The Dick Tracy comic strip started in October of 1931 and a few years later 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 brought the trench coat-wearing detective to the big screen in his first serial, simply named Dick Tracy. This was a typical serial and not really an adaptation of the comic strip. Tracy battled a masked villain with super-scientific devices (including a flying wing and a sonic device that could destroy nearly anything) and his own brother who turned evil after a brain operation.
The following year the second Tracy serial was released, Dick Tracy Returns. This was a vast improvement over the first entry and much closer to the comic strip. Though Tracy plays a federal agent rather than a common police detective in this adventure, he's facing a family of ordinary villains armed with guns rather than sonic cannons. VCI has now released this exciting 15 chapter serial on DVD.
As the serial opens, federal agent Dick Tracy has just finished training a new class of recruits and is heading back to his home base 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 five sons: Champ (John Merton) the strong man of the group, Slasher (Jack Ingram) who's favorite weapon in a knife, Dude (Jack Roberts), Trigger (Raphael Bennet) the sharpshooter of the bunch, and the aggressive Kid (Ned Glass). (A family obviously patterned after Ma Barker and her sons.)
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 their next 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. The adventure has a great plot that keeps things interesting as well as moving the story along at a fair clip. Bryd is perfect for this serial too. Not only does he look like the cartoon character he's portraying, but his acting is perfectly suited to serials. With the tight budgets, even tighter shooting schedules, and general format of the serial, it's hard to take it totally seriously. Byrd has a happy-go-lucky streak that doesn't work well in the Tracy feature films that were very film noir-ish, but adds a lot to the serials. He's instantly likeable as the square-jawed detective, and that adds a lot to the serial's appeal.
The person who steals show however is Charles Middleton as the dominating and vicious Pa Stark. Middleton is most famous for his portrayal of Ming the Merciless in the 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 plans and killing his sons. A wonderful performance by a great actor.
The only character that really could have been eliminated from the serial is the only other person, besides Tracy himself, to be ported over from the comic strip: Junior (Jerry Tucker). He's Tracy's side kick, the kid who secretly tags along and alternately helps and hinders the hero. He starts out being mildly annoying but soon turns obnoxious and vile. Although he does manage to help Tracy on occasion, you'd think that the second or third time his actions caused Tracy to nearly get killed the officer would lock him away in his room or something.
This serial was directed by the team of William Witney and John English, universally acknowledged as the greatest directors of serials from Hollywood's golden age. This was only their third collaboration but it's clear that they already knew what they were doing and 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 cliffhangers, and fast moving stories. They were able to come up with a good mix of story and action so that chapters were neither plodding nor just a series of nonsensical fights and battles.
One thing that is notable about this series is that there is a good amount of location work. Later, when serials were on the decline most of the story would be told on sets and exterior scenes would be stock footage or recycled from earlier serials. Not so with this picture. The mountains, plains, and deserts around LA are all used to good effect in this adventure and it makes the film just that much more enjoyable.
The only real negative about the serial is that it's padded a bit. There are two recap episodes thrown in amongst the 15 chapters and that wasn't really needed, even if you were only watching it once a week (especially episodes 13 which was mainly a repeat of the first episode). Rumor has it that at least one of these clip shows was inserted at the last moment when censors (presumably at Republic) thought a sequence where the Stark Gang hijacks bus was too intense for children. Even so, these two slow down the pace of the narrative a bit and the serial would be tighter without them.
There is one curious not about this version of the serial. In the first episodes there appears to be a couple of scenes missing. When Kid shoots Merton we never actually see the Fed fall, and it feels a little odd the way the scene abruptly cuts after the gun shot. What's worse is when Kid discovers an alive but wounded Merton walking down a country road looking for help. He tells the taxi driver to slow down. It abruptly cuts to Tracy's car slamming on the brakes as he passes the speeding taxi. Tracy gets out to examine Merton, who is now laying in the street. My guess is that these scenes were cut before the serial was shown on TV, thouhg it is possible that the film was shot edited in that way originally.
The 15 chapters that make up this serial run 254 minutes altogether and are presented on two region free DVDs. They are housed in a single width keepcase with a page for the second disc.
The two channel mono soundtrack was adequate and sounded pretty good for a movie 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 background noise wasn't audible at normal listening levels.
The full frame black and white video was acceptable but not outstanding. It looks like this series was pieced together from at least two different prints, one being a 16 mm blow up. This second print, which is only a small part of the full serial, is softer and has less detailed than the 35mm source used for most of the program. The 35mm footage looks very good with a nice level of detail and nice contrast. There is more than a little grain to the image, more than I would have liked, but this was the only major flaw in the image.
The only bonus items are a series of trailers and an introduction by Tracy scribe Max Allan Collins.
This is one of the better serials to come out of Hollywood. I've
seen a fair number of chapter plays and this certainly rates in the top
10 that I've seen. With a lot of action, a wonderful villain, and
no super-scientific plot elements it's the serial that comes closet to
the Tracy newspaper strip. If you've never seen a serial before,
this would be a good place to start as this disc, while not perfect, has
a good image and audio track. Highly recommended.