MICHAEL H. PRICE: Dick Tracy, from Strip to Screen
Much as the crime melodrama had helped to define the course of cinema – especially so, from the start of the talking-picture era during the late 1920s – so Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy proved a huge influence upon the comic-strip industry, beginning in 1931. It was something of a foregone conclusion that the paths of Tracy and the movies should intersect, and none too soon.
It took some time for both the talking screen and Dick Tracy to find their truer momentum. Bryan Foy’s Lights of New York (1928), as the first all-talking picture, marked a huge, awkward leap from the part-talking extravagances of 1927’s The Jazz Singer. And Lights of New York proved impressive enough (despite its clunky staging and the artists’ discomfort with the primitive soundtrack-recording technology) to snag a million-dollar box-office take and demonstrate a popular demand for underworld yarns with plenty of snarling dialogue and violent sound effects. Gould launched Tracy with a passionate contempt for the criminal element but made do with fairly commonplace miscreants until his weird-menace muse began asserting itself decisively during 1932-1933.
Chet Gould’s fascination with such subject matter, as seen from a crime-busting vantage as opposed to the viewpoint of outlawry, appears to have influenced Hollywood as early as 1935 – when William Keighley’s “G” Men and Sam Wood’s Let ’Em Have It arrived as trailblazing heroic procedurals. These watershed titles posed a stark contrast against such antiheroic sensations as Roland West’s Alibi and The Bat Whispers (1929-1930), William Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931), and Mervin LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1931). It bears wondering whether Edward Small, producer of Let ’Em Have It, may have taken a cue from Tracy, for the film pits an FBI contingent against a disfigured human monster (played by King Kong’s Bruce Cabot) whose scarred face and vile disposition seem of a piece with the grotesques whom Gould would array against Dick Tracy.
I’ve been on a renewed Tracy kick since the arrival last year of IDW Publishing’s The Complete Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, a debut volume covering 1931-1933 (the second volume, going up to 1935, was released earlier this month). The interest extends to a re-watching of the Tracy movies that began in 1937 with Republic Pictures’ Dick Tracy serial. Cable-teevee’s Turner Classic Movies has staged recent revivals of the (considerably later) Tracy feature-films from RKO-Radio Pictures, and various off-brand DVD labels have issued dollar-a-disc samplers of the (still later) live-action Tracy teleseries. An audio-streaming Website has come through with two Tracy-spinoff record albums from the post-WWII years; one, The Case of the Midnight Marauder, involves a ferocious encounter with Gould’s most memorable bad guy, Flattop. (The less said, the better, about UPA Studios’ animated Tracy series of 1961. And likewise for Warren Beatty’s 1990 Dick Tracy, which commits the sin of “cartooning the cartoon,” its live-action basis notwithstanding.)
Comics-to-movies adaptations had registered particularly well in 1936 with Universal Pictures’ serialized Flash Gordon. Upstart Republic Pictures had fared nicely with the Flash-like Undersea Kingdom (1936, too) when the studio paid $10,000 to the Chicago Tribune Syndicate for the rights to develop a Tracy cliffhanger. (The term has to do with the chapter-a-week serials’ custom of leaving the audience in suspense at the end of each episode en route to the finale.) Republic re-conceived Tracy as an FBI agent as part of a plan to star Melvin Purvis, the famous Real World G-man.
The screenwriters dispensed with the other Gould characters except Junior Tracy, the enforcer’s schoolboy ward, concocting backup roles from Whole Cloth. After the deal with Purvis fell through, a bit player named Ralph Byrd was selected to portray Tracy at $150 a week during a 25-day shoot. (The casting proved ideal: Byrd starred as Tracy in three additional Republic serials, two entries in the RKO feature series, and a 1950-1951 run of teevee episodes. Byrd died of a heart attack in 1952. As usual with serial favorites, his broader run of feature-film assignments proved unworthy of Byrd’s talents.)
Republic’s Dick Tracy (1937) is one of the epic serials – a $128,000 production that, in striving merely to convey a generous entertainment value, fell together without conscious effort as a genuinely great film of its kind. The fundamental charm is a pervading air of horror (more the spirit than the letter of Gould), a rancorous view of gangland that has figured in the acknowledged classics of crime melodrama from Charles Brabin’s The Beast of the City (1932) to Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1991). High adventure is a given with Tracy, but the overriding tone is set in an opening sequence in which a shadowy mob boss stalks and slays a rebellious underling, surly Byron K. Foulger.
The criminal mastermind, known variously as the Spider and the Lame One, is handily as strange as Gould’s comic-strip villains. His face hidden throughout by shadows and angular compositions, the ganglord is discovered only in the last chapter to be another character, a purported philanthropist, in disguise. This elusive approach to characterization is a business-as-usual technique of the serial-thriller impresario Nat Levine (1899-1989), who had joined Republic following its absorption of his Mascot Pictures in a leveraged buyout. The Lame One’s hunchbacked mad-scientist assistant (John Picorri) is equally weird. Weirder yet is the portrayal of Dick Tracy’s brother as, first, a mild-mannered lawyer (Richard Beach) and, then, a brainwashed villain (hard-faced Carleton Young).
Narrative construction differs from prior serials in that it is built upon several distinct plots within the framework of the major premise of general-purpose underworld terrorism; each internal yarn is resolved in a few reels’ running time. The overriding story involves the various strategies of the Lame One as he moves from scheme to scheme, each of which is frustrated by Tracy’s escalating manhunt. This formula became a standard at Republic and often was imitated by the serial-making units of Universal and Columbia Pictures. Some of the 15 episodes defy logic, but all are exciting and imaginative.
And just as Gould’s Dick Tracy proved visionary in its technological fantasies – and what is the audio-video cellphone, if not a realization of Tracy’s two-way wrist-radio-teevee? – Republic’s Dick Tracy dispensed a practical prophecy of its own: A futuristic craft called the Flying Wing anticipates the development of the Northrop B-35, a four-engine, 172-foot wonder that went through a dozen prototypes beginning in 1942 and had its first test flight in 1946.
Michael H. Price’s Forgotten Horrors books (Vols. 1 – 4 and counting) issue from Midnight Marquee Press at www.midmar.com. Price’s new-movie commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com.
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