There are a lot of great companies putting out movies and TV
shows that the big studios have ignored, and one of my favorites is VCI. They're the only retail company that
routinely releases serials from the golden age of Hollywood, and I don't know where
fans like myself would be without their efforts. Their latest release
impressive collection of all four Dick Tracy serials made by Republic
30's and 40's. Including their newly
restored version of the first serial (which looks absolutely beautiful)
as copies of their earlier releases of the other three chapter-plays,
this is a
wonderful set for new and old serial fans.
Though he's not terribly well known today (I wonder how many
current high school students could identify his picture) for a long
Tracy was one of the most famous characters in the country. He was very prominent in just about every
version of mass communication for decades.
The Dick Tracy
comic strip created by Chester Gould and
first appeared in October of 1931. In a
few short years it was syndicated in over 700 papers.
In 1934 Tracy started appearing on radio,
which would last nearly a decade and a half.
Republic pictures recognized the character's appeal and in 1937
the trench coat-wearing detective to the big screen in his first
named Dick Tracy staring Ralph Byrd who would end up playing the
great acclaim for the rest of his life. That
original serial was so popular that it spawned an unheard of three
sequels! After the serial run there was a
four movies based on the detective, which led to the 1950's and the
TV show. That's in addition to the comic
books, records, books, cartoon series, and the big budget movie
Beatty with Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman.
Oh yeah, and the comic is still being made today, one of the few
continuity adventure strips still in production. To
say that Dick Tracy was popular is a bit
of an understatement.
Dick Tracy (1937
- 15 Chapters):
This is a typical serial and not really an adaptation of the
comic strip. A lot of the supporting
cast from the comic was gone, Tracy's
Tess Trueheart became Gwen Andrews (Kay Hughes) and Tracy wasn't a cop as in the papers,
FBI agent. Still, the serial is
Dick Tracy (Ralph Byrd who plays the detective in all four
serials) is investigating a series of strange murders, crooks with a
mark on their foreheads are turning up dead, when another body shows
of an industrialist who is throwing a party for orphans at the time. Tracy
quickly solves the crime with the aide of Junior, an orphan who was
the party (and the only character besides Tracy himself who was kept
comic strip.) Tracy captures one of the murderers,
one gets away. Since Junior saw the
villain and can identify him, he's not safe on his own so Tracy takes
custody of the boy.
It turns out that the man behind the spider-mark killings is
an underworld mastermind, known only as The Spider.
Anyone who crosses him ends up dead, and he's
immune to being shot, which gives rise to the rumor that he isn't human. The Spider's face is never shown, only his
feet, distinguishable because one leg is much shorter that the other (a
of Polio, something would have been obvious to viewers in the 30's). His slow, shuffling, clomping walk is his
signature, and both ominous and creepy.
The man that Tracy
captured was one of The Spider's henchmen and a note is delivered to
governor that if the killer isn't released, The Spider will destroy a
that is about to open, using a new supersonic weapon that he's
Another twist is added by Dick Tracy's brother, Gordon.
The Spider's men capture him and Moloch, an
evil scientist in the employ of the criminal mastermind, operates and
evil and sets him against his very own brother.
So starts the cat-and-mouse game between Dick Tracy and The
Directed by Alan James and Ray Taylor, this is an excellent
serial. It has everything I look for in
a chapter-play: exciting chases, weird
villains, a twisting plot, and some decent cliffhangers.
The story starts off strong, with a crook
crossing The Spider and screaming in fear as he senses the spider mark
forehead and it doesn't let up. With
superscientific devices like a flying wing and the sonic destructo-ray,
never gets slowed down by motivations or character development. You don't go to a serial looking for that
type of stuff.
Ralph Bryd is perfect for this serial. Not
only does he look like the cartoon
character he's portraying (with the exception of the nose), but his
perfectly suited to serials. With the
tight budgets, even tighter shooting schedules, and general format of
serial, it's hard to take it totally seriously.
