Saturday, July 25, 2009

Dick Tracy at RKO, 1945-1947

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I had showed the first RKO Dick Tracy, made in 1945 and the inaugural effort in a series of four before RKO got out of the “B” business altogether in 1947. I’ve always liked the RKO Tracys — even the first two, made with Morgan Conway in the title role (prior to RKO’s “B”-feature ventures, Dick Tracy had only appeared on the screen in four Republic serials, played by Ralph Byrd — after the relative box-office disappointment of the second RKO Tracy, Dick Tracy vs. Cueball, RKO took Conway off the series and hired Byrd, who made their last two Tracy films and starred as the detective again in a 1951-52 TV series that lasted a year — it was popular and would have been renewed except that Ralph Byrd died over the summer, and the producers decided to cancel it rather than risk a replacement who wouldn’t be accepted by audiences as Tracy the way Byrd had been — and that was the end of Tracy on screen until the Warren Beatty extravaganza of 1990). Conway is a perfectly fine Tracy, reasonably handsome and authoritative, though he lacked the famously jutting chin of Chester Gould’s cartoon.

The 1945 Dick Tracy was a film in a bit of a netherworld of its own, half straightforward cops-and-robbers yarn and half film noir, in which the mystery is who is the sinister “Splitface” who seems to be knifing people to death at random, and what is the connection between his victims. Eventually the connection turns out to be that the 14 people on his hit list are the 12 jurors and two alternates responsible for his conviction, who otherwise run all over the map in terms of income, status and career. Dick Tracy was written by Eric Taylor based on Gould’s comic strip, and for the most part (except for the mortician named “Deathridge”) he avoided the campy names with which Gould usually adorned his people. It opens with an out-and-out quote from RKO’s Cat People, which had featured Simone Simon stalking Jane Randolph through a green patch of urban soil — in this case a woman schoolteacher is being stalked by a psycho killer, she turns back and he isn’t there, then she starts walking forwards again and he is there, and he catches and kills her — and even shot on the very same set (a tree-lined walkway) Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur had used for the similar scene in Cat People.

From that point the movie becomes an intriguing game of spot-the-set, and watchable mainly because of Conway, Anne Jeffreys as Tess Trueheart (she was as good as the girlfriend of a super-cop as she’d been as the girlfriend of a super-crook in Dillinger) and Mike Mazurki’s awesome performance as Splitface. Though the script gives him little or nothing in the way of motivation, Mazurki brings unexpected pathos to his role by playing Splitface much the way he did Moose Malloy in Murder, My Sweet (RKO’s noir masterpiece from 1944 based on Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely), giving the character far more depth and range than Taylor supplied in his script and making us almost feel sorry for the guy. There’s a hint that Splitface is actually a rarely seen and never photographed nightclub owner, Steve Owens (Morgan Wallace) — his daughter Judith, played by a young and almost unrecognizable Jane Greer, is an important character — but different actors play the two men.

The director is William Berke, who mostly ground out hack entries in the Falcon series with Tom Conway (including The Falcon in Mexico, for which he had Orson Welles as his uncredited co-director — a few clips of the Latin American scenes for Welles’ unfinished documentary It’s All True made their way into The Falcon in Mexico) but who here also seems to have been watching some noir movies, since much of the 1945 Dick Tracy is vividly atmospheric and visually quite distinguished, albeit sometimes more atmospheric than it needs to be to tell a relatively simple story. — 7/20/09


I turned on the TV and VCR to do some cueing and in the meantime managed to watch almost all of Dick Tracy vs. Cueball. The history of the Tracy character in film is four (relatively) big-budget Republic serials between 1937 and 1941 starring Ralph Byrd (the third of which co-starred a young actress named Phyllis Isley, who later achieved fame as Jennifer Jones); then four RKO “B”’s in 1945-47, the first two of which starred Morgan Conway as Tracy and the last two returned Ralph Byrd to the role; then a TV series in the early 1950’s, also with Byrd, which got good ratings but only lasted one season because Byrd died during the summer hiatus; then nothing until the big-budget version from 1990 with Warren Beatty and Madonna, a beautiful-looking film (Beatty and his production designer wisely eschewed the past-is-brown look in favor of a broad, intense palette copied from the color panels of Chester Gould’s comic strip) but something of a dud dramatically.

