Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dick Tracy (Republic serial, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before last Charles and I had run a couple of quirky movies, also downloaded. One was the first episode of the 1937 serial Dick Tracy, made by Republic and written by the usual committee (Morgan Cox and George Morgan, story — wouldn’t it have been more fun if the names had been switched and it had been Morgan Morgan and George Cox? — and Barry Shipman and Winston Miller, screenplay), who for some reason changed him from a detective with the Chicago Police Department to an FBI agent, and moved the story to San Francisco — where the first chapter deals with a sabotage attempt against the newly opening Bay Bridge. The serial was actually quite good for the genre; Ralph Byrd played Tracy, his girifriend Gwen Andrews (Kay Hughes) was also his partner in crime-fighting and an intelligent and savvy action heroine in her own right; the “comic” relief of his stupid sidekick Mike McGurk (Smiley Burnette, carrying over from his usual role as comic foil to Gene Autry) and the tearjerking of Junior (a 12-year-old foundling played by Lee Van Atta, a surprisingly tough child actor who here, as in the contemporary Undersea Kingdom, is frequently the voice of reason and experience in the cast!) are both held in check.

The best part of it — aside from the cool special effects (including the magnificent “Flying Wing” aircraft used by the bad guys, which just about everyone who’s seen this or the follow-up, The Fighting Devil Dogs, which wasn’t a Tracy story but recycled the Flying Wing — incidentally there were experiments in building actual aircraft of this type but they foundered because it was hard to keep them stable, though Charles said the current “stealth” planes reminded him of the Wing) — is the excellent direction by Alan James and Ray Taylor. This isn’t one of those all-too-typical serials in which we get a lot of boring exposition scenes to set up the action-porn serial audiences wanted; it’s (so far, anyway) a quite consistent, highly taut thriller with genuine suspense editing and an overall level of excitement instead of the long lulls between action sequences typical of the serial genre.

Ralph Byrd acts his part as Tracy with power and authority (even though I tend to disagree with the critical consensus that his physiognomy made him especially suited to Tracy because it matched Chester Gould’s drawings), Kay Hughes is likewise a real figure of strength (you want liberated women in 1930’s movies? There were a surprising number of them in serials, especially Republic’s!), and the overall production values are excellent (reflecting Republic owner Herbert Yates’ insistence on maintaining a physical plant and equipment that were technically the equal of the major studios) — and the plot gimmick is pretty audacious: the bad guys are a group of criminals led by “The Lame One” (clearly there’s going to be a last-minute revelation that he’s an outwardly respectable person pursuing a criminal career under an assumed identity — and doing it much the way Moriarty and Mabuse did, hiding his real identity even from his subordinates and communicating with them in convoluted ways to preserve his incognito) and one of them, a mad surgeon named Moloch (John Picorri), takes Tracy’s kidnapped brother Gordon and gives him an operation that not only alters his appearance so totally he’s played by a different actor (Richard Beach “before,” Carleton Young “after”) but changes his moral sense so that he’s now a tool in the hands of the villains (a plot gimmick Republic pulled in Undersea Kingdom as well). — 8/31/09


Actually what we ended up watching were episodes two and three of the 1937 Dick Tracy serial, “The Bridge of Terror” and “The Fur Pirates,” which pretty much confirmed my good impression of episode one (especially both the cool design of the villains’ “Flying Wing” aircraft and the precision of the special-effects people, John T. Coyle and future Republic stalwarts Howard and Theodore Lydecker, in getting it to fly absolutely convincingly on screen) except for one detail: the utter idiocy of the writing of Dick Tracy’s escapes from the cliffhangers. At the end of episode one he’s about to be crushed by a bunch of girders released from a construction crane on the Bay Bridge (one wonders why a crane and girders were there since the bridge had supposedly already been finished) when, at the start of episode two, he simply rolls away from the danger. The end of episode two was even worse; Tracy (Ralph Byrd) and his sidekick Mike McGurk (Smiley Burnette) have stolen a plane from the villains and are making their escape when the baddies shoot off the plane’s propeller, it goes out of control, crashes into a bridge tower and falls to the ground below, leaving Tracy and McGurk facing certain death … only in episode three they simply walk away from the wreckage, not only alive but totally unhurt, and continue their pursuit of the villains from their conveniently parked car! — 9/1/09


