4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“Contact Dick Tracy at once” — RKO’s Dick Tracy Features

While he’s pretty much a pop-culture footnote in the 21st century, Dick Tracy was a household name in the 20th. Created by Chester Gould for the eponymous comic strip in 1931, Dick Tracy saw the hard-boiled detective stop a bunch of over-the-top criminals with cutting-edge technology. Gould foresaw the advent of smart-watches with Tracy’s “two-way wrist radio,” and the character was hugely popular.

It wasn’t long before Tracy was adapted to the big screen, first with movie serials in the 1930s and then four one-hour feature films in the 1940s.

RKO Radio Pictures—one of the giants in the nascent movie industry—bought the rights to do Dick Tracy features from Gould for $10,000. Morgan Conway was hired to play the title role, with Anne Jeffreys as his girlfriend Tess Trueheart and Lyle Latell as Tracy’s partner, Pat Patton.

Latell is the only actor to make it through all four films RKO produced between 1945 and 1947. After Dick Tracy and Dick Tracy vs. Cueball, Conway was replaced. While he played the part perfectly—former Dick Tracy comics scripter Max Allan Collins considers Conway to be the definitive screen Tracy—there was a call to bring back Ralph Byrd, who played Tracy in the four 1930s serials, and who looked more like the square-jawed detective Gould drew in the comics.

Jeffreys was also replaced for the second two films, by Kay Christopher in Dick Tracy’s Dilemma and then by Anne Gwynne in Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome. Dick Tracy Jr. appeared in Conway’s two films, played by Mickey Kuhn in Dick Tracy and Jimmy Crane in Cueball, while Ian Keith appeared in Cueball and Dilemma as the over-the-top Vitamin Flintheart, and Joseph Crehan appeared Dick Tracy, Cueball, and Gruesome as Tracy’s boss, Chief Brandon.

Gruesome also had a major casting coup, in that the villain was played by the legendary Boris Karloff (the only person to ever get billing over the actor playing Tracy in any of these films).

After these four films were completed, RKO let the rights lapse. The nascent ABC television network picked up the rights for a television series that ran from 1950-1952, with Byrd once again playing the title role. Tracy wouldn’t be seen in live action again until the 1990 Warren Beatty film.

 

“Calling all cars…”

Screenshot: RKO Pictures

Dick Tracy
Written by Eric Taylor
Directed by William A. Berke
Produced by Herman Schlom
Original release date: December 20, 1945

A woman is walking home from the bus when she’s attacked and killed. Dick Tracy is called in to investigate. He cuts an interrogation short by convincing the interviewee that it’s his mother who was killed, and he talks. Tracy is a little regretful at tricking the guy, and then goes off to the crime scene.

The woman had a note on her from someone called “Splitface,” asking her to pay $500. Soon, another person is killed, with a similar ransom note, and it turns out that the mayor also received a ransom note, though his was for a much higher amount. Tracy tracks the killer to a building where an astrologer is looking at his telescope. The psychic uses his crystal ball to inform Tracy that 14 people are being targeted, of both sexes and from different economic backgrounds.

Tracy questions the mayor, as he’s the only person who hasn’t been attacked yet (mostly because the cops are protecting him). Tracy thinks that the psychic was referring to a jury, since that’s the only group of 14 (12 jurors, two alternates) who would come from all economic backgrounds and both sexes. The mayor did serve on a jury once, before he went into politics.

The person they convicted was just released on parole, and he had threatened to kill all the jurors. Tracy goes to question the psychic, only to find that Splitface has killed him. Turns out that the psychic was helping Splitface track down the jurors, but also was extorting them, figuring that Splitface was going to kill them anyhow, he might as well make some money off it. But Splitface is pissed that he tipped off the cops, and kills him, and then Tracy subdues him and brings him in.

 

Dick Tracy vs. Cueball
Written by Luci Ward and Dane Lussier & Robert E. Kent
Directed by Gordon M. Douglas
Produced by Herman Schlom
Original release date: November 22, 1946

Cueball finishes his prison sentence and steals diamonds off a boat, killing the man who has them with his leather hat band. Cueball’s partners, including an antiques dealer, a lapidary, and Mona, a secretary at Sparkle Jewelers, are not happy with Cueball committing murder, as that has brought more attention from the cops, with Tracy now on the case.

