
Orphan Junior (Lee Van Atta) notices some men trying to steal a record player and alerts Dick to the theft. Dick quickly chases off the men and recovers the record player. It supplies Dick with proof that carnival puppeteer Martino (Herbert Weber) used it to appear he was doing the voices of his puppets while he was really killing Brewster. After the man is arrested Dick realizes that now Junior is in danger because he is a witness. Dick arranges to put the boy in his custody.
Gordon remembers that Brewster had papers at his office he wanted delivered to the authorities if anything ever happened to him. Gordon goes to retrieve the papers but his car is run off the road. The injured man is taken to the Spider Gang's main hideout where the Lame One's hunchbacked mad scientist Moloch (John Piccori) operates on his brain. The operation not only changes Gordon's disposition from basically good to amoral it also alters his features. When Gordon (now played by Carleton Young) recovers he is put in command of the Lame One's futuristic aircraft the Flying Wing, sort of a stealth bomber with propellors.
The Spider Gang has been threatening to destroy the Bay Bridge if Paterno is not released. Dick examines the notes sent to them and is able to track down the typewriter used to write them. Arresting the writer Dick discovers scientific notes that show how the gang is going to use sound waves to destroy the bridge.
Knowing that the bridge isn't open to the public yet Dick realizes that the gang's machine must be calibrated for an empty bridge. Working fast he has the bridge filled with heavily loaded trucks just as the Wing flies overhead and bombards the bridge with sound waves. A loosened girder falls and almost kills Dick but he is able to jump out of the way in time. The bridge is saved.
Hearing a chicken farmer complain about strange noises from an abandoned factory leads Dick and his assistant Steve Lockwood (Fred Hamilton) to investigate. Finding the Wing hidden in one of the warehouses Dick manages to sneak in and destroy the sound wave machine. Spotted by the gang Dick is chased through the factory before he and Steve manage to grab a nearby bi-plane and take off. Before they get any height the plane collides with a bridge and plummets to the ground.
Miraculously Dick and Steve are unharmed. The gang gets away in the Wing. Searching the abandoned factory Dick finds papers detailing their plans to rob a fur shipment arriving that day. The FBI rushes to the docks in time to prevent the robbery. Gordon attempts to get away in a speed boat. Dick gives chase.
Gordon slips in between two ships slowly swinging toward each other. When Dick tries to follow his boat is caught and crushed by the ships. Dick manages to dive overboard and swim underneath one of the ships hulls comming to the surface safe on the other side.
Searching the gangs now abandoned dock hideout Dick discovers plans that detail the theft of of the famo0us Mogra necklace adue in on a Zepplin. Dick and Steve get aboard disguised as news reel cameramen but are unable to prevent the necklace being stolen.
Getting the immitation from the necklace's owner Dick plants a story that the gang really stole the immitation and that he is flying the real one to New York. Dick flies a plane toward New York and lets the Wing shoot him down. Bailing out he plants the fake necklace at the wreckage and then hides.
After the gang retrieves the necklace Dick flags down passing motorists Elmer and Oscar (a popular comedy team at the time) and follows them to an abandoned estate. Dick sneaks in and uses their own radio to contact headquarters, which is answered by Gwen Andrews (Kay Hughes) and the bumbling Mike McGurk (Smiley Burnette).
Attempting to retrieve the real necklace Dick is caught by Gordon but fails to recognize who Gordon really is. Gordon plans to have his men shoot Dick down but Dick pulls out a bottle of iodine and bluffs that it is filled with nitroglycerine. When Gwen and Mike arrive to arrest the gang Gordon forces Dick's hand and the bottle falls to the floor. Realizing the bottle was harmless a fight breaks out. Dick retrieves both necklaces but the gang once again gets away in the Wing.
After the lackluster "Robinson Crusoe on Clipper Island" (1936) the release of "Dick Tracy" (1937) was a true harbringer of the great things to come from Republic. Their first year of serial production had gotten off to a shaky start with the weak "Darkest Africa" (1936) and the bizarre "Undersea Kingdom" (1936). "Dick Tracy" (1937) along with "Zorro Rides Again" (1937) would help usher in what fans consider to be the Golden Age of Serials that was jump started by "Flash Gordon" (1936).
