Pa Stark has kidnapped Tracy and Junior and tricked the other G-men into charging a house that’s been rigged with a time bomb! As the house explodes, Tracy wheels on Pa, who’s pointing a gun at him! A shot rings out, and our hero’s as dead as an ex-parrot!

Oh, wait: That wasn’t the sound of Pa shooting Tracy, after all. We obviously weren’t paying attention in the last chapter. Let’s take a look at what we missed, now made clear through the miracle of cheating editing:

It turns out that Junior managed to reach the other G-men just in time to stop them from entering the doomed house. Attaboy, Junior! Useful at last, and after only 14 chapters! And that gunshot? It wasn’t Tracy getting shot at all. Remember that sling he’s been wearing since he was winged in the previous chapter? He’s had a pistol hidden in there all this time, and he’s the one doing the shooting, blowing Pa’s gun right out of his hand. You gotta get up pretty early to put one over on the old Dickster.

Unfortunately, Champ Stark has already switched back from Daylight Saving Time, and he steps into the room and knocks Tracy cold just as Dick’s about to haul Pa to the calaboose. A quick glance out the window reveals Junior and a heavily armed posse of G-men hauling ass in their direction, so the Starks grab Tracy’s limp carcass and zoom the hell out of there in their convertible Mobmobile after Pa leaves a hastily-scrawled note for the Feds.

Back at the FBI office, we get a look at Pa’s note: “If you want Tracy back alive – lay off for twenty-four hours.” That doesn’t faze FBI Chief Anderson, who makes a little speech about how Tracy would understand getting thrown under the bus for the greater good, and then orders Steve Lockwood to broadcast a description of the Starks’ car to all radio stations. Lockwood replies that he never saw the car, and for a moment it looks as though Tracy’s going to be spared getting turned into a martyr to Anderson’s fanatical devotion to duty. But then Junior pipes up with not only the make and model of the car, but the license plate number as well. Tracy is surely doomed now, so attaboy again, Junior.

And while the G-men are busy transmitting Dick Tracy’s death warrant across the airwaves, let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge the man behind Pa Stark’s last surviving son, Champ, actor John Merton:

Merton, above right, was born Myrtland LaVarre in 1901 to a family of overachievers who declared him the black sheep when he decided to go into acting. Taking roles with different stock troupes, he worked on East Coast stages during the early ‘20s, finally making his way to Long Island’s Astoria Pictures studio – where he landed his first small film roles in a pair of comedies at the very end of the silent era. Getting a taste for the camera, he moved his family to California, and by 1933 he was landing bit parts here and there, including a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it part in Laurel & Hardy’s Sons of the Desert and a brief appearance in the Buck Jones serial The Red Rider.  By the mid-‘30s he was working steady. With his powerful frame and square-jawed mug, he was a natural for cops, bad guys and soldiers, and he spent the next 25 years slinging lead and talking tough with a who’s who of cowboy heroes.

Though frequently cast as a thug, Merton rarely played a brainless one. Clearly a complex man, he was described by those who knew him as both a hard-partying rounder and a thoughtful gentleman. While working constantly in the movies, he continued to perform with a local theater company, and even those decades of playing hardcases in the B’s were dotted with small parts for such A directors as W.S. Van Dyke, Raoul Walsh, James Whale, Edward Dmytryk, William Dieterle and Fritz Lang. He was a favorite of Cecil B. Demille, who cast him in small but noticeable parts in five major films from 1934 to 1956. He died in 1959, working right up to the end and looking tougher than hell every step of the way.

Anyway, despite the FBI’s best efforts, Tracy is still alive. And, luckily for him, Pa’s too busy making his getaway to tune in to his favorite daytime soap, The Romance of Helen Trent (“who, when life mocks her, breaks her hopes, dashes her against the rocks of despair…”). Otherwise, he might hear the detailed description of the getaway car that’s blanketing the airwaves. One person who does hear it is a hayseed filling station owner who takes time away from improving his mind with the latest issue of Master Detective to make note of the license number…

and, when the car itself passes by shortly after, said hayseed wastes no time calling in the tip to G-man HQ. Chief Anderson takes time out from staring down Gwen’s blouse to send Lockwood and the boys to check it out. Told that the road the Starks were on leads to either Bonnyville or an old rock quarry, Steve makes a judgment call (“If I were a Republic villain, what’s the most picturesque location I’d choose for the final episode?”)  and the FBI caravan hits the road.

At the rock quarry (attaboy, Steve!), Pa’s whipping what’s left of his gang into action. He sends one thug off to keep watch…another to get the plane ready – yes, Pa apparently has an endless supply of planes and cars at his disposal; it must be the insurance payments that turned him to crime…he sets Champ to piling up bags of loot…and sends another pair of henchmen to truss Tracy up like a Christmas turkey.