Byrd has a happy-go-lucky streak that adds a sense of fun to the
proceedings. He's instantly likeable as
the square-jawed detective, and that adds a lot to the serial's appeal.
Dick Tracy Returns
(1938 - 15 Chapters):
Byrd is back for the second Tracy Serial, though most of the
rest of the cast, including Gwen (now Lynne Roberts) and Junior (Jerry
filling the role originated by Lee Van Atta), were replaced.
As the serial opens, federal agent Dick Tracy has just
finished training a new class of recruits and is heading back to his
with one of his students, Ron Merton (David Sharpe), now a full-fledged
G-Man. He's on the lookout for Pa Stark
(Charles Middleton), the leader of a criminal gang comprised of his
sons: Champ (John Merton) the strong man
of the group, Slasher (Jack Ingram) who's favorite weapon in a knife,
(Jack Roberts), Trigger (Raphael Bennet) the sharpshooter of the bunch,
aggressive Kid (Ned Glass).
Tracy sends Ron out on his first assignment, to guard an
armored car, and as luck would have it the Stark gang selects it as
target. Merton is killed (eventually) in
the course of the robbery by the trigger-happy Kid, and that was a
mistake. Tracy vows to bring all of the
Stark gang to justice, or die trying.
This is a fun and exciting serial, and one of the better
ones made. This adventure has a great
plot that keeps things interesting as well as moving the story along at
clip. This one was more down to earth
however. Gone are the futuristic devices
and amazing weapons of the villains.
Instead this story is more of a straight cops-and-robbers
with the Stark family obviously patterned after Ma Barker and her sons.)
The person who steals show however is Charles Middleton (Emperor
Ming from the Flash Gordon serials) as
the dominating and vicious Pa Stark.
Middleton is most famous for his portrayal of Ming the Merciless
Flash Gordon serials, and he does a magnificent job in this story too. He's strong-willed and cruel but never
crosses over into camp. It's fun to hate
this psychotic patriarch as he grows to despise Tracy for ruining his
killing his sons. A wonderful
performance by a great actor.
This serial was directed by the team of William Witney and
John English, universally acknowledged as the greatest directors of
golden age. This was only their third
collaboration but it's clear that they already knew what they were
had a firm grasp of serials and what was expected from them. Witney and English chapter plays, and this
one is no exception, were filled with exciting action, inventive
and fast moving stories. They were able
to come up with a good mix of story and action so that chapters were
plodding nor just a series of nonsensical fights and battles.
Dick Tracy's G-Men
(1939 - 15 Chapters):
serial, another Gwen. This time the
detective's female pal is played by the talented Jennifer Jones (billed
her birth name, Phyllis Isley) who was just a few short years away from
an Academy Award for her staring role in The
Song of Bernadette.
The action starts right away with Dick Tracy capturing the
international criminal Nicolas Zarnoff (Irving Pichel).
Zarnoff is sentenced to die in the gas
chamber for his crimes, but he works for The Three Powers (obviously a
disguise for the three Axis countries.
It would still be a couple of years before America
entered WWII) and he's much
too important to just die. A secret drug
is smuggled into Zarnoff that causes him to stop breathing while still
retaining a spark of life. After the
prison officials are fooled by his performance at his execution, his
stolen from the hearse that was transporting it and the administration
second drug revives the criminal.
Now, fully alive once more, Zarnoff continues to wreak havoc
at the behest of foreign powers. Tracy is right on
trail for the entire 15 episodes however.
Will The Three Powers' agent bring the United States to its knees before Tracy can stop
Another solid William Witney and John English directed
serial, this is very good when compared to other cliffhangers made at
(which were at their peak about now) but it's just a notch lower than
that came before it. Still
it is an exciting adventure where they
get back to more fantastical devices in addition to the international
One nice note is that the comic relief character of Mike
McGurk who was in the first two stories is missing in this one. He was in some of the most cringe-inducing
scenes in the earlier serials, and he's not missed.
sidekick Junior is also written out of this one. While
I can't argue that the character
actually enhanced the serials, I always sort of liked the kid (no
played him) and was sorry to see him go.