"Dick Tracy" set many percidents for Republic. It was their first adaptation of a comic strip character which would lead to adaptations of Red Ryder, Spy Smasher, Captain Marvel, the Lone Ranger, and Captain America. It gave Republic their first big serial king in Ralph Byrd, who would become as identified with the role of Dick Tracy as Buster Crabbe did with Flash Gordon.
One of it's biggest influences was in story construction. "Dick Tracy" was the first serial to use an episodic format. Every chapter contained a complete plot bookended by a resolution and a cliffhanger. Mostly Dick with discover a new crime planned by the gang, foil it, then get put in danger.
The upside is that it allows an easy transition to a variety of settings and intrigues. The downside is that since the villains don't have a specific goal, like an invention, or idol that will give them power, the story lacks forward momentum. They just move from one unrelated crime to the next. The only reoccuring theme is Tracy's concern for his missing brother.
The serial makes up for this with action, action, action. That chapters are filled with high speed boat chases, aerial dog fights, and Tracy constantly being chased by gun toting thugs. The only disappointment is in the fist fights. They look fake with people stumbling around and throwing punches that always land on their opponent's shoulders while the whole thing is filmed in one long, unedited shot.
The mystery aspects also have good and bad pooints. Tracy is shown to be quite a detective in the Sherlock Holmes style of tracking down villains with nothing more to go than a mud stain. He would prove to be the template that most of Republic's future detective heroes would be molded after. As for who the Lame One really is, Republic hadn't quite gotten their formula nailed down yet. There are only two suspects, Brewster's business associates Clayton (Wedgewood Nowell) and Odette (Edwin Stanely). They only appear briefly in about five episodes, neither acts suspicious nor adds anything to the plot. They are so periferal that when the Lame One is unmasked you're hard pressed to place the man.
The special effects are another matter entirely. The serial is best remembered for featuring the Flying Wing, one of the most imaginative and realistic looking minitures used in any serial. Filmed outdoors and in natural lighting as ii swoops down toward the ground puts to shame all of the putt-putting rocketships used over at Universal. So great is the Wing that overshadows the other miniture work the Lydecker brothers used in the serial, especially the excellent Bay Bridge in Chapter One.
The cast is also top notch. John Piccori is one of the creepist mad scientists put on the screen. Hunched over and petting a black cat while his shiny face stares out of the shadows gives goose bumps. This is one of the last serials to actually use shadows to evoke a sinister atmosphere.
Carleton Young plays the surgically altered Gordon with an icy detatchment, his scarred cheek and white streaked hair framing a pair of dead eyes. Seeing him calmly order an underling's death for betrayal while he just stands there and watches is the ultimate in screen horror.The only time he shows any emotion is an occasional outburst over Tracy's constant interference.
Countering him is Ralph Byrd as Dick Tracy, who spookily resemble's Chester Gould's earliest drawings of the character. He plays Tracy as a grim crusader with the tenacity of a terrier who can stop what he is doing to have some good natured banter with Lee Van Atta's surpring low keyed Junior (quite a change from the hyper character Atta played "Undersea Kingdom). Byrd humanizes Tracy immencely with the concern he shows for Junior's safety and worry over his missing brother which leads to one of the most poignant endings of any serial. Which proves that all the action in the world doesn't mean anything without some true emotional connection behind it.
Byrd is ably asisted by Fred Hamilton and Kay Huges who both inject their blandly written characters with some much needed personality. They make the characters and their comradery seem real.
The one assistant everyone remembers most is the amusing Smiley Burnette as Mike McGurk. Dim witted and bumbling he is at least not a hinderance to the investigation, like say, Lee Ford, who played the character in the sequel. Smiley's McGurk may not be able to follow deductive reasoning or walk across a room without knocking something over, but he is able to take on up to three bad guys in a fight and win. So what's the occassional foot caught in a bucket? His character, though inept, is so eager to please and help that he becomes enderring. Plus he offers a nice contrast to the super efficient Tracy. Too bad his feature films as Gene Autry's sidekick kept him too busy to make any more serials after this.
"Dick TRacy" is a good serial, a little plot heavy at times, but not enough to distract from the action. I will always have a special place for it in my heart as it was the first serial I ever saw as a child on Saturday afternoons on Channel 43 out of Lorain, Ohio. Every Saturday at 12:30 Superhost would show an episode right before the Mad Theater double feature of horror films.