We kicked off the evening with episode four of the 1937 Dick Tracy serial, “Death Rides the Sky” — and it certainly does, since this is a really weird farrago of serial-type action centering around the attempt of the master villain “The Lame One” and his hunchbacked (at least as credibly hunchbacked as the Republic costume department could make him, which was not very) assistant “Moloch” (John Picorri, who’s easily the most interesting actor in the whole show — indeed, he seems to anticipate Blofeld in always petting a lap cat while he’s in the middle of plotting his schemes, though his cat is black instead of white) to steal a hideous-looking bauble called the “Mogra Necklace” that looks like a very bad piece of costume jewelry.

One gimmick is that there are actually two Mogra Necklaces, a genuinely valuable one and a worthless imitation the jeweler in charge of it, M. Clare Renee (André Cheron) — apparently nobody bothered to brief the writers on which gender is which in French names — had made for security purposes. The thieves have actually made off with the real one — they infiltrated a thug onto the dirigible Pacific Queen and had him steal it at gunpoint, then parachute out, and Dick Tracy (Ralph Byrd) and his partner Mike McGurk (Smiley Burnette) gave chase in the plane they had previously docked on the underside of the dirigible (did they really do that sort of thing?), only the parathug landed and was picked up by a rope ladder hanging from the villains’ cool aircraft, the Flying Wing. But Tracy plants a story in the papers that the one they stole was the fake, ensuring that the villains will try to steal the necklace again to make sure they get the real one — and they’ve set up a dummy robot-controlled plane that supposedly carries the necklace, only Tracy’s ward Junior (Lee Van Atta) stows away inside the supposedly uninhabited (and thereby readily sacrificable) plane and Tracy has to lower himself down from his own biplane onto Junior’s and then break into the cockpit by smashing the front windows — and just as the villains are about to shoot him down, the episode ends and that’s the cliffhanger.

The 1937 Dick Tracy has some ridiculously unlikely gimmicks to get the good guys out of danger, but overall it’s one of the better serials; the villains’ plots are well thought out and the effects work, particularly the Flying Wing in action, is utterly convincing — though the whole plot gimmick of Dick Tracy’s brother Gordon (Richard Beach, pre-op; Carleton Young, post-op) having been turned against him and impressed into the villains’ service by a super-operation performed on his brain by Moloch has been horrendously underused thus far — though given that episode five is called “Brother Against Brother,” hopefully that will change! — 9/4/09


I ran Charles episode five of the 1937 Dick Tracy serial, “Brother Against Brother.” This was a rather silly one in which Dick Tracy finally confronted his brother Gordon, a formerly ethical lawyer who was transformed into a villain’s minion by a super-operation performed by “Moloch” (John Picorri), the hunchbacked assistant of the serial’s principal villain, “The Lame One.” (As I’ve noted earlier, the operation was so successful that it changed Gordon’s appearance completely — to the point where he’s played by different actors pre- and post-op.) What was most depressing about this episode was that there was absolutely no recognition scene between the brothers — none of the expected explosion of shock when Dick Tracy found his brother working against him on the other side of the villains’ plots — and it seems pretty much as if, after a genuinely exciting and suspenseful opening, the 1937 Dick Tracy fell into the usual serial ruts.

The plotting became simply a series of pretexts for the big action scenes; Gwen Andrews (Kay Hughes), who in the first episode seemed poised to a role as a ballsy action heroine genuinely helping Dick Tracy out of his scrapes, faded out in the subsequent episodes and had virtually nothing to do in this one; and the cliffhangers were pretty dull and unimaginative. (This was always a problem with Republic; for all their skills at making serials, the chapter endings were almost invariably formulaic and tended to cheat — so many of the episodes of Zombies of the Stratosphere ended with the central character jumping his way out of danger that Charles and I started joking about it, calling out to him, “Jump! Jump!” as the cliffhanger approached.) It’s still a fun serial, but nowhere near as good as I thought it would be when I started watching it. — 9/6/09


