September Links

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In addition to the expected smart meditations on modern-day films, look many of the bloggers of September looked back at the greats of the silent days and gave us new ways of looking at the legends.

Farran Nehme, click the “Self-Styled Siren,” offered a poignant anecdote about King Vidor and the irreplaceable “girl in black tights” of silent comedy, Mabel Normand.

TCM “morlock” David Kalat continued his informative meander through the evolution of early film comedy, featuring installments ranging from Harold Lloyd to Cary Grant, with stops along the way to focus on the legacy of the inimitable Charley Chase. September installments begin here, and continue here, here, here and here – all leading up to a promised conclusion next month.

Writer Cliff Aliperti gave us a fine appreciation of silent he-man star Milton Sills on the Immortal Ephemera site.

The great film commenter David Bordwell added another dimension to our appreciation of Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder.

And Farran Nehme earned a second link with her tribute to the late Herbert Lom and his fine performances in The Seventh Veil and Night and the City.

Start clicking to reflect on these fascinating links.

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September 30, 2012 · Posted in Legends  
    

Suave gangster “The Duke” has infiltrated a meeting at FBI headquarters! He slips away, leaving behind a time bomb planted in his briefcase! Eager to return the case, Junior hustles after the Duke’s car as it rolls down the street! Tracy and Steve, hip to the bomb plot, hotfoot it to the sidewalk just as a terrific explosion goes off! Is this Junior’s day to paint the town red?

We should be so lucky.

Actually, this is one of this serial’s most entertaining cliffhanger resolutions: Junior, determined to do his good deed for the day, flips the briefcase through the window of Duke’s car with a nifty little lateral pass, and the Duke’s car blows up real good, right in the middle of Main Street. Remarkably for a Republic serial (which were always violent but almost never graphic), through the smoke we even get a glimpse of the Duke’s body flying out of the car and going SPLAT on the pavement.

“That’s the last of him,” says Tracy, who doesn’t miss much.

“You saved us all,” Steve tells a dumbfounded Junior.

Junior, who’s still wondering how many times he’s going to have to write I will not blow guys up in the middle of Los Angeles on the blackboard, says weakly, “Yeah, and I didn’t know I was doin’ it.”

Big surprise.

We can assume that Junior will be busy tidying up the street with a putty knife for a while, since he isn’t around in the next scene. Called to a Navy research lab, Tracy and Steve meet Admiral Grant and one Professor Terhune, whose super-welder has been stolen. Not just any mild-mannered garden variety welder, this experimental “super-welder” is designed to slice through battleship steel, which will be a huge boon to stepping up construction.

In one of the least convincing performances in the entire serial, the dry-as-toast Terhune haltingly relates how he returned from his dinner break the night before to discover a block and tackle hanging from the window of the lab where the super-welder had been stored. The night watchman, found trussed up and gagged, could contribute only one Crimestopper Clue: that he’d been attacked by a man with an anchor tattooed on his hand.

Terhune is played by this guy:

Francis Sayles, who played bit parts and small featured roles in over 100 movies from 1932 until his death in 1944. Saddled with long expository speeches in Dick Tracy Returns, one gets the impression that he barely had time to memorize his lines before going before the camera – but if this cliffhanger isn’t his finest hour, it’s clear that under normal circumstances he had the talent to support a steady career. His resume reveals an unbroken string of performances in serials, Westerns and other B flicks, plus the occasional appearance in such A features as The Glass Key, Ball of Fire, The Pride of the Yankees and Citizen Kane – a darned good career for a working actor.

Grant and Terhune are convinced that it’s an act of espionage, but Tracy points out that anyone interested in smuggling the welder’s secrets out of the country would have simply taken the blueprints instead of lowering a bulky piece of machinery out a window. Tracy and Steve take the block and tackle and start canvassing hardware stores in search of a clue to the manufacturer.

Of course, we all know the guys behind the theft are Pa Stark and his boys, and this time he isn’t even betraying his country to a foreign power. He just wants to get his meat hooks on a half-million-dollar shipment of blue-white diamonds. The sparklers are locked away in the near-impregnable vault of the Block Jewelry Company – a vault that’s made of battleship steel, of course, and situated on the fourth floor of a downtown building. (Apparently, this particular jewelry shop doesn’t rely very much on foot traffic.) All the Starks have to do is dig through the floor above and start cutting. Naturally, Pa has another highly detailed schematic drawn up:

Okay, he isn’t much of an architect, but he does draw lovely straight lines.

