Dick Tracy (1937) poster

Dick Tracy (1937)


USA. 1937.


Directors – Alan James & Ray Taylor, Screenplay – Winston Miller & Barry Shipman, Story – Morgan Cox & George Morgan, Based on the Comic Strip Created by Chester Gould, Producer – Nat Levine, Photography (b&w) – Edgar Lyons & William Nobles. Production Company – Republic.


Ralph Byrd (Dick Tracy), Kay Hughes (Gwen Anderson), Smiley Burnette (Mike McGurk), Lee Van Atta (Junior), John Piccori (Moloch), Carleton Young (Gordon Tracy), Fred Hamilton (Steve Lockwood), Francis X. Bushman (Chief Clive Anderson)


In San Francisco, Federal agent Dick Tracy tries to bust the Spider Gang who have been killing industrialists. Tracy foils a plan by the gang to cause the new Bay Bridge to collapse using a sonic weapon fired from their Flying Wing. The Spider Gang then cause Tracy’s brother Gordon to have a car crash whereupon the scientist Moloch surgically alters Gordon’s appearance and personality to make him into a criminal. All the while, Tracy fights to find clues to the whereabouts of the gang and the identity of its masked leader.

Dick Tracy was a newspaper comic-strip created by Chester Gould (1900-85). The comic first appeared in The Detroit Mirror in 1931 and was widely syndicated nationally soon after. The strip centres around the titular detective and his battles with a line-up of colourfully distinctive villains (which not long after inspired Bob Kane and Bill Finger when it came to Batman’s rogues gallery). Dick Tracy fought mundane villains but there was plentiful science-fictional gadgetry, most notedly Tracy’s radio wristwatch, which is claimed to have inspired the cellphone. Further gadgetry came to be introduced, while the 1960s period had Tracy having a series of adventures on The Moon and becoming its police chief. Gould drew the comic up until his retirement in 1977, after which it has been inherited by other artists and is still being published today.

The comic has seen incarnation in multiple other forms, including a radio series from 1934-48 and a line of books. This was the first of four serial adaptations made of the comic-strip by Republic and had three serial sequels with Dick Tracy Returns (1938), Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939) and Dick Tracy vs Crime Inc (1941), all starring Ralph Byrd. This was followed by four films from RKO Radio Pictures with Dick Tracy (1945), Dick Tracy vs Cueball (1946), Dick Tracy’s Dilemma (1947) and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947). Morgan Conway played Tracy in the first two of these before Ralph Byrd was brought back to the role again. There was also a live-action tv series Dick Tracy (1950-2) also starring Ralph Byrd and an animated tv series The Dick Tracy Show (1961-2). The most recent incarnation was the film Dick Tracy (1990) starring and directed by Warren Beatty.

Serials were a form of film-making that has disappeared today. A serial would run to about 15-20 minutes in length and would appear before the main feature (usually along with a cartoon and a newsreel). Each episode would end on a cliffhanger – the genre literally gave birth to the term – with the hero or heroine in some form of peril or thought killed, where audiences would have to wait to the following week to find out how they survived. The serials began in 1913 and found their greatest popularity between the 1930s and 40s. The last serial was produced in 1956, around the same time that commercial television started to become widespread.

Dick Tracy (Ralph Byrd) on the Bay Bridge in Dick Tracy (1937)
Dick Tracy (Ralph Byrd) on the Bay Bridge

Comic Book Adaptations quickly found a natural home with the serial. Within less than a decade of their appearance in syndicated newspapers or actual comic-books, most of the major properties of the day made serial appearances as with the likes of Flash Gordon (1936), Buck Rogers (1939), Mandrake, The Magician (1939), Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), Batman (1943), The Phantom (1943), Captain America (1944) and Superman (1948), along with assorted sequels to several of these.

Dick Tracy the serial is of variable faithfulness to the comic-strip. There is the central character of Tracy but he gets a career change from a police detective to an FBI agent – probably because the 1930s was filled with a number of G-Man films due to the proselytising efforts of J. Edgar Hoover to promote the organisation. There are rough equivalents of Tracy’s companions such as Tess Trueheart, although here she is given a different name. The serial does retain the character of Tracy’s young sidekick Junior. Missing though are any of the colourful, larger-than-life villains that populated the strip, although these did occasionally appear in some of the other films.

The first two episodes of the serial set a fantastic style. The direction is crude but it feels like embryonic Film Noir – exaggeratedly stylised shots reliant on light and shadow; and some wonderful touches like the masked Super-Villain with the club foot who remains hidden in the shadow with face obscured, while entering a gathering in a train carriage where one of his traitorous henchmen shoots at him – only for the bullets to have no effect. In a later scene, we see a victim being tracked down and a lit-up spider emblem being shone on their forehead before they are shot. There is also a Mad Scientist (John Piccori) – characterised with a hunchback, a weirdly intense Peter Lorre voice and always seen stroking a cat – who surgically alters Tracy’s brother, causing him to emerge with a scar on his face and a streak of white hair – for all the world like Humphrey Bogart’s vampire lab assistant in The Return of Dr X (1939) – and turned over to the bad side. At a later point, the scientist contemplates transplanting his cat’s brain into a man’s body.

The Flying Wing in Dick Tracy (1937)
The Flying Wing – one of the serial super-science inventions that does not let down on its description

The Flying Wing – a plane that consists of a single wing shaped like a boomerang with a series of built-in propellers – is one of the great original serial inventions, a super science device where for once the novel names the writers came up with were actually matched by the machine itself and some great model effects from Howard and Theodore Lydecker. There is a fantastic scene where the Flying Wing attacks San Francisco’s then newly built Bay Bridge with a sonic weapon, which Tracy foils by driving a fleet of trucks out onto the bridge to anchor it. While most serial superheroics were decidedly mundane, this is one fantastical action sequence that has an epic scope, none the more so than the cliffhanger with Ralph Byrd trapped under a falling pillar. There are also some excellent model effects involving a dirigible later in the show, although the submarine looks a little spotty.

Dick Tracy has some of the best cliffhangers of any serial. At the end of Episode 3, we see Tracy flee pursuit in a biplane only for it to crash into a bridge and go down in flames. At the end of Chapter 3, Tracy is in a speedboat that heads into the narrow canyon between two ships as they come together and start crushing the boat. Later we see Tracy jump down from another plane to enter a robot plane in order to save Junior. At the end of Chapter 6, a submarine submerges just as Tracy’s leg gets caught in a rope and he dragged away with it. (Of the cliffhangers, four of them involve crashing planes and three action aboard boats).

Ralph Byrd played Dick Tracy in the sequels and then several of the feature films of the 1940s, as well as a subsequent tv series. Byrd holds the show with an engaging and jolly presence. On the other hand, Smiley Burnette as Tracy’s right hand man is played for comedy relief in every single scene he turns up and becomes such a buffoon, constantly tripping over his own feet, that you wonder how he ever ended up being employed in any law enforcement agency.

Full serial available here

Director: ,
Actors: , , ,
Themes: , , , , , ,