I ran Charles and I the next two episodes in sequence of the 1937 Dick Tracy serial, chapters six and seven, “Dangerous Waters” and “The Ghost Town Mystery.” These were pretty much the same mix as before, including some surprisingly dorky cliffhangers (at the end of episode five Dick Tracy was shot and fell off the roof of a building; at the start of episode six he was just scratched and fell into a bush, climbed out of it and continued his pursuit of the bad guys; the next cliffhanger was a rope being towed by a boat, in which Tracy’s foot got hooked and he was dragged underwater, but again he escaped absurdly easily at the start of episode seven), too little use made of enviably spunky actress Kay Hughes as Tracy’s secretary/assistant Gwen, and the usual nonsensical plot devices to keep the action going, including a secret new metal called “Nickolodium” which an eccentric inventor has devised (I couldn’t help but be reminded of the “Rearden Metal” in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged — when Wendell Berry wrote in the current Progressive, “If we are destroying both the productive land and the rural communities and cultures, how can we assume that money will somehow attract food to us whenever we need it?,” it occurred to me that a Randite would answer that question by saying that if we allow the genius of the world’s super-entrepreneurs to operate untrammeled by regulation, they will come up with some fantastic new invention that will enable them to make a profit by selling us food produced in ways that literally — like the “Rearden Metal” and the super-engine powered by air Rand actually did create, in her imagination, in Atlas Shrugged — violate the laws of nature) and which the bad guys are, of course, trying to get their hands on.

That’s episode six; in episode seven the MacGuffin (the serial writers seemed to need a new one every week!) is a large gold mine the prospector who dug it is willing to offer the government and the bad guys, of course, want to steal it. This isn’t much of a serial, actually — Republic got better at them later on — though it’s still fun, largely because of the colorful villains and their magnificent (and quite well-done) aircraft, the “Flying Wing.” — 9/8/09


I ran the next episodes in sequence of the 1937 serial Dick Tracy (eight and nine, “Battle in the Clouds” — something of a misnomer because the titular battle doesn’t happen until the last two minutes or so — and “The Stratosphere Adventure”), which deal with the latest attempt of the principal villain, who’s referred to variously as “The Lame One” and “The Spider” (the “Spider Ring” is the name of his organization), to wreak havoc on the world, this time by stealing a super-fast airplane invented by H. T. Clayton (Wedgwood Nowell) that can go up to 700 miles an hour (20 miles per hour shy of the sound barrier, which wasn’t broken for another decade and then by a rocket plane that had to be taken up by a carrier aircraft) and has been test-flown only by Clayton’s daughter Betty (Ann Ainslee, a personable blonde whose good looks and easygoing manner should have given her more of a career than she had).

Alas, the folks at Republic’s production design and special effects department, which had created an absolutely stunning-looking aircraft for the villains in the “Flying Wing” (recycled a year later in the 1938 serial The Fighting Devil Dogs), let the side down when it came to Clayton’s plane. Despite the model of such state-of-the-art high-tech planes as Howard Hughes’ H-1 (a sleek monoplane with stubby wings and virtually nothing else on its fuselage), the plane they came up with looked all too much like a quite ordinary general-aviation aircraft, complete with a wraparound cockpit and fixed landing gear. No one — not even in 1937 — would have designed a speed plane with landing gear that couldn’t be retracted to avoid air resistance in actual flight.

Still, these two episodes were among the more entertaining ones, complete with an agent with the absolutely preposterous name of “Durston Cloggerstein” (Harrison Greene) who wants either the plans of the super-plane, the plane itself or at least its engine so he can take them back to the carefully unnamed foreign power he’s from on a dirigible that’s scheduled to pick him up within a day. The tensions between the Lame One, his assistant Moloch (John Picorri), Gordon Tracy — Dick Tracy’s brother, who by Moloch’s super-surgery has been converted from a good guy to a villain — and Durston are entertaining enough even though we have to wonder how this criminal gang is making enough money to stay in business given that Dick Tracy is anticipating its every move and frustrating its every attempt to make money off of crime.

At least part of the problem with this movie was summed up by William K. Everson in The Detective in Film: “On the detection level … the scales were always loaded very much in Tracy’s favor. A typical plot gimmick would be for Tracy to find a specific clue, perhaps a fragment of some rare mineral. A rapid check would invariably reveal that such a mineral was handled by only one specific company and, knowing that the villain needed it for some current infernal machine, off Tracy would troop to the warehouse where it was stored, either to forestall the villain’s acquisition of it or to give chase if he was too late. … Its sole purpose was to enable the hero to anticipate the plans of the villain, and keep the action moving constantly.”