Pa’s special Welding Flunky (a much cushier gig than being a Shot or Punched by Dick Tracy Flunky) tells him that the super-welder will get them into the vault in about 40 minutes. Of course, it’ll draw a hell of a lot of electricity, enough to be noticed at the city power plant – but Pa has one of his patented cunning plans to take care of that…

Meanwhile, Tracy and Steve have narrowed down the block and tackle to a set sold to one B&J Transfer Company. Tracy tries a bluff on the two dumb-looking thugs who run the place, and quickly learns that they were hired by Pa to steal the welder for him. When he finally flashes his badge, the thugs try to slug their way out – but Steve butches up and gets the drop on them. “You got nothin’ on us,” snarls one of the thugs; Steve, still on a testosterone high, snarls back, “We got bracelets on you” as Tracy snaps on the cuffs. (Steve. DUDE.) The Feds also have this on them:

Yeah, it’s that anchor tattoo the night watchman spotted. So ahoy, mate, you’re going to the brig for 10 to 20 years.

The thugs don’t know where the Starks have taken the welder, but it’s obvious to Tracy that they plan to open a vault with it. Checking out every vault in town will take forever, but Tracy has another idea. A quick call to Prof. Terhune confirms that the electrical drain will register at the power plant, so guess where we cut to next.

Of course, Pa got his cunning plan rolling before Tracy launched his own, and his thugs have already taken the power plant workers prisoner. The Stark flunkies are all standing around in white coveralls and trying not to look like a bunch of hoods in Good Humor drag when Tracy and Steve show up. The head thug, Sweeney, has already cautioned the others against killing anyone because he’s in no mood to go down for murder, so he’s relieved that no unusual activity’s shown up on the control board dials.

Naturally, his luck won’t hold; soon Pa and the boys have fired up the super-welder, and back at the power plant the dials start doing the kilowatt mambo. Tracy cuts the power off and sends Steve to call in to the office and send some agents off to “the third district,” where the power drain is coming from. Desperate, Sweeney pops Tracy in the mush, turns the power back on, and another Republic free-for-all is under way.

The best part of this brawl is the cross-cutting from the power plant to Pa and the boys. Every time one of them gains the upper hand, Tracy or the hoods keep flipping the power switch – and above the jewelry store, Pa and the boys find themselves stuck in a Three Stooges short. They’re cutting merrily away at the top of the vault, then they’re pushing their smoked goggles up on their foreheads and standing around looking perplexed when it goes dead, then more cutting, then more goggles/perplexed, then more cutting…

And so we punch our way to the cliffhanger. By now, Steve’s joined the donnybrook, and everybody’s whacking hell out of each other, climbing up and down ladders, swinging on ropes, and dumping bodies over railings. Just when it looks like the good guys are gaining the upper hand, Sweeney snatches up a huge wrench and hurls it right between Tracy’s shoulder blades. Tracy goes down like a sack of rocks, just like he did when he got another Snap-On massage back in Chapter Two.

Apparently deciding that a stretch on Death Row would be less painful than continuing the fight and spending the rest of his life in traction, Sweeney releases a winch holding a big phallus-shaped metal thingy hanging from the ceiling. Its massive bulk slowly descends, just moments from reducing Tracy to a G-man-shaped pancake.

As the Fatal Ferric Phallus comes closer and closer to Tracy, Steve – who’s really been earning his pay the latest couple of episodes – takes out his final opponent with a killer roundhouse that sends the thug flying through the air and reduces this crappy screengrab to a dramatic blur…

then, moving on to similarly send Sweeney to dreamland, he shuts off the winch before Tracy’s turned into a Byrdskin rug. Soon, the power plant staff have been released and are able to pinpoint the block where the Starks are burning their way into the vault. Back in the car, Tracy calls in the coordinates to Gwen, who passes them along to the carloads of G-men who are evidently driving around aimlessly until someone tells them where to go.

With the block surrounded, Tracy deduces that the gang’s most likely to be ripping off the jewelry company. Sending Steve to check out the building’s basement , he takes the stairs to investigate the Block Jewelry Company office. (All the other agents must be under orders to stand around outside and scratch their butts.)

Of course, by this time the super-welder’s finally made it through the top of the vault, and Champ has jumped down to start handing up trays of diamonds. Smelling bad guys on the other side of the wall, Tracy smashes the glass out of the office door with a fire extinguisher and orders the Starks to stick ‘em up. He’s got the whole gang red-handed…except for Champ, who reaches up from the vault and yanks Tracy off his feet.

