Born out of the gangland violence that was a hallmark of the early 1930s, square-jawed, honest, and intelligent comic strip detective Dick Tracy first appeared on October 4th, 1931 in the Detroit Mirror.
Created by a 30 year-old cartoonist, Chester Gould, Tracy brought big city corruption and street violence – and modern police procedures – to the daily comic strips.
His villains were larger than life, of course. Prune Face, Flattop, Cueball, and B.O. Plenty to name a few. And in the 1960s the strip took on a strong Sci-Fi flavor, much to the dismay of many Tracy Fans.
But during the 1930’s, 1940’s and much of the 1950’s Dick Tracy was all but synonymous with procedural Police work, deduction, and exciting shootouts.
By the time the 1960s had rolled around, some of the more right-wing views sported by Gould began to fall out of favor, as did some of the tactics of his hard-nosed creation.
Attempts to `modernize’ Tracy by giving him longer hair and a moustache – and a `hippy’ partner Groovy Grove – fell flat, as his older audience didn’t like the new look, and younger readers were turned off by Tracy’s conservative themes.
But roll back the clock 30 years, and Tracy was very popular and a huge part of American culture.
In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s Dick Tracy made it to the Silver Screen by way of 4 serials produced by Republic Pictures and starring Ralph Byrd. These serials had Tracy portrayed as an FBI agent, or G-Man based in California, rather than a police detective in a mid western city.
Dick Tracy (1937) is a 15-part serial and is available to watch on Retrovision.TV. These serials are Saturday Matinee fare, and feature impossible cliff hangers and improbable escapes – but are good fun nonetheless.
By the mid-1940’s, some four years after the last serial was produced, 4 feature films were released. RKO Radio Pictures released Dick Tracy (aka Dick Tracy, Detective) in 1945 which was followed by Dick Tracy vs. Cueball in 1946, both starring Morgan Conway as Tracy.
Both are available for download from the Internet Archive
Dick Tracy Detective
Dick must stop the mysterious killings of various people with no obvious connection.
Dick Tracy vs Cueball - Gordon M. Douglas
After a Diamond Merchant is murdered aboard a ocean liner. Dick Tracy begins the hunt for the infamous Cueball.
Ralph Byrd would return in 1947 to reprise the role he created in the serials, with two films Dick Tracy's Dilemma and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome.
Dick Tracy's Dilemma
Dick Tracy battles the fiendish "Claw" in one of his most difficult cases.
Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome
Dick Tracy goes up against a villain who robs banks using a nerve gas.
Four years later Ralph Byrd would bring the role of Tracy to the small screen, with a short-lived TV series that ended, sadly, with Byrd’s premature death. Some people attribute the grueling production schedule for that series as contributing to Byrd’s demise.
Dick Tracy, for all of its fanciful villains and improbable plots, brought early glimpses of police procedures to the American public, with an emphasis on evidence collection, and the work done in the crime lab.
The movies (and particularly the serials) were strictly `B’ fare, but they remain interesting time capsules, harkening back to the film noirish view of the 1940’s.
The movies run a little over an hour, and require very little commitment from the viewer, except . . . perhaps . . . the popping of some popcorn and the suspension of disbelief.
If only for 65 minutes or so.