This one was the second of RKO’s four and the last to star Morgan Conway, whom William K. Everson called “somewhat dour” — he did a lot of crimefighter roles at the time and is good as the prosecutor in the contemporaneous The Truth about Murder but not quite right for a superhero cop — along with Anne Jeffreys as Tess Trueheart (Jeffreys left the series when Conway did) and Ian Keith as the Barrymore-esque ham actor Vitamin Flintheart (alas, Keith’s own career had suffered from the same disease — alcoholism — that had screwed up John Barrymore’s, though within the campy writing of this character he’s actually quite good). The titular Cueball is played by Dick Wessel, and his appearance is one of the most remarkable aspects of the film: dressed in a worn leather jacket and wearing a cowboy hat that supplies the leather band he uses to strangle people, his favorite mode of murder, he looks at once convincingly proletarian and almost sexy in his relentless butchness, which is a relief given that aside from him and Tracy just about every other male in this film is a screaming queen: Jules Sparkle (Harry Cheshire), owner of a jewelry store whose employees, unbeknownst to him (or maybe beknownst to him after all, since the writers on this film — Luci Ward, story; and Dane Lussier and Robert E. Kent, script — weren’t exactly big on plot clarity), have hatched a plot to import $300,000 worth of uncut diamonds and sent Cueball, a.k.a. Harry Lake, to steal them; Percival Priceless (Douglas Walton), antique dealer; his clerk Higby (Milton Parsons) and Simon Little (Byron Foulger), Sparkle’s diamond cutter.

The story isn’t much but this film hardly deserves a listing in the book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time — it’s actually a pretty good crime “B” and benefits from the fact that it was made at the height of the noir cycle and director Gordon Douglas (who went on to biggers and betters) and cinematographer George Diskant threw a lot of noir compositions that helped enliven what could otherwise have been a quite ordinary film — though there’s nothing as interesting here as the quite surprising plot of the first RKO Dick Tracy, which cast Mike Mazurki as the villain in what was essentially a repeat of his role in Murder, My Sweet and actually gave him a surprising degree of pathos (surprising for the villain in a Dick Tracy story, anyway). There’s also a nice hard-woman performance from Rita Corday as Mona Clyde, Sparkle’s secretary and the mastermind of the jewel-robbery plot — though how a nice bad-girl like her got mixed up with a nasty bad-guy like Cueball remains a mystery, and the clue by which Tracy traces Cueball and discovers his real identity — Butch (Jimmy Clemons), friend of Tracy’s adopted son Junior (Jimmy Crane), is wearing a hat with the band just like the one Cueball is using as his murder weapon, and Tracy traces the hats to a workshop at the New Mexico prison from which Cueball had been released a month before — is clever though a bit arch.

Though uneasily perched between Gould’s comic-strip aesthetic (including the ridiculous, campy character names that were a stock in trade for him) and film noir, Dick Tracy vs. Cueball is quite an entertaining film in a series that aimed relatively high for a “B” crime show, though the first and last RKO Tracys remain the best mainly because they had the best bad guys (Mazurki in the first and Boris Karloff as, inevitably, “Gruesome” in the last). Also worthy of note is the animated neon sign that advertises the dive bar in which the crooks meet, the Dripping Dagger (I think RKO used that same bar set in every Tracy movie but changed its name each time), and Esther Howard’s performance as Filthy Flora, the Dripping Dagger’s owner; she played the very similar character of Jessie Florian in Murder, My Sweet and brought some of the same sadness here (and anticipated the pathos of Thelma Ritter’s role in Pickup on South Street). — 3/15/07