It’s Fist City time, with Tracy knocking the spindlier Starks around like rag dolls while trying to avoid getting creamed by Champ. They finally manage to drop him into the vault and, hearing sirens (we have to assume that one of the FBI agents outside took a moment to call the local cops before going back to dutifully scratching his butt), proceed to beat it out of there…but Steve, who’s heard the commotion, shows up and manages to plug the Welding Flunky, who plunges off the fire escape. The Starks make it to the roof, scramble across a plank to the next rooftop, and make their getaway.

Turns out the Welding Flunky is still alive – after all, he only has a bullet in his back and suffered a measly five-story fall to the pavement – and Tracy has him under wraps at City Hospital. Pa, who’s pretty cranky about leaving his loot behind again, isn’t about to pay this guy’s workman’s comp, and it’s pretty clear that none of his complaints is a pre-existing condition. And then there’s the whole not-going-to-prison thing:

Pa: We can’t let him stay there. The rat will squeal.

Dude: Well, there’s not much we can do about it. They’ve got cops, reporters and photographers all over the place.

Pa: Photographers…

Yep, it’s another patented Pa Stark cunning plan forming before our eyes, this time involving getting a pair of flunkies to dress as interns and ingratiate themselves with the press photographers hanging out at the hospital. When Tracy finally gives the shutterbugs permission to take some shots of Welding Flunky for the paper, we discover that the phony interns have substituted trick flashbulbs for the photographers’ normal gear. The Starkbulbs explode, filling the room with tear gas – and in the confusion, the faux interns make off with the unconscious Welding Flunky.

Car chase time! With Dude at the wheel, the interns’ commandeered ambulance tears down the road while Tracy and Steve zoom along in hot pursuit. Bullets are flying – one of the interns blows a hole in the G-mens’ radiator and Steve, in turn, blows away one of the interns. Determined to stop these guys before his car completely overheats, Tracy manages to leap into the back of the ambulance and grapple with the remaining fake intern. The bad guy’s gun goes off, killing Dude stone dead at the wheel…

and they zoom out of control right through some sadly inadequate guardrails and down a steep hillside, finally crashing upside-down in a stomach-churning pile of metal that turns the ambulance into a hearse for everyone inside…

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September 30, 2012 · Posted in Legends  
    

Sucker Punched by Life

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That pesky two-fisted offline world has delayed posting of our latest look at Dick Tracy Returns. Normal services will resume in a few days.

Yes, it’s another cliffhanger…

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September 25, 2012 · Posted in Uncategorized  
    

Dick Tracy is struggling with Trigger Stark on the roof of the fertilizer plant where the Stark gang has been hiding stolen airplane engines! A runaway truck smashes into a monstrous storage tower nearby! The tower’s base crumbles, and the entire structure comes crashing down on the rooftop! Will Tracy and Trigger be reduced to paste right before our eyes?

Not our boy Dick. With seven chapters of this thing under his belt, Tracy’s gotten pretty darned good at not being dead. Seeing the towering structure falling his way, Tracy hauls ass across the rooftop, grabs a hook on a cable that’s anchored to the ground, and slides away to safety.

Trigger, though, isn’t so lucky. The tower smashes down, and he’s Stark Soup.

Down on the ground, even Pa looks a little shaken by the death of his vicious little offspring. But he and his last three boys manage to beat it out of there before the G-men can round them up.

And before we move on, let’s pause a moment to acknowledge the man behind Trigger, actor Raphael “Ray” Bennett. One of those great familiar faces of B Westerns and crime flicks, Bennett played countless henchmen throughout his career. Equally shifty and dangerous-looking whether decked out in cowpoke duds or modern street clothes (in coat and tie he could pass for Charles Bickford’s scary kid brother), he battled good guys in serials from Republic, Universal and Columbia, and over his long career rubbed shoulders with stars ranging from Roy Rogers and John Wayne to Jimmy Stewart and James Cagney. Mellowing a bit in his later years, he played an array of lawmen on TV oaters and even did a turn on George Burns and Gracie Allen’s beloved series a year before his death at age 62 in 1957.

