Friday, July 4, 2008

Dick Tracy's Celluloid Adventures

When we set out last Week to research an introduction to Dick Tracy’s film heritage for today’s post, we didn’t expect to be showered with serendipity. First there was the Google Alert heralding a just-published Fort Worth Business Press column by author and film historian Michael H. Price (reprinted here). Michael discusses Dick Tracy and particularly Tracy’s celluloid incarnations. This was on the same day that VCI Entertainment released an exquisite new DVD version of the 15 chapter Dick Tracy Returns (1938) serial. We further learned that Orson Welles once made reference to Citizen Kane, Dick Tracy and “matinee at the Bijou” all in the same sentence, in a 1971 interview with Michael. And that the expression “matinee at the Bijou” was often used in the past when talking about the experience of going to the movie matinee.

Great thanks to the Fort Worth Business Press and the author for permission to reprint MHP’s 06-24-08 column “Dick Tracy Returns marks DVD début.”

From the 1930s into the 1970s, Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy was the standard to beat as a competitive force within the newspaper industry. Writer-artist Gould considered his cops-vs.-crooks cartoon to be in competition not only with other comic-strip attractions — but also with the front page. Gould’s selling strategy was to tempt readers by the millions to turn first to Tracy, to see what desperate situation might lie in store, before checking out the news of the day.

The comics pages are hardly like that any longer, even though Dick Tracy has continued long past the day of Chet Gould. Nothing so ferocious or suspenseful as the Gould Tracy graces the present-day scene — although the title character, a tough-as-nails police detective, remains a cultural icon, ready and able to remind anyone of the imaginative thrall of effective storytelling.

I have spent the past year working with San Diego-based IDW Publishing on an ambitious resurrection of the seminal Tracy yarns. The Complete Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, a series of hardcover books, is up to Vol. No. 4, now, with a long way to go toward completion. That fourth book brings Gould’s feature into 1937, coinciding with the opening of the first Dick Tracy movie.

I had written, in a Foreword to Tracy Vol. 4, about the hit-and-miss availability of these Dick Tracy movies and television spinoffs. Republic Pictures’ 1937 Dick Tracy, a cliffhanger serial starring Ralph Byrd as the lawman, has seen several video editions since the 1980s. A 1940s run of Tracy features can be found readily enough on DVD, as can episodes of an early-’50s TV series. And of course Warren Beatty’s 1990 production of Dick Tracy has remained steadily in print.

In a cause-and-effect response to the new books, a significant gap is filled by a new DVD edition of Republic’s Dick Tracy Returns (1938), from VCI Entertainment. Where the 1937 serial had pitted Byrd-as-Tracy against a master criminal known as the Spider, the immediate sequel multiplies the menace with a crooked family (headed by gaunt Charles Middleton, of the Flash Gordon serials) whose rampages reflect well Chet Gould’s contempt toward the criminal element.

Where the 1937 Tracy holds pride-of-place as a classic serial, Dick Tracy Returns may anchor a more influential position in the culture of sophisticated filmmaking. One innovative touch of Tracy Returns is a mock-newsreel account of a crime spree. This element proved influential, in turn, upon the establishing moments of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941).

Welles, a lifelong comics-and-serials enthusiast, told me during an interview in 1971: “I loved the Tracy chapter-plays, and the ‘true-crime’ newsreel sequence in that one serial was enough to make me feel as though the story was unfolding in life. The actual Hollywood-studio newsreels, after all, were what kept a matinée at the Bijou anchored in a real-world sensibility. And how better to acquaint the audience with ol’ Charlie Kane, than with a convincing newsreel segment.

Two other Tracy serials remain generally unavailable: Dick Tracy’s G-Men dates from 1939, and Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. from 1941. VHS-cassette editions are scarce. But VCI’s DVD release of Dick Tracy Returns suggests some promising follow-throughs.

Devoted Tracy buffs can find the 1940s feature-films via the Alpha Video label ( and in rotation on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel. The titles are Dick Tracy and Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1945–1946; with Morgan Conway) and Dick Tracy’s Dilemma and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947; with Ralph Byrd). The Byrd-starring teleseries of 1950–1951 graces an Alpha Video sampler. There have been more high-profile DVD releases for a Tracy series of kid-stuff television cartoons from 1961 and, of course, for Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy.

Beyond his work on Dick Tracy, Michael Price is a contemporary superhero in the realm of forgotten films. Thanks to Michael's prolific writings and dogged determination, many otherwise forgotten films continue to resurface. He writes more about Dick Tracy, from Strip to Screen in an installment of his weekly Web column at, and in his Forgotten Horrors book series available at Midnight Marquee Press.

1 comment:


The serial that used a newsreel as a framing device was DICK TRACY'S G-MEN, not DICK TRACY RETURNS.