Yes, it’s an efficiency expert’s dream at the old rock quarry, all the yeggs and goons and assorted cutthroats beavering happily along like Santa’s elves – and then three cars bulging at the seams with heavily armed G-men pull up and spoil Pa’s little control-freak idyll. Before you know it, hot lead is flying everywhere. And Tracy, realizing that there’s still a chance to put the rest of the Stark family six feet under and make pee-pee on their graves, does a Houdini on his ropes and joins the battle. He piles into them like the Tasmanian Devil: grabbing Champ from behind and plugging a thug with Champ’s gun, pounding hell out of Champ and rolling him down a flight of stairs, knocking Pa on his ass, and then swinging like Tarzan on the world’s longest rope to the ground, where he joins his fellow Feds.

What a man.

The crooks have the high ground on the quarry’s big wooden tower, but Tracy isn’t about to give up when there are Starks to slaughter. He directs the G-men to pile into three dump trucks, raise the beds as shields, and reverse toward the tower with guns blazing. It’s a damn good plan, and Pa and his son stare down at the trucks with WTF expressions until Champ comes up with a plan of his own: blow the G-men out of their improvised tanks with hand grenades. That would be a damn good plan, too, except for the part where Tracy wounds Champ just as he pulls the pin on the first pineapple

and, seconds after Champ drops the armed grenade,

Champ go boom.

Butterfingers. (Also, jelly brains and puree everything else.)

And, with his entire gang either shot full of holes or blown to pieces, Pa makes his last move. Waving the white flag (okay, it’s a handkerchief, and considering that it’s Pa’s, it’s probably not all that white either), he descends from the tower and begins to raise his hands as Tracy and his crew look on smugly.

Imagine their surprise when it turns out that Pa was actually Spider-Man all along:

Wait, those aren’t web shooters – they’re vials of nitro! And Pa’s desperate enough to blow the lot of them up unless the FBI agents drop their guns and let him go. And for good measure, he’s taking Tracy along with him. So it’s off to that getaway plane he’d ordered up earlier, with Tracy reluctantly at the controls…

But what Pa hasn’t noticed is the parachute that’s been left in the pilot’s seat. As they soar through the clouds, Tracy surreptitiously slips into the ‘chute and, with a trademark Ralph Byrd smirk, dips one wing just enough for him to roll out into space and hit the silk. As it dawns on Pa that he’s not only about to crash into a hillside but about to crash into a hillside WITH NITROGLYCERINE STRAPPED TO HIS BODY, he pauses to contemplate just how differently his life might have gone had he stuck with that Bible salesman gig back in 1913:

And then, Boom.

Attaboy, Dick.

So, with the entire Stark clan wiped off the face of the earth, it’s Miller Time for Tracy and his gang. Chilling at a backyard soiree, Tracy and Gwen are watching Junior and McGurk playing a bizarre game involving kites that drop food with parachutes. Steve enters wearing natty white flannels and bearing hot news from Chief Anderson: Thanks to his good work bringing the gang to justice (the wrecked cars, smashed planes, crashed train, exploded dam and blasted pier and blighted landscape and shattered lives notwithstanding), Tracy has been promoted to Inspector of the Entire West Coast. Huzzah!

And McGurk gets a creamy slice of pie parachuted right into his kisser, giving everybody one last cruel laugh at the lamebrain – so all’s right with the world. Thanks for sharing your Saturday afternoons with us, kids!

Republic would make two more Tracy serials and all of them would be ripsnorting hits, but Dick Tracy Returns  was the best of the lot. For all the fun we’ve had with it, its crime procedural plot was remarkably straightforward and admirably short on the preposterous, its gimmick of whittling down the Stark family a clever means of raising its crime-of-the-week format above the typical serial template. Thanks to its colorful cast of B movie workhorses, ambitious use of location shooting and the sharp and inventive direction by William Witney and John English, it zips along like a pulp time capsule on steroids.

But more than anyone else, it’s these two guys who keep the whole thing humming. The serials, for all their low-budget ways, had their share of powerhouse performers; but none of them – no Buster Crabbe or Warren Hull, no Roy Barcroft or Eduardo Ciannelli, could have bettered what Byrd and Middleton put on the screen. Ralph Byrd’s Tracy was the ultimate ‘30s good guy: alternately amiable as a scout master and deadly as a snake, he does the best slow burn this side of Edgar Kennedy and registers a wide-eyed combo of fear and alarm like no other actor in the business; even seated behind a desk he always looks spring-loaded and ready for action. As Stark, Middleton is superb. His foul-tempered white-trash gangster prowls through every scene like a walking cancer, intimidating everyone around him with his pickax features and a voice that rides your nerves like a rusty gate. Each is dynamic in his own way, and their scenes together throw sparks off the screen.