At their latest hideout, Pa and the boys are mourning Trigger in their customary fashion – the boys looking depressed while Pa glowers, mutters death threats against Dick Tracy and schemes a way to make more money. His latest brainstorm is another extortion plot, this time aimed at the Trendall Trucking Company (whose cooperation with Tracy in the last chapter led to Trigger’s death). And it just so happens that one of the Trendall drivers is on Pa’s payroll…

Back at the FBI lab, Tracy’s main crew has assembled for an exposition-heavy scene in which we learn that the head of Trendall Trucking has found an extortion note pinned to his door with a jackknife: “Unless you pay us $100,000.00 you will be unable to fulfill your contracts. Give us your answer over radio KDTR tonight.” There are no fingerprints on the note, but the knife has bits of chewed wooden matchstick embedded in it. Yes, it’s a clue.

Tracy and McGurk go to the trucking company office to question the very cooperative L.C. Trendall. Trendall is played by the guy in the first of this installment’s many crappy screengrabs:

Hal Cooke, an actor who performed featured roles in serials and B flicks, and tiny roles in some pretty big features (including Lloyd’s of London, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and The Pride of the Yankees). Pretty obscure even to old movie buffs, he nonetheless managed to work with Boris Karloff, Tyrone Power, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford and other big names during the 18 years he’s credited as having appeared in front of the cameras. So here’s a tip of the Tracy fedora to another unsung toiler in the Hollywood fields.

Trendall’s a voluble soul and eager for Tracy’s help, but he has so many trucks on the road that it’s anybody’s guess what the Starks could be up to. Realizing that someone’s eavesdropping on their conversation, Tracy scrawls “Keep talking” on a sheet of paper and creeps out of the office with McGurk while Trendall natters on about a big contract to supply the repair of the Riviera Dam, which is leaking badly. (Hope you kids are taking notes.)

Sure enough, it’s a Stark flunky with his ear to the door, and said flunky runs like a rabbit, climbing over a fence and making tracks across a neighboring lumberyard. Tracy clears the fence – a feat which McGurk, of course, can’t duplicate; ripping out one of the slats in the fence, he slithers through like a dimwitted worm – and the chase is on, with Tracy and the flunky dodging around barrels and stacks of lumber, firing their revolvers so wildly that you’d think there’s a bounty on innocent bystanders. The flunky makes the mistake of trying to flee across the top of a large stack of planks and Tracy, eager to get on with the plot, shoots him in the back.

There’ll be no sweating information out of this hood, him being dead and all; on the other hand, McGurk does manage to fall off another stack of boards and hurt himself, so the day isn’t a total loss.

Back at the office, Tracy says with a straight face, “Too bad the man I chased across the lumberyard died before I could question him and find out who he was.” McGurk, whose pockets are likely bulging with the dead hood’s loose change and gold fillings, solemnly nods. But among the flunky’s effects is a map of the Riviera Dam, and we can pat ourselves on the backs for paying attention to Trendall’s cleverly shoehorned-in exposition. As quick on the deduction as he is on the trigger, Tracy works out that if the dam is destroyed, the roads Trendall uses for his route would be flooded and that would spell the end of his biggest contract. Those darn Starks!

Speaking of that happy little family, the gang gathers around the radio to hear Trendall’s answer to their extortion note. We cut to the announcer at KDTR (apparently the local Dick Tracy Returns affiliate), who leads off their 15-minute segment of personal messages with Trendall’s snappy reply: “NO.” Pa performs a violent double-take worthy of Cary Grant and starts snarling orders:

Pa: Well, that’s that. We’ll go ahead. You boys know what to do.

Dude: Oh, we can do it, all right, we’ll put ‘em out of business. But what good’s that gonna do us?

Pa: It ain’t gonna do us any good this time. But we gotta let people know we don’t bluff. When we make a threat, we mean business.

Yes, it’s essentially the same conversation the boys had about blowing up the observatory back in Chapter 4. It’s nice to know that Pa raised his sons with some conservative bedrock values.

Okay, time to push toward this chapter’s cliffhanger. It’s a new day, and Trendall’s fleet is being loaded for the long haul to the dam. Junior, who hasn’t been a pain in the ass for a while, is itching to make up for lost time and sneaks into one of the trucks. (Moments earlier, Junior had asked to ride along when the G-men tackle the Starks. Replying reasonably, “That’s no place for a youngster,” Tracy asked McGurk to drive Junior to school to keep him out of harm’s way. So McGurk’s still batting a thousand.)

