Release Date: February 20th, 1937 (first chapter)
Directed by: Alan James, Ray Taylor
Written by: Morgan B. Cox, George Morgan, Barry Shipman, Winston Miller
Based on: Dick Tracy created by Chester Gould
Cast: Ralph Byrd, Kay Hughes, Smiley Burnette, Lee Van Atta, John Picorri, Robert E. Marcato, Carleton Young, Fred Hamilton, Francis X. Bushman
Republic Pictures, 290 Minutes total (15 episodes), 73 Minutes (Theatrical feature)
The Dick Tracy franchise is pretty old school but it had sort of a resurgence in the early 1990s with the Disney film starring Warren Beatty, Madonna, Al Pacino and a slew of other top names in Hollywood, at that time. It was really my introduction to the character and his mythos. Since then, I have watched a lot of the older stuff. This serial is the first live action incarnation of the Dick Tracy comic strip.
The serial stars Ralph Byrd as Dick Tracy and it would be the role he was most known for. He played Tracy a few more times after this but it was this serial that put him and Dick Tracy on the cinematic map.
In this story, Detective Tracy is pitted against a masked crime boss who is both called The Spider and The Lame One. He leads a gang of villains called The Spider Ring. While committing various crimes throughout the serial he uses a vast array of strange devices, as was common in serials. Most notably, he uses a flying wing equipped with a sound weapon to destroy the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. He steals the secret experimental “Speed Plane” and even captures Dick Tracy’s brother and turns him evil, forcing brother to fight brother.
Overall, Dick Tracy is a pretty captivating and entertaining serial. It isn’t the best or the most original thing out there but it is one of the better serials put out by Republic Pictures. This, like other Tracy serials, isn’t necessarily great in the action department but it delivers as a detective thriller and its ability to generate suspense is its best trait. It created a good template for Republic and they would use this formula in later serials.
The battle between the Tracy brothers gives this an emotional and human element lacking in most other serials. It lived up to the spirit of the popular comic strip and provided a sense of drama unlike any serial before it.
From a filmmaking standpoint, it was pretty straight forward. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles or artistic flourishes to make this visually unique. However, it was still well shot and well produced. It feels less hokey than similar serials and seems to display more talent overall, whether in front of or behind the camera.