Dick Tracy did well enough at the box office that RKO went ahead and made three sequels, of which the first, Dick Tracy vs. Cueball, was released towards the end of 1946 and retained Morgan Conway as Tracy but had a new director (Gordon Douglas, later marked for biggers and betters) and new writers (Luci Ward, story; and crime veteran Dane Lussier and the ubiquitous Robert E. Kent, script). This time the writers did incorporate the deliberately campy names Tracy cooked up for both his associates and his adversaries: among the former are Tess Trueheart (Anne Jeffreys again, though having little to do until the end, when she masquerades as a society woman to catch the baddies red-handed and actually does a quite credible job) and ham actor Vitamin Flintheart (an obvious caricature on the then recently deceased John Barrymore, enacted by Ian Keith in his best flaming-queen style), while among the baddies are jeweler “Jules Sparkle” (Harry Cheshire); his diamond cutter “Simon Little” (Byron Foulger, who wears ultra-thick glasses throughout and comes off so much like Anthony Edwards in the movie Northfork its writer-directors, brothers Michael and Mark Polish, might have patterned their character after him), antiques dealer “Percival Priceless” (Douglas Walton) and “Dripping Dagger” bar owner “Filthy Flora” (Esther Howard, who like Mike Mazurki in the first RKO Dick Tracy was recycling a characterization she’d played in Murder, My Sweet — as Jessie Florian, alcoholic widow of a bar owner).

Dick Tracy vs. Cueball was listed as one of “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time” by Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss in their book of that title, a dishonor it really doesn’t deserve; it’s actually a quite capable, exciting film in its genre, directed by Douglas with a real flair for suspense and action, and a rapid-fire pace that makes it look more like a Warners film than something from RKO (and indeed Douglas went to work for Warners later). What’s most fascinating about this movie is the extent to which RKO’s casting department filled the cast list with such screaming queens: Lester Abbott (Trevor Bardette), the thief who’s stolen a set of valuable diamonds for a ring, as well as its other male participants: Douglas Walton as “Priceless,” Byron Foulger as Little, Milton Parsons as Priceless’s clerk (and, we almost get the impression, his boyfriend) and Skelton Knaggs as Little’s associate. Even some of the good guys — notably Ian Keith as Flintheart and Lyle Latell as Tracy’s partner, Pat Patton — seem pretty queeny. The idea seems to have been to make Tracy and Cueball (Dick Wessel) the only butch guys in the whole film — the crime ring all those queer boys are participating in is run, natch, by a tough-as-nails woman, Rita Corday (under her cover as Mona, Sparkle’s secretary) — and Cueball easily overpowers all the Gay guys in the gang.

Wearing a blue-collar worker’s outfit — a leather jacket and work pants — and topped with that big head with no hair, Cueball ends up looking like a giant, self-ambulating penis, “screwing” his fellow crooks figuratively (by refusing to give them the jewels he took from Abbott and constantly raising his price for them) and almost literally — especially since his preferred murder method, which involves removing the leather band from his hat and strangling his victims with it, requires close physical contact which Douglas shoots in a way that heightens the sublimated lust = death sexuality. (The band also fulfills an important plot purpose; Cueball had made them while serving a stretch in prison, and Tracy is thereby able to trace him and learn his real name, Harry Lake.) The “family” interludes — with Tracy’s ward Junior (itself a pretty kinky relationship, though clearly we weren’t meant to think so), his friend Butch (who’s wearing one of the hatbands, which gives Tracy the clue he needs to link them to Cueball), Tess Trueheart (in other crime series the hero had to put off marrying his girlfriend because he was always being called away to solve a crime; in these films, she can’t even land a dinner date with Tracy before he’s called away!) — aren’t as interesting as all the quirky sexual hints surrounding the villains, but the film is strongly plotted, the action is logical and even the ending, which Medved and Dreyfuss ridiculed — Tracy has traced Cueball to a railroad yard, Cueball has got his foot caught in between two rails, and “just when you’re thinking, ‘Oh, no, they’re not going to have him get hit by a train,’ he gets hit by a train” — adds to the aura of invincible masculinity surrounding Cueball by suggesting that neither the criminal justice system nor even a cop with a gun was sufficient to take him out: it had to be an accident, an “act of God.” — 7/20/09


The film I picked out was Dick Tracy’s Dilemma, next in sequence in the RKO series and the return of Ralph Byrd to the role of Dick Tracy — Byrd was hardly as good an actor as Morgan Conway but he was better for the role physically, with his tall physique and prominent chin at least approximating the famously angular jutting chin Chester Gould had given the character in the comics. Dick Tracy’s Dilemma is probably the weakest of the RKO Tracys, mainly because there isn’t much of a plot — the super-villain this time is “The Claw” (Jack Lambert), who’s just a swarthy proletarian thug distinguished only by having a sharp hook where his right hand should be (and using it as a supremely lethal murder weapon — it’s interesting how the writers of the first three RKO Tracys avoided gunplay as much as possible and favored crooks who murdered their victims in ways that required physical contact: Splitface slit their throats with a knife, Cueball strangled them with a hatband and the Claw impaled them on his hook-like artificial hand).