At least — unlike such later and more pretentious feature films as The Guns of Navarone — serials like the 1937 Dick Tracy made no bones about being anything other than action porn, with the exposition sequences good for nothing but setting up the next action highlight and keeping things going at a breakneck pace (though later Republic serials worked much better in the pace department than this one, which still has a bit of the leaden-ness that often afflicted serials at Republic’s predecessor studio, Mascot). I also liked Betty Clayton as a character and only wish we’d got to see more of her! — 9/13/09


We ended up watching episodes ten and eleven of the 1937 Republic Dick Tracy serial, “The Gold Ship” and “Harbor Pursuit,” in which the big action centered around a freighter that had just docked in San Francisco (where the serial is mostly — almost totally, in fact — set; not only did they change Tracy from a Chicago police detective to an FBI agent, they moved him to San Francisco) with $1 million in gold missing. It turns out, of course, to be the Spider Ring again (apparently every other criminal in America has just stopped doing anything illegal in deference to the Spider Ring’s priorities); they have agents on the ship and other agents on another ship that struck the gold freighter in mid-ocean, causing damage to one of its outer plates that needs to be repaired — the gimmick being that the Spider Ring operates a ship-repair company as a front and will make sure they get the job so that, under cover of removing the plate and replacing it, they will simply take the gold out of the place on the ship to which they had relocated it instead of actually stealing it.

It’s a ridiculously complicated criminal scheme even by serial standards, and naturally Dick Tracy foils it absurdly easily despite the intervention of a cliffhanger when the heavy steel panel the bad guys have removed as part of their phony “repair” starts hurtling down and Tracy rolls away and gets out from under it just in time. In episode 11, after the titular harbor pursuit ends with much of the Spider Ring arrested and the whole enterprise coming out empty-handed (again!), their new plan is to kidnap master engraver Henry Coulter (Forbes Murray) — I couldn’t help wishing they’d kill him before he could continue his line and allow a later generation of his family to bring forth Ann Coulter — so they can force him to make plates for counterfeiting U.S. currency on the grounds that, as the mind-controlled Gordon Tracy puts it, “It would be more convenient for us to make our own money.” “Yeah, right — especially since you haven’t been able to steal any!” I fired back at the screen.

Episode 11 is also the one in which it finally starts to dawn on Dick Tracy that his brother Gordon is part of the criminal enterprise he’s fighting — indeed, at one point he thinks Gordon might actually be the head of it — after he compares a note from Spider Ring headquarters they confiscated from one of the harbor crooks they arrested to an inscription on a photo of himself Gordon once gave him. The fact that on at least two occasions Dick Tracy actually saw his brother Gordon post-op doesn’t seem to enter into it — though maybe we’re supposed to believe that the hunchbacked henchman Moloch’s super-operation on Gordon to eliminate his will and allow the gang to brainwash him also changed his appearance so much even his own brother wouldn’t recognize him … which is at least plausible, since Republic cast two actors as Gordon Tracy: Richard Beach pre-op and Carleton Young post-op. — 9/16/09


I ended up running chapters 12 and 13 of the 1937 Dick Tracy serial, “The Trail of the Spider” (which makes one wonder what the first 11 chapters were about!) and “The Fire Trap.” “The Trail of the Spider” turned out to be a so-called “recap episode,” in which Tracy and his crew interrogated newly discovered witnesses to the events of the exposition in episode one (which wasn’t altogether a bad thing considering how much more imaginative episode one was than the rest of it!), and there was a lot of business about the Spider, a.k.a. the Lame One (the writers seem uncertain as to whether “Spider” was the name of the criminal mastermind or just the name of his gang), coming to Tracy’s office to assassinate him — that was the cliffhanger of episode 12 — and Junior (Lee Van Atta) getting a photo of him, not that that does the good guys any good because in episode 13 the Lame One and Tracy’s brother Gordon (still under the Lame One’s control and still played by Carleton Young rather than Richard Beach, who played him before the operation by John Picorri as the Lame One’s hunchbacked sidekick Moloch undid his moral sense) sends an agent to Tracy’s house (how did they know where it was?) who walks in (apparently the super G-man is too dumb to lock his doors!) and enters the darkroom where Tracy and crew are developing the photo (how did he know where it was?) just in time to ruin the print, after which he destroys the negative, so the best clue Tracy and company had to the Lame One’s real identity is lost.