Cueball hides out at the Dripping Dagger, a bar owned by Filthy Flora. Tracy follows Mona to the antique dealer, Percival Priceless, and soon learns that they’re meeting with Cueball at Flora’s. Cueball meets with Priceless, demanding more money than the $10,000 he was promised, as the jewels are, according to the newspaper, worth $300,000. Cueball also sees Tracy and his partner Pat Patton, who followed Priceless, and he thinks Priceless sold him out. So he kills Priceless and escapes, clubbing Patton on the head.

Later, Cueball returns to the Dagger for the diamonds, only to find Flora looking for them. He kills her and takes the diamonds. Mona and the lapidary meet with Cueball and explain that with all the heat, they can’t even give him the $10,000 he was promised, much less the higher amount he wants.

The bad guys are also having a hard time finding a buyer for the diamonds now that there’s so much heat, but Tracy sets up his fiancée Tess Trueheart to pretend to be an eccentric high-society buyer. Mona and the lapidary plan to double-cross Cueball, but Cueball overheard them planning that, so he went and stole a cab so he could pick up Tess. Cueball threatens Tess once he realizes she’s a plant, but Tracy shows up in the nick of time to save her from Cueball, who runs away. Tracy chases him to a train yard, where Cueball’s foot gets caught in the tracks and he’s killed.

 

Dick Tracy’s Dilemma
Written by Robert Stephen Brode
Directed by John Rawlins
Produced by Herman Schlom
Original release date: July 12, 1947

The Claw—a one-handed thief who has a hook where his right hand used to be—leads a trio of thieves who rob furs from Flawless Furs, and he kills the night watchman. Because there’s a homicide, Tracy is called in, where he meets with the insurance claims adjuster, the insurance investigator, and Humphries, the head of Flawless Furs, who isn’t happy that the robbery happened right after he bought the insurance claim.

Sightless, a beggar who pretends to be blind, overhears the thieves talking to their boss and setting up a meet. They’re nervous because the Claw killed someone. Sightless tries to tell Tracy, who previously paid him five dollars to pass on anything suspicious he sees. Unfortunately, Tracy isn’t home, but Vitamin is, and he imperiously sends the beggar away.

Tracy manages to get the truth out of Vitamin, who belatedly realized it was an important caller. While Tracy and Patton intercept the fence the thieves contacted, the Claw goes after Sightless, eventually killing him. Tracy and Patton arrive too late to save Sightless, but he used his hook hand to dial the phone before Tracy interrupted him.

Using the scratches on the dialer, they figure out the exchange he called, and Patton tries every number with that exchange and identifies himself as the Claw. Eventually, someone says, “It’s about time you called.” It’s Humphries, who is engaging in insurance fraud, planning to collect the insurance money and sell the furs.

Vitamin, guilty over his turning away Sightless and his subsequent death, pretends to be a blind beggar himself to try to find the bad guys. He overhears the Claw’s two accomplices try to double-cross him and they wind up dead for their troubles. Tracy arrives at the bar and saves Vitamin from being killed by the Claw, but then the Claw accidentally electrocutes himself.

 

Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome
Written by William Graffis and Robert E. Kent and Robertson White & Eric Taylor
Directed by John Rawlins
Produced by Herman Schlom
Original release date: September 26, 1947

Gruesome is released on parole. One of his old associates, a piano player named Melody, brings him to “the doctor,” who has a job for them. While Gruesome is waiting to see the doctor, he is hit with a gas that paralyzes him. A cop finds him stiffened body and assumes he’s dead, and Patton brings the body to the morgue. As he’s writing the report, Gruesome unfreezes, gets up, and clubs Patton on the head.

Tracy and the chief talk to Dr. A. Tomic, who feels that someone is following him, though he has no idea who or why. Later, Tracy talks to his assistant, Professor I.M. Learned, but Learned says that Tomic is missing, and she’s not sure where he is.