A couple of acknowledgments are in order before we put away this final chapter. – I dug up a good supply of studio stills, posters and lobby cards to keep readers’ eyes from bleeding from non-stop exposure to my own stock of crappy screengrabs, and it wasn’t until almost the end of this series that I realized that some of the shots I’d used weren’t stock stills; they were screengrabs by one “Stony Brooke” who, it turns out, did his own chapter-by-chapter takedown of Dick Tracy Returns on the In the Balcony site back in 2009. My thanks and apologies to “Stony” for the pix, and I recommend his entertaining version to anyone interested in snarking the cliffhangers.

Finally, a tip of the Tracy fedora to Ivan G. Shreve, whose first-class classic movie blog Thrilling Days of Yesteryear inspired this project in the first place. Ivan’s a talented and funny writer, and he does this kind of thing better than any of us. Thanks, Ivan!

This has been fun, and don’t be surprised if we join the matinee boys and girls for another walk down chapterplay lane someday soon. Until then, you kids keep your powder dry.

November 14, 2012 · Posted in Legends  

Dick Tracy and the Stark boys are slugging it out aboard a stolen Navy torpedo boat! Tracy manages to knock Champ overboard, but Slasher attacks with a knife! As they struggle for survival, the boat runs wild through the channel and rams into a pier! The torpedos explode, blowing the G-man and the vicious gangster to smithereens!

Yes, that’s just what would have happened if Slasher hadn’t gained the upper hand and punched Tracy right into the water. Unable to correct the boat’s wild progress, Slasher takes a solo ride on the Fish Food Express while Tracy swims to safety.

Would things have turned out otherwise for the Stark boys if Pa hadn’t doomed them with names like Slasher and Trigger? If they’d been raised as Buddy, Chip and Happy, would they have taken up worthwhile lives as missionaries, movie bloggers or venture capitalists? We’ll never know. But while we ponder these weighty matters, let’s take a moment to wave goodbye to the man who brought Slasher Stark to life (however brief and vicious it may have been):

Jack Ingram, a career movie bad guy who piled up more acting credits during his 30 years before the cameras than any other major player in Dick Tracy Returns. He broke into the business as a musical performer in a touring minstrel show, and began landing small uncredited parts in Westerns and serials in 1935. Within two years he began to play bigger roles and his name started showing up in the credits. Slasher was undoubtedly his showiest part in the ‘30s, but by the time he joined the Stark family, he had already become a familiar face. Moving back and forth from Republic to Monogram to Columbia to Universal, he became one of the most recognizable evil henchmen of the Saturday matinees. Whether as his customary action heavy or the occasional supporting good guy, he traded gunshots, punches and bon mots with a vast range of B actors, from Roy Rogers to Lyle Talbot, from Joan Woodbury to Bob Steele. As savvy an investor as he was dependable as a heavy, in 1944 Ingram bought a 200-acre spread in the Santa Monica Mountains that he rented out for location shooting for features and, later, TV shows. He retired from acting in 1960 with a healthy bank account and almost 300 films and television episodes to his credit – not one of them an A feature, but each in its own way entertaining as hell.

Back at the office, Tracy is dictating his report to Gwen (and neatly slipping in the fact that Champ escaped, for those viewers keeping score) when a hot blonde walks in, just like a Philip Marlowe story. Said blonde is one Mary Watson, who works the cash register at a local cafeteria and whose brother is hanging around with an unsavory crowd. If you’re wondering why the hell she’s bothering the ace G-man with this petty crap, so is Tracy; but Mary proceeds to butter him up about all the great things she’s heard about him – and mentions in passing the name “Stark” as one of the yucky guys her brother’s been hanging with. Mary is played by this particular hot blonde:

Harley Wood, who also worked under the names Jill Martin and Harlene Wood. A Missouri girl who headed west with stars in her eyes, she broke into the movies with small roles in assorted shorts and features that are largely forgotten today. She did land a tiny bit part in the classic comedy My Man Godfrey, a featured role in the Three Stooges short Dizzy Doctors and top billing as the doomed-by-dope “Burma” in the campy drama Marihuana. Around the same time, she scored a string of leading roles in a year’s worth of Poverty Row Westerns, in which she rubbed shoulders with the likes of Bob Steele, Kermit Maynard and Tom Tyler. It was at this time that she appeared as Mary Watson, a small role followed that same year by a leading role in the Republic serial Hawk of the Wilderness. A year later, she ended her acting career to get married and raise a family. In the ‘40s she carved out a new life as a writer and eventually became the lyricist (with composer Sy Miller, her second husband) on a number of inspirational songs, including the award-winning anthem “Let There Be Peace on Earth” – a far cry from the image of the wild, hapless Burma and her hop-peddling ways.