In the opening, “The Claw” steals a shipment of furs from the Collins company — “clawing” the night watchman at the Collins plant to do it — and most of the rest of it is a series of very dark action scenes (sometimes too dark to make out what’s supposed to be going on) interspersed with a lot of dull palaver involving Tracy, his partner Pat Patton (Lyle Latell), his girlfriend Tess Trueheart (regrettably replaced by Kay Christopher — maybe Anne Jeffreys, who played Tess in the previous two films with Conway, felt wasted in the role, which she was), Collins company owner Humphries (Charles Marsh) and two people from the Honesty Insurance Company: vice-president Peter Premium (William B. Davidson) and investigator Mr. Cudd (Al Bridge). There are a few scenes for atmosphere — the grungy bar that appeared as the “Dripping Dagger” in Dick Tracy vs. Cueball is here called the “Blinking Skull” — it’s the same set; only the animated neon sign in the window has changed — and one of the most interesting (and, here, wasted) characters in the series, “Sightless” (Jimmy Conlin), a Tracy informant who poses as a blind homeless beggar to keep an eye on the criminal underworld, hangs out in front of the bar, which is owned this time around by a man, Jigger (Wade Crosby).

There’s also a nice scene in which Tracy encounters Longshot Lillie the female fence (Bernadene Hayes) and recognizes her from previous criminal encounters — but eventually believes her when she said she had nothing to do with the fur heist because, as we’ve figured out about two or three reels before the characters do, the “robbery” was really an inside job: Humphries arranged for his own merchandise to be stolen and fenced so he could scam the insurance company, claim the loss and also make money from a criminal sale of the furs. Written by Robert Stephen Brode — peculiarly, RKO never seemed to use the same writers more than once on this series — and directed by John Rawlins, fresh from Universal where he’d done a couple of the Jon Hall-Maria Montez films as well as the first modern-dress Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes film, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of TerrorDick Tracy’s Dilemma (a “cheating” title since at no time is Dick Tracy faced with any kind of dilemma in the plot — one would have expected a story involving Tess or one of Tracy’s friends being kidnapped and his dilemma being to go after the crooks or let them go to save his friends) is strong in the atmosphere department but surprisingly weak as a thriller, and also bereft of the marvelous Gay undertones that made Dick Tracy vs. Cueball so much fun; out of all the queens from the cast of Cueball, Ian Keith as Tracy’s actor friend Vitamin Flintheart (obviously a caricature of John Barrymore) is the only one that returns, and even he seems under wraps this time around.

Fortunately, for the next (and, alas, last) episode in their series RKO would get a truly inspired villain — Gruesome (Boris Karloff — who else? One wonders if they owed him a film on his contract after having cancelled Val Lewton’s planned production of Blackbeard, which they eventually revived but cast Robert Newton in the pirate role originally intended for Karloff) — and ramp up the camp aspects to produce a film that pretty much junked the noir affectations of the earlier RKO Tracys but probably came closer to the spirit of the Gould comics than any of the previous ones. It’s also worthy of note that in Britain, where the Tracy comics weren’t published, Dick Tracy’s Dilemma was retitled Mark of the Claw — which probably left audiences expecting a horror film instead of the lukewarm cops ’n’ robbers melodrama they actually got! — 7/22/09


Our “feature” for last night was the fourth and last in the RKO Dick Tracy series — a short-lived effort RKO launched in 1945 just as they were edging their way out of the “B” business. They’d ended the Falcon detective series in 1946 but they kept the Tracy series going a year longer, attempting to liven it up by replacing contract player Morgan Conway as Tracy with Ralph Byrd — who’d made the part his own in four Republic serials from 1937 to 1941 (those oddly changed Tracy from a Chicago police detective to an FBI agent!) — in the third film (frankly, Byrd looks more like the Chester Gould comics but Conway is the better actor!) and, for the fourth, not only brought along a particularly illustrious actor as the guest villain but gave him top billing.

