(Released July 12, 1947) (Released September 26, 1947)
LIFE IN AMERICA BEFORE "DICK TRACY"...
TO UNDERSTAND the importance and popularity of "Dick Tracy", you have to understand the time-period in which he was created. (Shown here, a mid-30's National Recovery Administration Poster.)
America in the early-to-mid 20th Century was still about 40% an Agrarian Society until after World War II. Many had no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no telephone, no car...and if they had a truck to use, the roads in those areas could have been just dirt or gravel and, if it rained or snowed, could be impassable anyway. Farming was a full-time occupation for that part of our culture, and working from sunrise-to-sunset, seven days a week, was what they did.
THINK ABOUT THAT the next time you LogOn to your computer, check your Smartphone/iPhone, use your iPad/Tablet, step into your shower/bathtub in your fully-heated and air-conditioned home, then drive off in your air-conditioned vehicle, with power steering, power brakes, power windows, power seats, surround-sound stereo, with an on-board GPS/Video Touch Screen. Things were much different over 80 year's ago...as you'll see.
WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE...OR, HOW ABOUT A JOB !
IT WAS DURING THE "Roaring 20's", "The Great Depression", and, the "Lawless 30's", that America was in a great state of transition. Crime ran rampant...in both those small communities like I mentioned above, as well as in most major cities in the U.S. Many criminals like Al Capone, John Dillinger, Bonnie & Clyde, "Pretty Boy" Floyd, Willie Sutton, the Ma Barker Gang, and too many others to mention, were almost Front Page news everyday. The majority of the public was out of work...especially the men. Kids in school had to walk there (if they went at all), and when they got home they might have very little or almost nothing to eat...'cause their dad didn't have a job.
AGAIN, SOMETHING THAT most people today aren't aware of, or never knew, as I stated at the top of this page, is the fact that up until the time when America entered World War II in 1941, about 40% of all Americans still lived in Rural Areas. Therefore, the only "release", the only pleasure, that many had was the entertainment they got from books, magazines, newspapers, movies, and, (if they had purchased one before 1929 when "The Great Depression" started) listening to the radio.
IN SHORT, America needed Heroes to look up to...to take its collective mind off of the problems, the stress, the lack of anything good in some of their lives. Most small towns had at least one local theater, and an afternoon, or night, at the Movies could give its residents the entertainment, the fantasy world, that could take them away from the sometimes-harsh world they were living in, and transport them to the situations, the people, and places that evolved on that big "Silver Screen" in front of them...at the cost of only a nickel, or a dime !
AT THE MOVIES: LEGENDS OF THE SILVER SCREEN...
COWBOY TOM MIX, was one of our earliest Silent Movie Heroes... and Western Films First super-star, making millions of dollars during his 26 year career...followed by other Western Heros like William S. Hart, Will Rogers, Ken Maynard, Gene Autry, and, Roy Rogers. Then came those heartthrob Swashbucklers like Douglas Fairbanks & Rudolph Valentino. and Johnny Weissmuller's "Tarzan" swinging from a vine. Oh, and who could forget the Slapstick antics of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and, the great W.C. Fields ?
BUT, a strong new Hero / Role Model was desperately needed ! One who could not only entertain, ride a horse, swing from a rope, or, make us laugh, but be a solid, two-fisted lawman that could "lay down the law" to the criminals that were out there running gambling rings, making & selling bootleg liquor, cashing-in on extortion rackets, and getting all of that Front Page publicity in the newspapers !!
"CALLING DICK TRACY !"...
WHEN CHESTER GOULD introduced the comic character "Dick Tracy" on October 4th, 1931, in the Detroit Mirror Newspaper, he was originally called "Plainclothes Tracy"...but the title was shortened to just "Dick Tracy" not too long after that. AND, "Dick Tracy" proved to be one of those special Heroes that America...and the World needed !!
Gould created many bizarre, strange characters with strange names, and many devices (Like Dick Tracy's Two-Way "Wrist Radio", that later became his Two-Way "Wrist Television"...all WAY ahead of their time...and actually available WorldWide today !), and they worked well within the scope of the comic section in newspapers around the world, and, later into comic books, Big Little Books, games, toys, and, many other ways that Gould eventually marketed, promoted & licensed the Tracy character. (This 1978 photo of Chester Gould through the courtesy of the Richard Pietrzyk Collection. This is exactly how Gould looked when I met him in 1977.)
Gould was so focused on what he did, and his creation of his iconic character "Dick Tracy", he would personally write and draw BOTH the Daily & Sunday Newspaper Comic Strips of Tracy from 1931-to-1977 !
LIKE WALT DISNEY DID with Mickey Mouse, Gould was a master-craftsman at whatever he did. AND, like Disney had done with "Mickey Mouse", "Dick Tracy" headed for Radio in 1934, and eventually into TV in 1950. BUT, Movies, the Silver Screen... that's where our story really begins in the year 1937.
ENTER: RALPH BYRD...