While Mary’s rattling on, Gwen’s face goes through some uncharacteristic contortions, almost as though she thinks Mary’s stinking up the joint. Excusing herself, she goes to her desk and starts typing. While Tracy’s reassuring Mary that he’ll be glad to look into her problem, Gwen returns with a letter for Tracy to sign before he leaves. It says: “Dear Mr. Tracy: The young lady says she is a cashier at a cafeteria, but she is wearing Nuit Noir, a perfume which sells for $50 an ounce.” So her problem was that Mary smelled too good; pretty slick, Gwen! Pretending to sign the letter, Tracy scrawls

and excuses himself to go get his hat. Considering how many hats he’s gone through since this thing started, we can be forgiven for hoping to get a look at the vast Fedora Vault he must keep in the basement, but what he’s really done is slip into a bullet-proof vest while giving Steve the heads-up that the Starks are trying to lure him into a trap. As Tracy leaves with Mary, Steve’s ordering Gwen to get the guys together for a big Stark roundup – unaware that Junior’s eavesdropping. It’s been a few chapters since the kid interfered with a federal investigation and put innocent lives in danger, so of course he’s eager to gum things up again. Moments later, Steve and McGurk drive off to keep an eye on Tracy, unaware that Junior has hidden himself in the back seat of their car to get in on the excitement.

Still playing the concerned sister, Mary leads Tracy down the sidewalk of a seedy part of town under pretense of taking him to her fictitious brother’s hangout. While they take in the depressing sights, we cut to a ratty nearby room where Pa, Champ and a handful of Stark flunkies are talking tough and spying out the window as Mary leads Tracy on. Pa tells one of the flunkies to get ready with “the lever” – and, yes, there’s a big wooden gallows-type switch sticking up from the floor of their room. It’s too bad we don’t get a look at the diagram Pa’s drawn up for this gizmo, because it’s clearly the goofiest Rube Goldberg concept of all, but we’re about to see it in action. The lever’s thrown just as Tracy steps on some metal doors in the sidewalk – you know, the kind that usually open to a sidewalk freight elevator, like this:

But Pa and the boys have removed the elevator, so when the doors open under Tracy’s feet, the view’s more like this:

He lands hard in the basement, where a beefy thug looms in a doorway, giving him the stink eye. But nobody delivers the stink eye like Ralph Byrd, who flips the big jerk this look

and then slides the door shut in the palooka’s face and jams it closed with a handy plank. While the thug’s whining excuses to Pa and the gang, Tracy’s grabbed a metal pole and is inexplicably banging it on the metal doors overhead. No, he hasn’t lost his marbles, far from it: he’s apparently just gained psychic powers, because it’s at this very second that Steve and McGurk have appeared on the scene and are passing right by those sidewalk elevator doors. Recognizing the tap-tap-tap as a Morse code SOS, they charge into the building.

It’s a good thing, too, because Champ’s grabbed a metal bar of his own and is bulling the door open. Starks and Feds all charge in at once, and the basement turns into a shooting gallery. The Stark gang gets a little smaller, Tracy gets nicked in the wrist, and McGurk – fulfilling his contractual obligation to look like an asshole every few chapters – gets a face full of oil. Pa and Champ, on the other hand, get the hell out of there. Scrambling up a ladder while everyone’s busy trying to kill each other, they crawl through a manhole and steal the first car they can find: Steve and McGurk’s ride. Yeah, the one with Junior hiding in the back.

Back at the office, Tracy is getting his wounded wrist bandaged when the phone rings. It’s Pa, and he’s taken Junior hostage. He tells Tracy that he’ll release the kid if Tracy agrees to take his place – the G-man’s life for Junior’s. “Junior?” says Tracy. “Never heard of ‘im.” He hangs up and everyone in the office exchanges high fives.

Okay, not really. Tracy makes the deal, and soon he’s hoofing it down a dusty country road, his injured arm in a sling and a radio transmitter under his lapel. (Yes, the comic strip Tracy was still eight years away from his wrist radio, but in 1938 the serial Tracy was high-tech enough to wear a wire.) Pa and Champ pick him up and drive to their hideout while Tracy conversationally drops clues to their location into the ears of the eavesdropping Feds. But no sooner does he say the address – 14 Outpost Road – than Pa reaches over and plucks the transmitter out from under Tracy’s lapel.


The Starks take Tracy to a hilltop house overlooking Outpost Road. Pa and Champ are in major gloat mode: not only is Tracy their prisoner, they have no intention of letting Junior go, either. As Champ reaches out to drag Junior out of the room, the kid lets him have a sharp kick in the shins, and the big thug makes ready to backhand him across the room. Tracy steps in and administers the stinkiest stink eye of them all. “Cut it, Champ!” he snarls. “You lay a finger on that kid, and all the bullets in the world won’t keep me from tearing you apart.” Champ’s been the burly bane of Tracy’s existence throughout this serial, but here it seems to dawn on him that this is the guy who’s wiped out four Stark boys already. In a nice little piece of acting by John Merton, Champ visibly shrinks from Tracy’s gaze and quietly locks Junior away without any more rough stuff.

