The Back Row’s Weekly Serial Review: Dick Tracy

When I wrote my revue of Zorro Rides Again I outlined three categories of cliff hangers: “The Last Minute Save”, “Slight of Hand”, and “You Cheating Bastards!” Watching Dick Tracy I realize that there is a fourth, “The Indestructible Man Syndrome”. With this cliff hanger, the terrible thing does happen to our hero, but he walks away from it unharmed. This cliff hanger can also be found in the Batman serials, as well as The Green Hornet serials, and Captain Marvel (although in that one it makes sense, he really is an indestructible man.)

Quick Facts
Released in 1937
Directed by Ray Taylor and Alan James
Written by Morgan Cox, George Morgan, Barry Shipman, and Winston Miller
Starring Ralph Byrd, Carleton Young, and Kay Hughes

Basic Story Line
Dick Tracy cracks a criminal organization, known as the Spider Ring, that kidnapped his brother, Gordon Tracy, and through an experimental brain surgery, turned him into one of their henchmen.

Dick Tracy is an iconic character that deserves, and for most part gets, a cool serial.

Today, Dick Tracy, is not as well known as some of his comic contemporaries, but he is one of those few characters that has crossed into almost every medium. Created by Chester Gould, he was first published as a comic strip in 1931. He then crossed into radio, film serials, and movies. Dick Tracy moved into both live action and animated television, as well as novels and graphic novels. He briefly returned to the spotlight in 1990 with a Warren Beatty film. Other projects were planned but the name fell into legal limbo and Dick Tracy fell off the radar. Other than Chester Gould, the name most associated with the character Dick Tracy is Ralph Byrd. He starred in all four Republic serials, two of the four RKO movies, and the 1950s television series.

There are a lot of cool things in the Dick Tracy serial. Serials are action based – usually this means fight scenes, but although Dick gets into several fights, it is the chase scenes that are the stand outs. There are car chases, boat chases and even plane chases. He pole-vaults over fences, runs along ledges, and swings from ropes. Even though some of the resolutions are weak, there are some interesting cliff hangers. At one point he is in a boat being crushed between two massive ships, in another cliff hanger he finds himself in a flaming zeppelin, at another point he is about to have his brain tinkered with by a mad scientist. The film makers use models of planes, buildings, bridges, and boats to achieve some of their effects and give Dick Tracy a grander scope than the budget of a serial can usually achieve. This serial also has what most good serials need: a cool villain.

There is a mixed bag of characters in this serial. Some of the villains are strong. Our main villain is The Lame One, a twisted man who stays in the shadows. He has a hunch backed mad scientist named Moloch. Moloch is useful at the beginning when he performs brain surgery on Gordon Tracy and at the end when he almost operates on Dick; other than that he spends most of his time petting the cat. Dick Tracy’s side has a bumbling and pointless comic relief sidekick named Mike McGurk. He also has Gwen, his lab technician, a progressive female character who is intelligent, competent and never once needs to be rescued. Finally we have Gordon Tracy who, after undergoing Moloch’s surgery, becomes as twisted and scarred as our villains.

The writers fail to capitalize on the potential of the brother versus brother idea they introduce. For the most part Dick and Gordon fail to even recognize each other. It also causes credibility issues. Dick tells his superior that his brother has been kidnapped by The Spider Ring and he wants to be put on the case full time. He is granted his request and given all the resources he needs, instead of the correct response, which should have been, “No! You’re too close. I’m taking you off the case. It’s become personal.” The story line does pay off in the final chapter giving the Dick Tracy serial one of the most satisfying endings I have seen in a serial.

Serials are generally written and shot on a tight schedule and a limited budget. This means that things that are envisioned don’t always have the smoothest of executions. The “spider brand” is an example of that. The script says that the spider shaped light that is shined on the victims of the Spider Ring actually burns into their skin and brands them. In practice it just looks like someone is pointing a flashlight at them. This also leads to inconsistencies as both Death Valley Johnny and Dick Tracy get hit with the spider brand but neither carries the scar. Another plot hole that crops up, likely do to budgetary and time constraints, is that Dick Tracy finds both of The Lame Ones hideouts (Which you discover in the last chapter are actually right next to each other and connected by a tunnel.) Despite this the villains continues to use the same hideouts unimpeded.

The serial does not have the grit or edge that the comic strip or the radio show had but it is entertaining to watch and a worthy installment in the Dick Tracy cannon.

Things to watch for
-Dick Tracy fights a man armed with a blowtorch.

The Back Row Weekly Serial Drinking Game
While watching a serial, anytime you or a friend point out a plot hole or inconsistency, take a drink. (Note: The character of Death Valley Johnny surviving a point blank shot is not a plot hole or inconsistency. The fact that while in the hospital he is lucid and vivacious one moment and comatose the next, is.)
Odds of getting sloshed: Medium

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