The titular fire trap is set for Tracy when a lantern on the boat where the Lame One has his headquarters (at least in this episode) overturns and sets the old tub ablaze — though knowing Republic’s writers, the way they have him get out of it will probably be a cheat … — 9/19/09

Charles and I ended up watching the last two episodes of the 1937 Dick Tracy as our movie offering last night — a bit disappointing in that the final action sequence was surprisingly unexciting, a confrontation between Tracy and the villains in the catacombs under the abandoned power station that was the lair of the Lame One, a.k.a. the Spider (the writers seemed undecided between episodes — and sometimes even within the same episode — whether “the Spider Ring” was simply the name of the villainous gang or whether its leader was actually called “the Spider”). The Lame One, a.k.a. the Spider, turned out to be a minor character named Walter Odette (Edwin Stanley), who made a surprise appearance at FBI headquarters (or was it Dick Tracy’s home? They started to look alike after a while!) in episode 14, “The Devil in White” (presumably a reference to the hospital orderly who spirits out the heavily bandaged patient they think is the master engraver Henry Coulter, played by Forbes Murray, when he’s scheduled to be released — only it’s not Coulter at all, it’s Dick Tracy hiding under the bandages and allowing himself to be used as a decoy so his fellow FBI men can follow the crooks and find their secret hideout), which set up the unsurprising revelation in the next and last episode, “Brothers United,” in which Dick Tracy and his brother Gordon finally come together after the operation by the Lame One’s henchman Moloch (John Picorri) that converted Gordon from good to evil.

In fact, the cliffhanger between the last two episodes is Moloch stretching Dick Tracy out on his operating table and threatening to perform the same operation on him. The irony was that in at least two previous episodes Dick Tracy saw Gordon in his villainous identity without any apparent awareness that this thug with a white streak in his hair was his brother (Gordon was played post-op by Carleton Young — another actor, Richard Beach, had played him pre-op and maybe we were supposed to think that Moloch’s surgery had altered Gordon’s appearance so drastically that Dick wouldn’t recognize him!), but on the operating table at the end of episode 14 Dick finally awakens some shreds of Gordon’s conscience and in episode 15 Gordon and the Lame One are fleeing in a car, Gordon is driving, and he swerves to avoid hitting Junior and Gwen (whose job description seemed to change from episode to episode; sometimes she was Dick’s lab technician, sometimes his general assistant and sometimes merely his secretary), who are in the middle of the road.

The car swerves off the road, the Lame One is killed instantly, and I was rather hoping that Gordon would survive long enough to make it to the hospital, where the operation to relieve the concussion on the brain from the crash would also reverse the effects of Moloch’s surgery and restore the good Gordon Tracy (and Richard Beach as the actor playing him!) to Dick’s family. No such luck, probably due to the Production Code and the unwillingness of the Code authorities to forgive all those reels of Gordon’s villainy just because he was under medico-psychological compulsion and therefore not responsible for his actions; instead Gordon has to die, too, though he and Dick have a surprisingly moving last scene together in which Ralph Byrd plays with real sensitivity and emotion after 15 reels that haven’t called on him to do anything but stand tall and look butch.

The 1937 Dick Tracy as a whole doesn’t deserve the opprobrium William K. Everson heaped on it in The Detective in Film (“not very good … extremely slow, cheaply made, with a maximum of back projection and other studio economies and with a dearth of imaginative chapter endings”); he’s right about the chapter endings and the low budget, but the scenes of the Flying Wing are beautiful and effective even though, alas, the Wing totally disappears in the second half of the serial — the villains talk about using it to escape but they never get that far. Interestingly, built into the last episode after it creaked to a climax (and Smiley Burnette got the final fade-out for one of his not-particularly-funny comic-relief scenes) was a trailer — back when the term meant literally that, a commercial for a future release stuck at the end (“trailing”) of the last reel of the feature film — for a Western serial called The Painted Stallion that featured Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett and Kit Carson as on-screen characters. Now that might be interesting! — 9/23/09