Through the door of his boarded-up room, Junior overhears Champ telling a flunky that 14 Outpost Road has been booby-trapped. When the G-men respond to the false address that Tracy had broadcast, they’ll activate a timer switch in the gate that will blow them all up after they’ve entered the house. Whipping out his trusty jackknife, Junior pries open the boards blocking a French door and makes a run for it.

At the same time, Pa is having a nasty good time telling Tracy the same story. He directs Tracy to a window where he can see the G-men arriving and hustling through the booby-trapped gate. We cut back and forth between Junior running downhill, the G-men charging the house, and then 14 Outpost Road is blown to splinters.

Murder in his eye, Tracy turns and advances on Pa Stark – but Pa’s already holding a gun on him, and as Tracy’s unblinking face fills the screen, we hear a gunshot…

October 27, 2012 · Posted in Legends  

Dude Stark and his flunkies have kidnapped an injured gang member to keep him from squealing! Dick Tracy and Steve Lockwood are in hot pursuit of the Starks’ stolen ambulance! Tracy leaps into the Stark vehicle and struggles with an armed flunky! The flunky’s gun goes off, killing Dude at the wheel! The now-driverless ambulance shoots down an embankment in a sickening crash! Is this finally the end of Dick Tracy?

Well, it would be if Tracy hadn’t bugged out of the ambulance right before it took the dive. After rolling down yet another so-smooth-you’d-swear-it-had-been-raked-by-a-film-crew sandy incline, he brushes himself off and watches grimly as the ambulance bursts into flames. Steve rushes up, asking, “Were they killed?” “Yes, all of them,” our hero replies – and he would know; as far as the Starks are concerned, Dick Tracy is the friggin’ Angel of Death.

Unlike the chapters that followed the deaths of Kid and Trigger, this episode doesn’t spend any time on the Starks’ grieving process (i.e., Pa snarling while the boys look bummed out). Apparently, Pa Stark’s gotten pretty blasé about burying his worthless offspring by now. But that doesn’t mean we can’t say goodbye to Jack Roberts, who played the ill-fated Dude.

Roberts was a Canadian actor whose Hollywood career began just two years before his turn as the Stark gang’s nattiest (and whiniest) member. The bulk of his movie work took place during the 1940s, in small featured roles and bit parts. He appeared in two other Republic serials – SOS Coast Guard and Dick Tracy’s G-Men, playing support to Ralph Byrd in each. Though he landed tiny roles in Sorrowful Jones, The Great Gatsby, Ace in the Hole and other well-regarded films, he never managed to log any truly memorable performances. In fact, due to the continued cult interest in serials, Dude Stark is almost certainly the one role for which he’s likely to be remembered. So let’s all tip our jauntily-angled fedoras to Jack’s memory.

Back at the office, Gwen reminds Tracy that he’s promised one Commander Mason to attend a demonstration of the Navy’s new torpedo speedboat. Tracy’s a little reluctant to step away from his current investigation – not yet having succeeded in massacring the entire Stark family, and all – but he says he “owes” the commander (we don’t know why, and maybe we don’t want to), so the whole gang decides to make a party of it and they head for the docks.

At said docks, Pa Stark and a gentleman named Kruger are watching one of the torpedo speedboats zipping through the waves.

“They’re the fastest Naval craft afloat,” says Kruger, “and my government is willing to spend plenty to secure one.” Yes, Pa and the boys have scored another sweet gig betraying their country for fast cash. Kruger continues: “I can’t understand how you’re going to manage it.”

“Listen, Kruger,” snarls Pa, “my sons and I have handled bigger jobs than this.” Sure, just ask our satisfied customers like Zarkoff. Or Baron Kruger. Or Carston. Or…just take my word for it, okay?

Though Kruger doesn’t have much to do in this chapter, he’s definitely worth a moment of our time. Kruger is played by this guy, standing to the right of Edgar Rice Burroughs:

J.P. McGowan, an actor whose resume stretches back to 1910. An Australian native who fought in the Boer War, McGowan parlayed his good looks and horsemanship into a mountain of two-fisted roles throughout the silent era, including three separate outings as Western hero “Whispering Smith”:

He moved into supporting parts during the 1930s, logging an estimated total of over 200 movie roles – a figure rivaled by the number of movies he directed simultaneous with his acting career. He was married for a time to silent serial queen Helen Holmes, with whom he appeared in her legendary 1914 series The Hazards of Helen. And from his retirement from the screen in the late ‘30s until 1951 (he died in ’52), he served as executive secretary of the Screen Directors Guild. A real film pioneer, and one hell of an interesting guy.