Of course, Junior’s truck is the one being driven by the Trendall drivers who are working for the Starks. On the road, they fake a breakdown to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the convoy. Tracy, who’s riding along in another truck, can’t help noticing that one of the truckers is busily chewing a matchstick; questioning his own driver, he learns that that trucker’s always either chewing ‘em or whittling ‘em…which would explain the shard of matchstick stuck in the knife found with the extortion note.

Hopping out of his own vehicle, Tracy hoofs it cross-country to spy on the suspicious truck – which has now been joined by Champ and Slasher Stark. Remember those boxes of explosives that they piled under the observatory in Chapter 4, and the others they hauled onto the mountainside back in Chapter 6?

Pa, it seems, has lucked onto a clearance sale on crates of dynamite, because they still have plenty to load into the truck. The plan is as brutishly simple as most of the Stark brainstorms: 1) Park truck on top of dam; 2) Light the fuse; 3) Blow that sucker up.

Tracy springs out of the brush and gets the drop on the gang – whereupon Junior pokes his head out of the truck and chirps, “We sure did it that time, Dick!” Dumbfounded, Tracy is jumped by Champ and loses his gun before he can put one between Junior’s eyes. Another wild brawl breaks out – Champ is the only bad guy in this serial who can knock Tracy on his ass with a single punch – but the G-man manages to scoop up his gun and gain the upper hand. The matchstick-chewing driver grabs Junior and, using the kid as a human shield (okay, a humanoid shield), drags Junior into the truck with him and takes off.

Tracy manages to leap onto the back of the truck and makes his way to the cab, where he swings through the driver’s window like Indiana Jones and beats the crap out of the bad guy while Junior takes the wheel. Finally tossing his opponent out onto the road, Tracy slides into the driver’s seat and discovers to his horror that the brakes have gone out.

“It’s the dam!” he cries just before the truck zooms off the road and flies into the mighty Riviera. The dynamite goes off, releasing the flood waters and surely scattering our heroes’ bodies all over the countryside…

Dam.

As Chapter 9 gets rolling, we realize that we must have blinked and missed the part where Tracy and Junior jump out of the truck and roll to safety down the soft sandy part of the hillside. Hustling to a phone at the gatehouse, Tracy puts out an alert for all radio stations to broadcast an emergency warning. The local citizens run like they’ve been listening to The War of the Worlds, narrowly escaping being swept away by a rolling torrent of stock footage.

We never see L.C. Trendall again; for all we know, his trucking company is ruined and he blows his brains out all over his desk – but Tracy is a hero again, which plays hell with Pa Stark’s spastic colon. It’s time to take the G-man out of the picture, to “blow the FBI’s records and Dick Tracy to small bits.” The newspaper reports a scheduled meeting between Tracy and local businessmen concerned about the recent crime wave, and that’s where the deed will be done – where Tracy will be “spinning a lot of gab to a bunch of righteous citizens…For once, Tracy won’t be on his guard.” Needing a hit man who doesn’t look like a mug, they get “the Duke” on the phone.

The Duke is played by this guy:

Larry Steers, a distinguished-looking actor whose career spanned from 1917-1951. A featured performer during the silent days, he slowly transitioned into bit player and dress extra during the ‘30s. A man with the right look to play substantial gentlemen, he clearly had the talent and professional attitude to make it worth asking him back; between the majors and Poverty Row, he racked up over 400 credits over his long career.

He makes his entrance in style, a silver-haired fox draped in a dressing gown with a cigarette elegantly nestled in a manicured paw. He may dress like Noel Coward, but – to quote W.C. Fields – don’t let the posy fool you. Asked if he’ll murder America’s most famous G-man, he smiles and purrs, “It’s a cinch.” When Champ Stark balks at his price of 1,000 1938 dollars for the contract, he says with steely grace, “That’s my price” – and not even Champ will put up an argument.

And so we cut to the big meeting, with Tracy greeting a trio of stuffed shirts along with one Mr. Reeves, the visiting secretary of the Phoenix chamber of commerce newly arrived in L.A. “to study civic problems.” Mr. Reeves is, of course, really the Duke. He’s smooth, but Tracy suspects something’s up when “Reeves” insists on holding on to his briefcase in case he needs to take notes. Slipping Gwen a note to check out Reeves’ bona fides, Tracy launches into the meeting…which is an excuse for lengthy flashbacks from the serial’s first few chapters.

Yes, this is one of the notorious “economy,” or recap, chapters, a despised form of padding that ought to be our cue for more jokes about the cheapness of Republic serials. So let’s not do that.