Dick Tracy Vs. Crime
Inc. (1941 - 15 Chapters):
In the last Dick Tracy serial, the famous cop (or G-man in
this case) faces his most baffling villain to date, a criminal who can
nabs the gangster Rackets Reagan (what were his parents thinking when
him that?? What else could he be but a
gangster with a name like "Rackets?") with the help of a civic minded
businessmen, the Council of Eight, he's put to death in the electric
chair. Reagan's brother, the mysterious
criminal named The Ghost, marks them all for death.
He doesn't want to kill just that group
however, he's out for revenge on everyone it seems, and he plans to
by creating tidal waves and earthquakes.
He's going to cause wide spread disaster unless Dick Tracy can
For this final Dick Tracy serial Witney and English did
things on a large scale (but with a limited budget).
The scientific devices, including a ray that
makes The Ghost invisible, are the most outlandish yet, and that make
for a fun
series. The action is fast-paced, like
all of the Tracy
serials, and the excitement level is
This serial has been criticized in the past because they
reuse some of the cliffhangers from earlier Tracy adventures.
While this is true, not all of the chapter
endings are snipped from earlier serials, and some of the new ones are
good. The bits the chose to recycle are
some of the better ones too, so this serial plays like a highlight reel
entire cycle of stories. I didn't find
it distracting or cheap. If you want to
see a serial where a lot of footage is reused, check out the ones that
done in the 50's. Now that's a case
where the quality suffered.
This collection arrives on eight DVDs (two for each serial)
and they are housed in a double-width keepcase.
The first serial is the same as VCI's 75th
Edition of Dick Tracy, while the other three chapter plays are
VCI's earlier releases. If you have all
of those there isn't anything extra included in this set.
The two channel mono soundtrack sounded pretty good for
movies of this age. The bass was pretty
anemic and the sound effects were generally weak, gun shots sounded
particularly tinny, but it was fine for this series.
Distortion wasn't a problem, though in a
couple of particularly loud sections the sound did crack a bit, and
noise wasn't audible at normal listening levels. I've
heard much, much worse audio tracks on
serial that were released a decade after these, so I'm very happy with
All four of these serials are in black and white and
presented with their original 1.37:1 ratio intact.
The serial I was most interested in seeing
what the image looked like was the first one.
I have seen a couple of different releases of Dick Tracy by
companies and neither was very exciting.
VCI's new restoration in honor of the serial's 75th
anniversary is excellent. The image is
very clean and clear and the level of detail is very good.
The most striking thing about the picture is
that it's very sharp, not soft and fuzzy like earlier releases. The other three serials look fine too, though
not nearly as good and they have a few minor problems (dirt and some
taken from 16mm film which isn't as sharp).
VCI was kind enough to all a few bonus items in with this
collection. There's a video introduction
by mystery author and 15-year veteran of writing the Dick Tracy
Max Allan Collins to each of the serials.
There is also a commentary track, also by Collins on the first
chapters of the original serial. In
addition there's a single episode from the 1950's Dick Tracy TV show
Ralph Byrd. The image quality on this
isn't that great, so don't expect too much.
Dick Tracy in B-Flat is an old
radio program that's a fun spoof on the detective.
It stars Bing Crosby as Dick Tracy, and
Shore, Bob Hope,
Judy Garland, Frank
Morgan, Jimmy Durante, The Andrews Sisters, and Frank Sinatra, among
others. It's well worth listening
to. The extras are rounded out with an
This is a fantastic collection of some excellent
serials, and at a very reasonable price. If you're a fan of the old
chapter plays, be sure to pick this up.
If you are looking for an introduction to old movie serials,
be a good place to start. Highly