RALPH BYRD WAS born in Dayton, Ohio in 1909. He grew-up wanting to be an actor, and honed & polished his craft by not only acting, but singing & dancing in a number of productions. In 1936, Byrd married model & actress Virginia Carroll. They would have one child, a daughter, Carroll Byrd Evangeline.
THE VICTORY PICTURES CORPORATION was a Canadian company formed in 1915 by the then-silent picture stars Mary Pickford & Charlie Chaplin, and Byrd was spotted by Victory Pictures and signed to star in the "Blake Of Scotland Yard" Serial they were producing.
They had previously done that Serial as a Silent film, produced at their home studio in Canada, in 1927. This new version, produced in the U.S., starring Ralph Byrd as the Hero "Jerry Sheehan", was released in January of 1937, was successful, and later edited into a Feature Film...which was done many times in those days. And, "Blake" was a sure-fire showcase for this hardworking-actor...and, in effect, "Blake" gave Byrd the break that he needed for what came next !
IN THE 30's. 40's, and into the 50's, Republic Pictures was the "King Of Movie Serials"...cranking-out as many as they could every year ! So it was only natural that they would want to signup Chester Gould's tough-talking, no-nonsense, super-successful character "Dick Tracy", and when they went looking for the "Tracy" they needed to be cast in the film, handsome, square-jawed, broad-shouldered, 6'2", Ralph Byrd was IT !
WHAT HAPPENED THEN WAS truly incredible ! The first Serial entitled, simply, "Dick Tracy" was a smash ! And, as Jim Harmon & Donald Glut state in their book "The Great Movies Serials" (1972): "The casting of the role of Dick Tracy was perfect...as far as the fans were concerned, Ralph Bird was Dick Tracy." And, for the only time in the History of the Serials, Republic did THREE "Dick Tracy" sequels: "Dick Tracy Returns" (1938); "Dick Tracy's G-Men" (1939); "Dick Tracy vs. Crime,Inc." (1940).
PLUS, they had Byrd star in another Serial entitled "S.O.S. Coastguard" in 1937...hot-on-the-heels of his "Dick Tracy" appearance. Byrd plays "Coastguard Lt. Terry Kent"...and the villain he has to deal with is played by none-other than Bela Lugosi !
IT WAS THEN IN 1937, that Ralph Byrd would not only be the first actor to play the role of "Dick Tracy"...but the one who would play Tracy over a 15 year period ! Like Boris Karloff was always thought of as the "Frankenstein Monster", Bela Lugosi as "Dracula", Clayton Moore as "The Lone Ranger", Kirk Alyn & George Reeves as "Superman"...Ralph Byrd was always "Dick Tracy" !
1. From 1937-1941 he starred in 4 "Dick Tracy" Serials.
2. In 1947 he played Tracy in 2 Feature Films
3. Between 1950 to 1952 he brought "Dick Tracy" to TV
and appeared in all the TV Episodes until his death on
August 18, 1952.
"DICK TRACY" MOVES TO RKO...
IN 1945, RKO Radio Pictures entered into a four picture deal with Chester Gould to produce FOUR "Dick Tracy" Feature Films...and paid Gould $10,000 for the rights. (That would be about $12,294.00 in 2017...really a reasonable rate for such an Internationally-known character.)
Since they had paid that much money in 1945 dollars upfront, the wanted to hire someone who'd work for less than Ralph Byrd and signed a very competent actor, Morgan Conway, for the role of Tracy. I remember him from 1939's "Charlie Chan In Reno".
Conway did the first two films in the Series "Dick Tracy" in 1945, and followed that with "Dick Tracy vs. Cue Ball" in 1946, but the fan reaction was not good. They wanted their real "Dick Tracy": Ralph Byrd...and that's when RKO got-on-the-ball and signed him up for the final TWO entries to be released in 1947.
THESE BECAME TWO of the most-watched, best remembered of ALL the Tracy Serials & Feature's...and that's why I wanted to Celebrate their 70th Anniversary by sharing them with you. More than that, it's my way of thanking Ralph Byrd, for not only being the definitive "Dick Tracy"...but an actor who I admired for his "bringing to life", on the Silver Screen & on TV, the "Dick Tracy" that I read in the Daily/Sunday Newspapers, Comic Books, and, Big Little Books !
READY ? HERE'S HOW IT ALL STARTED FOR ME...
WHEN I WAS IN GRADE SCHOOL, my Dad - who worked longer, and harder than any man I knew at the time - would sometimes like to surprise me after we had supper and take me to see a movie that he knew I would like. He wouldn't always tell me what it was...but I'd find out when we got to the theater. That's one of the reasons that make these two film so special for me.
The theater we went to on that cold night in 1948 was not too far from our house. It was the Overland Theater in the City of Overland's Business District. (Actually, that Business District is still there...and, I pass through it a couple of times a week. But sadly, although the location still exists, the Overland Theater was been replaced year's ago by another merchant.)
Dad parked the car, and as we approached the theater, I saw these huge posters in the outside windows ! It was a "Dick Tracy" Double-Feature: "Dick Tracy's Dilemma", AND, "Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome" (Starring that really scary guy Boris Karloff !) !! WOW ! I was in "Movie Heaven" !! Here's what happened next...