Instead, let’s take a moment to appreciate some of the many things Dick Tracy Returns does right. This was the most expensive Republic serial to date ($170,940, up from $127,640 for the first Tracy cliffhanger), and it shows. Sure, there’s plenty of stock footage in play, but there’s an impressive amount of original material here, too – from exciting set pieces to the tidy little insert shot of a gangster’s hand cutting words out of a newspaper for an extortion note, a half-filled shot glass on the table providing a hardboiled grace note. Some of the special effects created by the Lydecker brothers and their crew (pictured below) for Dick Tracy Returns were so impressive that they would themselves become stock footage in future serials.

There’s also something to be said for the extensive location shooting. In the decade that followed, serials would become increasingly studio-bound, the dwindling number of exteriors restricted to locations that grew overly familiar through repetition, and the more often stock footage was used, the more familiar those matching locations became. But there’s a genuine charm and freshness to all the homely dirt roads, industrial yards and rural shacks where directors William Witney and John English staged their scenes with such confidence, a sense of stepping into the genuine world of 1938 California and seeing these events unfolding for the first time.

Anyway, after Tracy’s gassed his way through reruns for most of the chapter, Gwen steps into the office and tells him he has an important teletype from D.C. It’s a ruse, of course, and when she has Tracy and Steve alone, she tells them that Reeves is a fake. Tracy suspects a bomb in Reeves’ briefcase, and heads back into the office, bent on having a look…

But it’s too late. While Tracy was out of the room, the Duke has already reached into the briefcase to arm the timebomb within –

and, citing a pressing appointment with the mayor, takes his leave of the stuffed shirt brigade…leaving the briefcase behind.

Did we mention that Junior’s been in the room with them all this time? Of course not; it’s Junior, and we have more pressing things to think about. All the same, he’s been quietly reading a magazine and staying out of trouble; we can’t see if he’s sitting on a pillow or not, but after last chapter’s hijinks, he’s clearly been given a talking-to about keeping his nose clean.

Snatching up the briefcase, he hustles out to reunite it with its owner. Tracy and Steve, arriving a minute too late, take off after him. Down on the street, the Duke slips into his snazzy ragtop and gives ‘er the gas – but Junior’s right behind, tearing down the sidewalk with the time bomb in his hand.

Tracy and Steve burst out of the building, shouting for the kid to drop the briefcase – only to recoil as we hear a terrific explosion from off-camera.

But it’s only Junior, so no harm, no foul.

Oh, okay…

Is this the end for Junior? Has Dick Tracy’s plucky little buddy been blown to smithereens and sprayed all over the Republic backlot? Oh, the horror, the horror…

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September 16, 2012 · Posted in Legends  
    

(Breathe easy – after a long ulcer-inducing delay, sale Dick Tracy is back – grimjawed heroics, desperate villainy, crappy screengrabs and all. Read on and tremble, Crimestoppers…)


Yikes! A crooked pilot working for the Stark gang has gassed Tracy into unconsciousness! Clipping the ripcord of Tracy’s parachute, he banks the plane and rolls Tracy out into space! Tracy drops like a stone toward the ground, 14,000 feet below! Is there a chance in hell that he’ll survive?

Funny you should ask. Tracy’s been surviving these cliffhangers with sheer dumb luck, but here he exercises a little ingenuity, and it’s about damn time. It turns out that taking the air is as bracing as people say; brought to his senses by his zippy progress through the atmosphere, he gives the ripcord a pointless tug, quickly re-assesses the situation, twists the severed ends of the cord back together like he’s been hot-wiring cars all his life, and hits the silk.

Crooked pilot Brand, however, proves a little less bright. Having knocked Tracy cold with a tank of anesthetic, he continues flying on with the valve of the booby-trapped tank still wide open and wafting its contents into the cockpit. In less time than it takes to say “D’oh,” he’s asleep at the stick and spiraling earthward, ultimately smashing his ship (and himself) to bits against the side of a hangar. What a dweeb.

With his ace test pilot now reduced to a wall hanging, airplane mogul Carston seems more willing to believe Tracy’s story that the Starks have been stealing the experimental planes he’s been building for the government. When Tracy proposes they set a trap to capture the gang, Carston agrees – and with the words barely out of his mouth, we dissolve to Carston spilling the whole plan to the Starks. No wonder he’s so willing to swallow Tracy’s tale of spies within the organization: the Carston Aircraft Corporation is rotten from the head on down, cooperating in the theft of their own top-secret engines in return for huge illicit payments from a foreign government. With visions of his swollen Cayman Islands account dancing in his head, Carston and Pa Stark come up with a new scheme to get the pesky G-man out of their hair once and for all.

