It's a little surprising to consider the multi media short shrift an American character as iconic as Dick Tracy has gotten through the years. Though Tracy was a mainstay of American radio for well over a decade, his film appearances have been a bit more spotty. There were the RKO B-movies, certainly entertaining in their own way, but no masterpieces by any stretch. And the pretty horrid late 60s animated series. Of course younger audience members will remember the big-budget, ultra-hyped feature film of 1990, which despite an impressive production design is probably most remembered for Al Pacino's Pruneface makeup and the gooey, string of saliva kiss between stars Warren Beatty and Madonna than for any intrinsic filmic worth, let alone hommage to its titular character. And then there are the Republic serials which brought Tracy to the big screen starting in 1937. Dick Tracy's G-Men, from 1939, was the third serial in Republic's relatively short-lived attempt to develop the franchise (there would only be one more, 1941's Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc.).
As with the other Republic films, Tracy isn't a mere metropolitan police dick, but an actual FBI agent, as if that gives him more crime fighting abilities. Ralph Byrd, who made something of a career out of playing Tracy (he went on to some of the RKO features as well as the early 50s television series), is again on hand as our stalwart hero, fighting in this installment the evil nemesis Dr. Zarnoff (Irving Pichel). Though Tracy writer Max Allan Collins (who took over the comic strip after creator Chester Gould's death) alleges the name was meant to evoke Boris Karloff (who turns up as the bad guy in one of the RKO Tracy features), it reminded me more of Dr. Zarkov from Flash Gordon. The serial is built around a cat and mouse game after spy Zarnoff, sentenced to death in the gas chamber, is able to overcome his hideous fate by ingesting a drug that shuts down his cardiovascular system so that he isn't breathing when he's put in the death chair. Over the ensuing 15 chapters Tracy, who quickly figures out what Zarnoff has done, chases down the baddie, only to be repeatedly foiled in his ultimate attempts to capture him until, of course, the fifteenth chapter when Zarnoff's own idiocy leads to his eventual demise.
There's nothing too amazing in this Tracy adventure, which was obviously crafted to capture the imaginations of young boys. Byrd is a stolid hero, albeit one apt to looking a little wild-eyed at times (evoking an unintended giggle or two in the process). He moves and speaks well, and handles the action scenes with panache, and occasionally seems to be slightly winking at the audience in some of the sillier setups. But if there's nothing overtly exciting, it's a solid enough entertainment full of predictable, yet oddly enjoyable, good vs. evil moments that probably elicited cheers from young audiences of the day.
As is typically the case in these Republic serials, there's quite a bit of padding to be had as you move from segment to segment, and, again as usual, Episode 13 is given over to a recap of what's gone on (weirdly, it concentrates almost entirely on only the first two episodes before moving right into that week's cliffhanger). The series does contain some excellent location footage (as well as some completely obvious use of miniatures), and it's fun to see Los Angeles and its surrounding canyons circa 1939.
The cliffhangers run the gamut from fun (hanging off of an airplane) to sort of lame (gas fumes being pumped into the back of a taxi). One thing that quickly becomes obvious in the resolutions to these dilemmas (as is the case in a lot of this era's serials) is the cliffhanger endings of any given episode always manage to leave out one salient fact that is germane to the rescue at the start of the next episode. So for instance in one episode where Tracy and sidekick Steve are supposedly blown up in a cave the cliffhanger fails to reveal that a kid comes down and shows them the way out before the explosion goes off. But such are the vagaries of this sort of entertainment, and they probably elicited as many groans from kids in those days as they do from adults watching them now on DVD.
Pichel makes a strangely sanguine and unengaging villain in this piece, which may be its ultimate downfall as a riproaring entertainment. He seems to be literally sleepwalking through the role and even in supposedly urgent moments (as when Tracy is chasing him in a getaway car), he tosses off his lines with a nonchalance more appropriate to ordering an entrée at the corner diner. Probably of most interest to modern audiences in the supporting cast is one Phylis Isley as Tracy's secretary Gwen. If the name doesn't particularly ring any bells, that's because she hadn't yet hooked up with David O. Selznick (professionally and personally) and been re-christened Jennifer Jones. She's fine, if unremarkable, in a thankless role that has her more often than not filmed from behind with her ample brunette curls completely covering any view of her face. But Jones completists will probably want to catch her in this, one of her earliest film appearances (and her last under this name before she underwent her makeover).