The Back Row’s Weekly Serial Review: Dick Tracy Returns

Basic Story Line
Dick Tracy has to take on the Starks, a crime family terrorising the area.

Quick Facts
Released in 1938
Directed by William Witney and John English
Written by Barry Shipman, Franklin Adreon, Ronald Davidson, Rex Taylor, and Sol Shore
Starring Ralph Byrd and Charles Middleton

Directed by Witney and English and staring Charles Middleton, as the villain, Dick Tracy Returns in one of those rare sequels that is superior to the original.

The first Dick Tracy serial had several clichés common to serials. There was a mystery villain, in disguise, using a sci-fi weapon to attack San Francisco. Dick Tracy was turned from a police detective into an FBI agent and almost all the characters from the strip were dropped or changed. In this sequel, the writers keep things much closer to the comic strip. Dick Tracy is still a g-man and the new characters are back, but the story is much more of a straight up detective story. Dick Tracy was created as a grittier, American version of Sherlock Holmes. A tough cop, with powers of observation, and the ability to solve cases by looking at small clues.

The comic strip was known for its’ villains and its’ depiction of violence.  In Dick Tracy Returns, Dick is up against a family of ruthless criminals, whose patriarch is played by Charles Middleton, best known for playing Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon Serials. In the first chapter the family ruthlessly guns down a young agent on his first assignment. The rest of the serial plays out in a similar format to the Green Hornet serials with the gang committing a different crime in each chapter, with Dick Tracy foiling their attempts, and picking them off one by one. At the time studios were reluctant to show their heroes killing the villains. Here the writers come up with a clever way of getting around that rule, giving us a much more satisfying end to our villain.

Ralph Byrd is back in the title role but other changes make this a better serial. Charles Middleton is a much stronger villain and Lee Ford gives a subtler, and less annoying, performance than his predecessor, in the comedic role of Mike McGurk. The directing reins are also handled over to Witney and English, the most celebrated serial directing team of their time.

Dick Tracy Returns is a good solid serial. The only major point of contention I have with it is that due to the wording of the first contract Republic Serials signed with Dick Tracy’s creator, Chester Gould, they didn’t pay him for this sequel or the two that followed. As a writer, I can’t forgive them for that.

Things to watch for
-The power gets cut to a city block but the lights are still on.
-Dick Tracy has a wounded hand in one scene but not the next.
-Dick Tracy does a Tarzan swing.

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: Yes, the lights and the hand are both worth drinks.)
Odds of getting sloshed: Low to Medium


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