Carston is played by the distinguished-looking Gordon Hart, glimpsed above in our latest fuzzy screengrab. An actor who played lots of judges, doctors and other substantial types in B flicks and serials throughout the ‘30s, Hart started out as an actor playing support to young Ethel Barrymore and the great Walter Hampden in a pair of Shakespearean dramas on Broadway in the 1920s…but despite that promising debut, his screen career never really took off. Perfectly capable of playing the kinds of solid citizens that were so much in demand during Hollywood’s Golden Age, with the right breaks he could have had Lewis Stone’s career. There would be no Judge Hardy on Hart’s resume, though; most of the roles he played were uncredited bit parts.

Time to get out those scorecards, because now we’re keeping track of traps and counter-traps. Tracy’s plan is to send out a decoy truck bearing a phony plane engine, with a hidden radio transmitter to be activated by the driver when the Starks waylay the shipment. In the meantime, a second truck will carry the real engine to safety at a government warehouse. As an extra precaution, Carston volunteers to ride along with the real engine. Tracy, being a trusting tool of the Man, agrees to let the tycoon guard the henhouse, and Carston and his crooked driver take off for the gang’s hideout.

The driving team in the decoy truck are crooks, too (hell, even the people who clean the restrooms at Carston Aircraft are probably spies and ax murderers); they set off the signal and drive straight to Dorman Canyon, the ambush point the Starks have arranged. Slasher, Champ and Dude meet them and they all set about unloading crates of dynamite. The plan is to blow the hillside down onto the decoy truck when Tracy shows up. And while they work, that radio signal draws our heroes nearer and nearer…

And here we should pause to acknowledge the charm of Depression-era low-budget filmmaking. While later serials would equip their electronics with fancy dials marked ON, HIGH and MY GOD DON’T TURN IT HERE YOU’LL BLOW YOUR FINGERS OFF, the cutting-edge radio device in Dick Tracy Returns is activated by the truck driver tugging on a string that runs from the cab through the chassis and into the bed…

as sophisticated as a Dixie cup telephone. Apparently, the research and development division of the West Coast FBI is run by Special Agents Spanky and Alfalfa.

Since Gwen’s job description doesn’t include hitting people in the face, we haven’t seen much of her lately, but here she’s pretty much running the show, taking down the coordinates from the radio signal and sending the result to the Feds on the road. So it’s her good work that leads Tracy and Steve into the Starks’ deathtrap. Fine job, Gwen!

And so we move into the skulking portion of our program. While the Stark boys skulk around the hill overhead, Tracy – who’s spotted the abandoned decoy truck – smells a rat and, leaving Steve behind, skulks around on the ground. At the same time, McGurk and another agent have arrived, and are skulking around the decoy truck.

Slasher, fed up with waiting for Tracy, decides that McGurk is better than nothing (he obviously doesn’t know McGurk very well) and whips out his handkerchief to signal the truck drivers to light the fuse on the dynamite. Tracy, still on the skulk, has already located the gang’s car and playfully ripped a handful of wires from the engine; glancing up, he spots Slasher coyly waving his hanky like Margaret Rutherford and shifts into Turbo Skulk.

Tracy (okay, stuntman George DeNormand) drops ass-first like The Meteor of Justice onto the truck drivers and pounds hell out of them, still punching as they roll down the rocky hill. Determined to get his big boom, Slasher dashes down and lights the fuse. The dynamite does its thing, and all Tracy can do is pointlessly throw his arms over his face as a rain of boulders hurtles down on him…

Have the Starks finally triumphed? Mother of mercy! Is this finally the end of … Aw, you know the drill.

As the Chapter Seven recap gets rolling, those nice folks at Republic fill us in on a few things that they neglected to mention during the previous cliffhanger: 1) Tracy actually sees the burning fuse before it goes off; 2) he has the time to shout a warning for McGurk and the other agent to get the hell away from the truck; 3) and that moment when he gave up living and just threw his arms over his face like Wile E. Coyote watching a locomotive bearing down on him? Didn’t happen. Our mistake. He actually had time to hotfoot it into a nearby cave just in time to avoid the cascading rocks. So never mind.