Meanwhile, Tracy and his posse are enjoying the boat show courtesy of a wide-screen picture tube mounted on the side of the Dayton Television Corporation’s remote truck, as seen in the latest installment of our Crappy Screengrab Theater, above. (It isn’t true TV, Mr. Dayton tells the young wonks in the audience, more of a telescope image thrown up on a television screen so it doesn’t require anyzzzzzzzz. Oh. Sorry. Anyway, it lets them see the action four miles away without using a camera, got it?) On the screen they see the high-powered torpedo boat take out a target vessel with one shot, and all the grownups figure it’s Miller Time.

What they didn’t see was Champ and Slasher Stark in a third boat, sporting cute little Popeye hats and monkeying around with prop fishing poles. They also miss Slasher hauling out a big-ass gas gun and firing a shell into the torpedo boat. The Starks climb into the torpedo boat, toss the limp forms of the sailors into the water and take off across the waves. Being the fastest Naval craft afloat and all that, they make a quick and effective getaway.

Junior sees the gas wafting around and calls the G-mens’ attention to it. They, ahem, commandeer a nearby motorboat and race out to the Starks’ abandoned fishing boat. There’s nothing left but a couple of unlucky sailors floating face-down and a used gas gun – which Tracy takes back to the lab as evidence.

A little wave of the Tracy laboratory wand later, he discovers that the gas used on the sailors was provided by the Draper Gas Company. And one phone call to the Dayton Television Corporation later, Tracy and Steve have Mr. Dayton’s telescope-boob tube hybrid focused on the window of the Draper offices. On their silent screen they see Kruger and Mr. Draper pointing to a map of the M Street Dock, which isn’t nearly as neatly drawn as Pa Stark’s anal little crime diagrams:

The TV image is silent, but thanks to the miracle of talking pictures, we can hear Kruger instructing Draper to have more gas delivered to the dock.

Tracy recognizes Kruger as an “international spy” and he and Steve lay rubber getting to the Draper office, but by the time they arrive Kruger has already left. Mr. Draper tries to stall, but once Tracy mentions “M Street Dock,” Draper folds like an overcooked noodle. He confesses that he’s been ordered to bring more poison gas shells to the dock – and Tracy and Steve are on the move.

At the dock, Tracy and Steve get the drop on Slasher and a pair of flunkies. While Tracy stands around snapping out orders and looking butch –

Champ is creeping out through a trap door in the dock and tippy toeing around behind the Feds. (That’s Champ in mid-tippy, above right.) Champ climbs onto a towering pile of lumber atop which a handy crate is perched and drops said box on Tracy’s head. And off we go into another bone-crunching brawl. While Tracy manages to hold his own with Champ – and actually knocks the big guy on his keister, for a change – Slasher manages to disarm Steve. Before you know it, Steve’s out cold on the dock and all four thugs have piled on our favorite G-man.

Tracy and one of the flunkies take a header off the dock and into the harbor. There’s a brief and frantic slapfight in the water that appears to have been choreographed by Joe Besser – and then Tracy spoils the atmosphere of seaside frolic by shoving his opponent under and drowning the son of a bitch. In no mood to be murdered next, the Starks grab a big weighted fishing net and heave it down at the water-treading Fed…

And down he goes, enveloped in its hempen mesh, struggling helplessly as he sinks to a watery grave…

Except he doesn’t. Proving that tough guys are too secure to be embarrassed by lame cliffhanger resolutions, Tracy just slips the net off his head and swims back to the surface. Duh. By this time, the Starks have vanished in the torpedo speedboat again, so there’s nothing left to do but wake Steve up from his knuckle-induced coma and head back to the office.

And we’re just in time for a visit from FBI Chief Clive Anderson, who’s come out from Washington to shoot the breeze and politely hint that maybe it’s time to wrap up the Stark case before we run out of chapters. You youngsters who ponied up your nickels to watch the first Tracy serial the year before may remember Anderson as played by distinguished former silent matinee idol Francis X. Bushman:

But here Anderson’s played by actor James Blaine –

a burly no-nonsense actor who worked his way up from stage roles in the ‘20s to a decade-long string of uncredited featured roles in serials, Westerns and mysteries. He landed the occasional bit part in more prestigious movies like After the Thin Man, Parnell and High Sierra, but most of his career was spent as a uniformed cop, prison guard or plainclothes policeman in support of Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, the Lone Wolf, Boston Blackie, and other popular series detectives.

Besides prodding Tracy to hurry up and knock off bring to justice the rest of the Starks, Anderson is also there to ask for a little background on the case…which means that we’ve been lulled into sitting down for another recap chapter. This one’s devoted to the wasted life of young agent Ron Merton, as detailed in our coverage of Chapter One, and it’s just as depressing the second time around. Just as Anderson and the audience are ready to open a vein, Gwen takes a phone call and tells Tracy that one Dr. Strobach at Receiving Hospital has an injured man with information about the torpedo boat.