"DICK TRACY'S DILEMMA" (Released July 12, 1947) PT. 1
SINCE IT WAS A WEEK NIGHT, we got really good seats. The Overland was one of those small, neighborhood theaters that were prominent from the 1900's to the early-60's when the big chains started to take over. Urban Sprawl happened when those small neighborhoods started to shrink...due to some of the younger residents moving out, and, some of the older residents passing-away.
OUR SEATS WERE about mid-way back from the screen, and in the middle of the row...with a great view. The house lights dimmed, the curtains across the screen were pulled back, and the big RKO Radio Pictures Logo shone on the screen.
THEN THE OMINOUS, MYSTERIOUS, soundtrack music, written by Paul Sawtell, with the orchestra conducted by RKO's prolific C. Bakaleinkoff (who was with RKO for 17 years) started, and this Chester Gould image of "Dick Tracy" came on the screen...and the other kids who were there that night, as well as myself, gave out a big cheer ! It was our Hero, "Dick Tracy", once again right in front of us on that big Silver Screen...this time in a full-complete Feature, and it was the real "Dick Tracy"...Ralph Byrd !
These "Tracy" Films (Serials or Features), were multi-demographic...they were watched & liked by both kids AND adults. That's the way Chester Gould had created "Tracy" to begin with...and "Dick Tracy's Dilemma" follows that format perfectly ! Coupled with that, "Dilemma" is not only a mystery/detective film...it's also an excellent Film Noir entry into the catalogs of that genre of 40's films.
DICK'S ADVERSARY IN "Dilemma" is "The Claw": a misshapen, lame-footed criminal with a prosthetic-hook attached to his right hand...a "hook" that is used to kill his victims...and actor Jack Lambert personifies the meaning of the word "evil" everytime he's on the screen !
"The Claw" is a henchman & go-between in fur theft racket...which leads to insurance payoffs. But, he takes the racket into "Dick Tracy" Homicide territory when he kills the night watchman at the warehouse they're robbing.
From there, it's a "cat & mouse" game with Dick, and his sometimes-not-too-smart Deputy, Pat Patton, trying to not only catch "The Claw", but the others in the gang...and, the Boss in charge of the operation.
I won't spoil it for you by giving you a complete Review of "Dilemma"...I hate "spoiler alerts" myself. But, I will tell you that the expert Direction by John Rawlins, the perfect Noir-Cinematography done by Frank Redman, the tight Editing from Marvin Coil, and, the entire Production, under the supervision of RKO's Herman Schlom, make this one of the most-suspenseful (with as always, a touch of Chester Gould's comic-relief) films from that era you'll enjoy.
ONE THING I will mention for you to watch for happens about :30min. into the film...and it is a perfect, artful piece of Film Noir which made that style so popular:
ONE OF DICK TRACY'S Informants is an old WW I Vet, who fakes being blind to panhandle and sells his pencils & wares in front of a saloon that Dick knows is a front for thieves. The old man's name is "Sightless", and Tracy knows of his ruse but also knows "Sightless" (played by longtime character actor, Jimmy Conlin) can see who comes and goes from the saloon.
Sightless sees two of the henchmen go into the saloon and tries to spy on them. "The Claw" has come in the back door, unseen, but when Sightless goes to a back window to see who's there he see all three together, gets excited and drops the pencils he sells, along with the tin cup that holds the change he gets from his sales, and runs away.
THE CLAW FOLLOWS Sightless...eventually finding out where he lives. He knocks on the door to Sightless' apartment and pretends to be from "Headquarters" telling Sightless Dick Tracy wants to see him. Sightless then opens the door and The Claw starts toward him with his hook raised. Since it was a warm night, Sightless had turned on his small table-fan that sat on the top of his ice box...and had his ice pick out to chop some ice in a pan to cool off with.
As The Claw gets closer, Sightless, trying to protect himself starts to raise the ice pick but it slips out of his hand. What happens next is the pure-Noir Element that I have watched, by itself, so many times:
Sightless drops to the floor trying to pick-up his ice pick. When he does, he accidentally knocks the electric cord that runs the fan out of the wall socket.
The next "shot" of the film is taken from the viewpoint of the camera positioned behind the fan, and as The Claw's hook swings down and murders Sightless, the blade on the fan starts to slow down...and by the time it stops, you know that the life has been drained out of him. Just a fantastic, stunning, visual "time element"...the "time" between life-and-death.
A FINAL WORD ON "DICK TRACY'S DILEMMA"...
IN "DICK TRACY'S DILEMMA", Tracy not only avenges the death of his friend Sightless, as well as the others murdered by The Claw, but once again, Ralph Byrd, when he's donned the Trench Coat & Fedora of "Dick Tracy", brings Chester Gould's character to life...and makes "Tracy" his own ! Making me a fan for life !
RALPH BYRD MEETS BORIS KARLOFF...
"DICK TRACY MEETS GRUESOME" (Released September 26, 1947) PT.2