The Stark boys hoof it back to their car, only to discover that Tracy, the little scamp, has disabled it. But McGurk’s car is nearby, and since he’s left it sitting there with the keys in the ignition, they simply hop in and hit the road. Steve Lockwood pulls up in his and Tracy’s car, and Tracy directs him to get the Highway Patrol on the job while he and the rest of the crew start going over the Stark roadster for clues.

However, McGurk – who probably leaves the toilet seat up wherever he goes, too – has also left the radio transmitter turned on in his car, and Steve discovers that the Starks are unknowingly broadcasting their plans as they make their getaway. With a lot of mugs like this, you’d expect their conversation to be peppered with phrases like “jock itch,” “he who smelled it dealt it,” “how’s your mom, Ed?” etc. – but the Stark boys don’t mess around with small talk. Tracy learns that they’re on their way to the “plant,” where someone named Zarkoff will pick up the stolen airplane engines tomorrow and ship them out of the country.

And sure enough, we cut to the aforementioned Plant, where the Starks and Carston are joined by Zarkoff, who informs them that “The secret of those motors are worth a fortune to a certain country that I know of.” We also learn that Zarkoff will use his scrap metal business to spirit the engines out of the country. The thing that we never find out is what he’s doing here in the first place, since all the dirty work won’t take place until the next day. Let’s just chalk it up to unrequited bromance; Pa and the boys are so much fun to hang out with.

Back at FBI headquarters, Tracy and the gang are doing some major league detecting. With a report from Washington informing him that Boris Zarkoff is a suspected spy “purchasing scrap iron for shipment to (the) Orient,” Tracy works out the scheme in short order. Analyzing dirt found on the Starks’ car, he finds phosphates, an essential ingredient in fertilizer. And Gwen pops in with the name of a trucking company that’s set to deliver scrap iron to a ship bound for the Orient tomorrow.

“I tell you, Steve,” Tracy says, “the day of women special agents is just around the corner.” Turning to Gwen, he adds, “And what’s the name of that trucking company, Little Miss Intelligent?”

“Stick it up your ass, you condescending prick,” she replies. – No, not really. It’s a 1938 Republic serial, so she just gives him all the info he needs to break the spy ring and then probably wanders off to make the guys some coffee.

A visit to the Trendall Trucking Company informs Tracy that there’s a load of scrap iron scheduled to be picked up at a fertilizer plant tomorrow, and we’re off the races.

The next day, the trucks are rolling in at the fertilizer plant, and it’s payday for the Starks. Considering how much loot he’s lost since Tracy got on his case, you can’t blame Pa for insisting that Zarkoff fork over the cash NOW. The boys are taking turns going into the office to get their cut, and they don’t notice at first when Tracy and a mob of G-men hop out of the trucks and start cleaning house on the gang’s flunkies.

Unfortunately, Trigger Stark, flush with new cash and feeling natty in his tight suit with the belt in the back, saunters up and spoils the Feds’ little surprise party. He starts flinging hot lead at the G-men, and the noise alerts Pa and the rest of the boys. No fleas on Pa, he says, “Something’s gone wrong!” and leads a charge out of the office and into the fertilizer plant version of D-Day.

Everybody’s firing away – pistols, shotguns, hell, there’s probably a peashooter in there, as well. Pa snarls, “Take cover!” and the gang blasts away. Steve bleats, “Take cover!” and the Feds scatter to new positions, also blasting away.

Tracy, undoubtedly fed up with being at death’s door for the last six chapters, opts to step out of harm’s way and into the office, where he arrests the only unarmed men on the premises – Carston and Zarkoff. Cuffing them to a steam pipe, he rushes back into the fray. In the meantime, Trigger has hustled to the rooftop and begun picking off Tracy’s agents one at a time. Tracy grabs a convenient rope and hustles up the side of the building…

where he and Trigger launch into a vicious fistfight.

Down below, one of the flunkies tries to make a getaway in a truck, but Steve manages to pick him off – and the truck crashes into a huge storage tower, which cracks impressively, spilling fertilizer everywhere (You write that joke), and then starts to topple.

On the rooftop, Tracy finally takes Trigger out with a nasty punch just as the monster tower comes crashing down on the both of them. It’s curtains for the G-man this time, for sure…

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September 9, 2012 · Posted in Legends  
    

…and our ongoing coverage of the serial Dick Tracy Returns is going to be delayed a few days. Check back soon for Chapters 6 & 7.

(Why,  it’s a cliffhanger; how ironic…)

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September 2, 2012 · Posted in Uncategorized