The patient is Kruger, who tells Tracy that his government had decided to cancel the deal with the Starks after they’d already stolen the torpedo boat. Given the choice of leaving town or telling the Starks that he wouldn’t be able to deliver the 50 grand they’d expected, Kruger should have made a beeline to the Greyhound station. Instead, he tried to come clean and Pa and the boys filled the reneging bastard full of lead. With his last breath he manages to tell Tracy that the torpedo boat’s being held at a derelict vessel in Red Hook Channel.

Tracy and Steve board the derelict and decide to split up and look around. “You check the forward deck,” says Tracy, “I’ll go aft.” Being a government employee, Steve has plenty of experience with his superiors going aft, and wanders off. And wouldn’t you know it, aft is exactly where Champ and Slasher – still wearing their snappy little sailor caps – are readying the torpedo boat and its explosive cargo for a little cruise. As they head out into the channel, Tracy’s stunt man makes an impressive leap aboard, and the fight is on.

Champ is knocked overboard and Slasher pulls one of his pet knives. As he and Tracy struggle, the boat runs wild and heads straight for the pier. The torpedos explode on contact, transforming the boat and everything aboard into flying shards of flotsam…

October 13, 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…

September 30, 2012 · Posted in Legends  

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…


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…

September 16, 2012 · Posted in Legends  

(Breathe easy – after a long ulcer-inducing delay, 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…

September 9, 2012 · Posted in Legends  

Holy crap! The Stark gang is trying to rip off an experimental radio control device from a train! They handcuff Steve Lockwood to the top of a freight car and leave the train to zoom down the track out of control! Tracy manages to reach Steve, but it may be too late! The train’s about to run out of track and go crashing down a ravine, turning Tracy and Steve into a gallon of G-man jelly!

Or not. In a heroic display of why he gets the expense account and deluxe lantern jaw, Tracy manfully reaches into his pocket and fishes out his own handcuff key. He frees Steve and they leap to safety just before the train smashes itself to splinters. What a resourceful guy. MacGyver, hang your head in shame.

Back at the office, Gwen and Steve flank Tracy as he looks over an extortion note that’s arrived in connection with a new case. Addressed to Dr. Worthing, a renowned astronomer at Wilmar Observatory, the note carries a threat to destroy the big telescope’s quarter-million-dollar 200-inch lens unless Worthing pays off fifty grand in protection money. Checking the note for fingerprints, they learn that it’s the work of Pa Stark, who has so many schemes to separate unwary citizens from their cash that we should start thinking of him as the Ron Popeil of crime.

Tracy, Steve and McGurk meet Worthing at the observatory and learn that the Starks have sent a second note setting the time and place for delivering the cash. They also learn that the big brains of Wilmar are a bunch of fuzzy-headed doofuses, as the round-domed and avuncular Worthing earnestly explains that one “Mr. Clark” has already left to meet with the gang in hopes of talking them out of their scheme for the good of science.

We don’t know if Mr. Clark is Worthing’s assistant, a friend, or just some busybody who’s wandered into the storyline, but we do know that he’s this guy:

John Archer, glimpsed in the shot above while playing The Shadow on radio just a few years after Dick Tracy Returns. He essayed the role of Clark in his first year as a movie actor (having debuted a few months earlier in a larger role in the Universal cliffhanger Flaming Frontiers), and went on to become a busy film actor who worked with everybody from James Cagney to Randolph Scott to Elvis Presley. After decades on the big screen, Archer went on to become a familiar face to home audiences when he transitioned to television in the ‘50s and looked like this:

Anyway, Tracy knows – hell, even Mike McGurk knows – that “the good of science” won’t cut any ice with Pa Stark, and the G-men pile into their sedan to save the noble and soft-headed Mr. Clark from himself. But they’re too late; three of the Stark boys have already waylaid Clark on the country road, confiscated the paper-wrapped bundle he’s carrying, and taken him prisoner in his own car. With Trigger leading the way in the family car, Champ, Slasher and Clark follow as they head back to their hideout. Spotting Tracy and company in pursuit, they whip into Chinese fire drill mode, piling back into their own car and blocking the road with Clark’s ride – which they then set on fire and zoom away with Clark still a prisoner. By the time the G-men have extinguished the blazing roadblock, the Starks and their hapless captive are out of sight. It’s the beginning of a very bad afternoon for Mr. Clark.

At the country shack where the gang is holing up, Pa unwraps Clark’s bundle and discovers a brick of cut-up newspapers in the shape of dollar bills – a chump move that he’d expected, though it probably isn’t doing much for his piles. As for Clark, he’s been kidnapped by vicious killers and watched his nice car burn to a six-cylinder cinder, but it still hasn’t dawned on him just how screwed he is. As hopelessly sensible as Ward Cleaver laying things out for the Beaver, he says, “The reason I came here was to explain – ” but Pa cuts him off: “Save the explanations. We want cash.” Well, sure; in Pa’s situation I wouldn’t take a check, either.