He is, of course, Boris Karloff, who as I speculated in my notes on Dick Tracy’s Dilemma may have been owed one more film by RKO under his contract to appear in the Val Lewton productions The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam. (Lewton planned to follow those up by starring Karloff in a pirate melodrama, Blackbeard, for which RKO was willing to give him a higher budget. Then Lewton did his usual meticulous research and found that the pirates of Blackbeard’s day hadn’t sailed in large ships; rather, they’d put together fleets of fast, maneuverable cutters with which they surrounded the large cargo ships they intended to rob — much the way today’s much talked-about pirates use speedboats — and he became determined to show that kind of piracy in his film. The RKO bosses angrily replied that they weren’t spending all that money for a movie showing Boris Karloff captaining a fleet of fishing boats, so they cancelled the project, fired Lewton, and later revived it and had Robert Newton as Blackbeard sailing a large, ungainly and historically inaccurate vessel.)

Anyway, they concocted a villain called “Gruesome” for Karloff to play, giving a performance that oddly recalled his pre-Frankenstein work in the movie The Criminal Code 16 years before — though the makeup isn’t particularly gruesome at all; he really looks more like a modern-dress version of the cabman John Gray, his role in Lewton’s The Body Snatcher, than an out-and-out monster — and gave him a sidekick, “Melody” (Tony Barrett), who plays piano at the “Hangman’s Knot,” the same dive bar we saw in the two immediately preceding Tracy films but under different identities (the “Dripping Dagger” in Dick Tracy vs. Cueball and the “Blinking Skull” in Dick Tracy’s Dilemma). The two of them team up with a discredited scientist, Dr. Lee Thal (Edward Ashley), who works as a hired-gun researcher at the Wood Plastics Company but in his spare time has invented a gas which leaves anyone who’s exposed to it paralyzed and frozen in place for about 10 to 15 minutes. To make this stuff, he needed to steal a chemical from the State University — which he achieved by getting it from his girlfriend, Dr. Irma M. Learned — “I. M. Learned” — (June Clayworth), assistant to State University physicist Dr. A. Tomic (Milton Parsons), who claims to have been receiving death threats and who turns up missing midway through the film (he’s never seen again and the writing committee — William H. Graffis and Robert E. Kent, story; Robertson White and Eric Taylor, screenplay — never bothers to tell us what happened to him).

There’s a fascinating meeting between Gruesome, Melody, Dr. Thal and his assistant, X-Ray (Skelton Knaggs — the RKO casting department really deserves kudos for bringing back at least two of that marvelous assortment of “queen” types, Parsons and Knaggs, from Dick Tracy vs. Cueball) in which it’s clear that the bookish types are no match for the criminal men of action they’ve recruited, and a great bank robbery scene in which the paralyzing gas is played up for its most comic possibilities — a watchman is frozen in place while chasing a cat (the cat, of course, is frozen too!), a bank customer is caught in mid-sneeze, and so on. Indeed, the whole movie is played up for comic possibilities; the writers follow the Gouldian penchant for naming the characters after what they do (at one point Tracy’s partner, Pat Patton, traces the crooks to a taxidermy shop whose proprietor — whom we don’t see — is called, what else, “Y. Stuffum”); Gruesome is declared dead early on after a beta version of the gas knocks him out — and when he gets up off the morgue slab and escapes once he’s come to, Patton says, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear we were dealing with Boris Karloff!” (That line was obviously copied from the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace, in which Karloff played Jonathan Brewster and entered with his back to the audience until his sidekick, Dr. Einstein, asked why he killed the harmless old man they’d run into — and Karloff turned to the audience, showing his face for the first time in the play, and roared, “Because he said I looked like Boris Karloff!”)

The film is essentially a collection of campy chase scenes, but Karloff distinguishes himself and so does the series’ third Tess Trueheart, Anne Gwynne (who’d worked with Karloff before — she’d played his daughter in Black Friday), who witnesses the bank robbery and calls the police because when the gas bomb went off she was inside a phone booth and therefore protected from it. Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome essentially dispensed with the film noir pretensions of the three previous series entries and went for camp — and managed to be the most entertaining of the four precisely for that reason, and not just because of the presence of Karloff as its formidable guest star! — 7/23/09