Gruesome realizes that the doctor has a gas that can freeze people. It’s perfect for robbery. They hit a bank, dropping the gas into a trash can and freezing everyone inside—except for Tess, who is lucky enough to be in a phone booth at the time the gas hits. Once Gruesome and Melody enter, Tess pretends to be frozen so she’s not caught, and then calls Tracy. Melody kills a cop on the street as they make their getaway with $100,000.

The witnesses are mostly confused, as they don’t remember the time when they were frozen. One witness, though, is able to identify Melody as someone who went into the bank shortly before the robbery.

That witness turns out to be “the doctor,” the mastermind behind it all. He had Learned steal Tomic’s paralyzing gas for him so they can commit a robbery and run away together. Gruesome and Melody get into an accident while driving. The cops take Melody to a police hospital where he’s under guard, and eventually he dies. Gruesome kills Learned, to the doctor’s horror, and the Gruesome kills the doctor himself before the doctor can betray him.

After Tess says to Tracy that dead men tell no tales after Melody dies, Tracy gets the idea to lure Gruesome to them by leaking to the press that Melody is alive and will give testimony. Sure enough, Gruesome disguises himself as a doctor and takes “Melody” (really Tracy covered in bandages), using the gas to paralyze him.

On the way out of the hospital, Gruesome is castigated by an ambulance driver for parking in the wrong spot and realizes he’s using an outdated ambulance. Gruesome attacks him and takes the newer ambulance, so Patton doesn’t follow like he’s supposed to. Eventually, Tracy unfreezes and gets into a fight with Gruesome, shooting him in the back.

 

“If I didn’t know better, I’d swear we were doing business with Boris Karloff!”

Screenshot: RKO Pictures

These movies are cute little procedurals. They are limited by budget as to how far they can go with Gould’s grotesqueries among Tracy’s rogues’ gallery. As a result, while the opening credits are full of Gould’s drawings of the characters from the strip, the live-action versions are pale imitations. Splitface is just a guy with a scar, the Claw is given ridiculous eyebrows to go with his hook, and Cueball is just a big bald guy. Hilariously, the one who looks the most like a Gould drawing is Boris Karloff, on whom they did no makeup or alterations whatsoever.

Mainly because of Karloff, Gruesome is by far the most watchable of the four. Karloff’s menace is palpable, and he’s the scariest of the four antagonists. The only one who comes close is Mike Mazurki’s Splitface, but the plot requires him to be off-camera for most of the story, so we don’t get the full effect of his menace. Karloff, though, dominates the screen every time he’s on it.

It’s especially fun to watch these movies from an era when film was still a relatively new medium. Most people who were trained to be actors were trained for the stage rather than the screen, as theatre was still the primary mode for actors (though that was obviously changing). Still, many of the people here were playing to the cheap seats, as it were, most notably Ian Keith as the bombastic Vitamin and Esther Howard’s larger-than-life Filthy Flora in Cueball. Howard is, in fact, the only thing that makes Cueball watchable, as Dick Wessel’s titular villain is spectacularly uninteresting, and also an idiot. At least Splitface has revenge to guide him, while Gruesome is simply smarter than his fellow criminals, while the Claw is betrayed by his cohorts. Cueball, though, is just dumb.

I gotta tell you, I watched these four movies back to back, and I can’t think of a single qualitative difference between Morgan Conway and Ralph Byrd. They both have Tracy’s square-jawed hero down, though both of them do well in the quieter moments between Tracy and the people he cares about (Tess, Patton, Junior). I will also give Byrd credit for having more of a sense of urgency. Conway’s Tracy always seemed to be taking his time with everything, never rushing to anything, never seeming all that concerned with catching the bad guys. But even so, they’re both decent interpretations of Gould’s determined detective, and feel more like him than Warren Beatty would fifty years later.

 

Next week, we take a look at two adaptations of the Peter O’Donnell/Jim Holdaway hero Modesty Blaise.

Keith R.A. DeCandido’s Alien novel Isolation—based on the hit movie series in general and the 2014 videogame of the same name in particular—is now available for preorder from all the usual online book dealers. Check out this blog entry of Keith’s for the various ordering links, as well as the cover and cover copy.

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