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Dick Tracy - Complete Serial Collection

VCI // Unrated // November 6, 2012
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted December 7, 2012 | E-mail the Author
The Serials:
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 cliffhanger fans like myself would be without their efforts. Their latest release is an impressive collection of all four Dick Tracy serials made by Republic in the 30's and 40's.  Including their newly restored version of the first serial (which looks absolutely beautiful) as well 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 time Dick 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 brought the trench coat-wearing detective to the big screen in his first serial, simply named Dick Tracy staring Ralph Byrd who would end up playing the character to 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 series of four movies based on the detective, which led to the 1950's and the Dick Tracy TV show.  That's in addition to the comic books, records, books, cartoon series, and the big budget movie starring Warren 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 girlfriend Tess Trueheart became Gwen Andrews (Kay Hughes) and Tracy wasn't a cop as in the papers, but an FBI agent.  Still, the serial is great. 

Dick Tracy (Ralph Byrd who plays the detective in all four serials) is investigating a series of strange murders, crooks with a spider mark on their foreheads are turning up dead, when another body shows up, that 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 attending the party (and the only character besides Tracy himself who was kept from the comic strip.)  Tracy captures one of the murderers, but another 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 result 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 the governor that if the killer isn't released, The Spider will destroy a bridge that is about to open, using a new supersonic weapon that he's developed. 
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 turns him evil and sets him against his very own brother.  So starts the cat-and-mouse game between Dick Tracy and The Spider! 

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 on his forehead and it doesn't let up.  With superscientific devices like a flying wing and the sonic destructo-ray, it 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 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 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 Tucker 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 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).

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.  This adventure has a great plot that keeps things interesting as well as moving the story along at a fair 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 adventure, 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 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.
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.

Dick Tracy's G-Men (1939 - 15 Chapters):  
Another Tracy serial, another Gwen.  This time the detective's female pal is played by the talented Jennifer Jones (billed under her birth name, Phyllis Isley) who was just a few short years away from winning 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 thin 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 "body" is stolen from the hearse that was transporting it and the administration of a second drug revives the criminal.

Now, fully alive once more, Zarnoff continues to wreak havoc on America at the behest of foreign powers.  Tracy is right on his trail for the entire 15 episodes however.  Will The Three Powers' agent bring the United States to its knees before Tracy can stop him?    
Another solid William Witney and John English directed serial, this is very good when compared to other cliffhangers made at the time (which were at their peak about now) but it's just a notch lower than the two that came before it.   Still it is an exciting adventure where they get back to more fantastical devices in addition to the international intrigue.

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.  Tracy's 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 matter who 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 turn invisible!

After Tracy nabs the gangster Rackets Reagan (what were his parents thinking when they named him that??  What else could he be but a gangster with a name like "Rackets?") with the help of a civic minded group of 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 extract it by creating tidal waves and earthquakes.  He's going to cause wide spread disaster unless Dick Tracy can stop him.   
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 pretty high. 

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 quite good.  The bits the chose to recycle are some of the better ones too, so this serial plays like a highlight reel for the 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 were done in the 50's.  Now that's a case where the quality suffered. 
The DVDs:
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 Anniversary Edition of Dick Tracy, while the other three chapter plays are identical to 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 background 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 the way they sound.
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 different 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 sections 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 newspaper strip Max Allan Collins to each of the serials.  There is also a commentary track, also by Collins on the first two chapters of the original serial.  In addition there's a single episode from the 1950's Dick Tracy TV show starring 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 includes Dinah 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 image gallery. 
Final Thoughts:
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, this would be a good place to start.  Highly Recommended.
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