Pa whips out a crudely drawn diagram detailing his plan for destroying the telescope – (A) tunnel under observatory, (B) dynamite in tunnel, (C) BOOM. “Simple,” says Pa. “Bound to work.” Yup. Clark concurs, and agrees to write a note to Worthing urging him to start digging up the 50K.

Meanwhile, Tracy’s returned to Wilmar (doubled here by Griffith Park Observatory), where he’s having a hell of a time convincing Dr. Worthing – who apparently enjoys recurring dreams of fuzzy pink bunnies – to face the seriousness of the situation. Urged by Tracy to evacuate the observatory, Worthing replies, “The crowd’s already gathered for the afternoon lecture, and I’d hate to disappoint them now.” Maybe so, Doc, but imagine their disappointment when they’re all blown to atoms. Tracy basically tells Worthing that it’s his ass – and when Clark’s urgent note turns up tacked to a door by a couple of Stark flunkies, Worthing reluctantly agrees to cut the lecture down to thirty minutes. Tracy looks as though he’d like to pistol-whip the lovable old brainiac, but there are too many witnesses around.

Back at the Stark hideout, even the eminently reasonable Mr. Clark has gotten fed up with how talky the chapter has become. Picking a moment when Champ, Trigger and Slasher are concentrating on a card game, he makes his move and manages to knock all three of the vicious gangsters down, vault the porch railing, and hightail it into the woods. Yowsa! The Stark boys take off after him, fuming and firing their pistols while Clark runs like hell.

One of the observatory scientists – who looks even more like a garden gnome than Worthing – approaches Tracy and points out that the section of the building housing the telescope has inexplicably shifted in the earth, throwing off his calculations. It’s a mystery, all right, but if the building can’t be shot or punched, the scientist has come to the wrong guy for help.

At that moment, Clark breaks out of the trees and lurches toward Tracy. “They’ve tunneled in from the – ” he gasps before shots ring out and he drops dead at the G-man’s feet.

Let’s recap:

And to add insult to injury, Clark wasn’t even shot by any of the Stark boys, but rather by the nameless gang flunkies who’d tacked the note to the door earlier. Tracy and his men whale the stuffing out of them in short order, and proceed to start piecing things together while Clark’s corpse, forgotten now, stiffens and cools on the pavement before them.

Let’s see: Clark said something about a tunnel…the telescope building’s sagging…The scientist helpfully offers, “There’s an old mine tunnel down there”… (They built an observatory over a mine tunnel and can’t understand why the building’s sinking? These astronomers are no rocket scientists.) “That’s it!” snaps Tracy. “Come on!” And off he trots, with Steve and McGurk in tow.

They’d better hurry, because we’ve already heard this exchange among the Stark boys, who are lurking at the edge of the woods:

Champ: We’d better set off that blast and scram!

Trigger: Well, why take a chance of that? We don’t get the money either way.

Slasher: And let ‘em think we’re bluffin’?

Trigger: I guess you’re right. I was just thinking of all those visitors up there.

Slasher: That’s their tough luck.

Yeah. What’s more important, Slasher’s street cred or the lives of a couple hundred tourists? No contest.

So, while Worthing is gassing on in the lecture room about the gaseous rings of Saturn, the Starks are down in the tunnel, setting a time bomb that will touch off a huge stack of dynamite crates. With five minutes before detonation, they beat it just as Tracy and Steve dash into the old mine, leaving McGurk to stand guard. Slasher, that little scamp, creeps up on McGurk and knocks him on his keister. (Lucky McGurk; if it had been Champ, he’d have taken his head off.) Confronted by three Starks, McGurk decides it’s his official duty to run like a rabbit into the tunnel, and Champ bars the door with a thick plank.

Tracy has heard the ticking of the time bomb, and he and Steve are hauling away crates of TNT in a desperate attempt to find it before the whole shebang goes sheboom. As the stuttering McGurk joins them, Tracy locates the bomb – but there are only seconds left before it blows. The G-men hustle down the tunnel in hopes of tossing it outside, but the entrance is barred.

Watching from a safe distance, one of the Starks says, “She’s due now,” and he’s right: the front of the mine sails into space in a terrific explosion of earth and rock that must mark the end of Tracy and his crew…

As Chapter Five gets rolling, we see that Tracy has been thinking fast and has planted the time bomb against the mine entrance. The three FBI men take cover down the tunnel, letting the explosion take care of that barred entrance without setting off the crated dynamite that would have wrecked the observatory. Crawling through fallen timbers and plaster boulders, they’re free and mad as hell.

“Let’s get to the plane!” shouts one of the Stark boys, leaving the audience to wonder, WHAT GODDAM PLANE? There’s a mad dash across the hillside, with Tracy and his men right behind and everybody hurling hot lead – and sure enough, in the middle of a field sits a gleaming little monoplane that nobody (including the filmmakers, apparently) had noticed before. The Starks take off amid a hail of bullets and vanish, evidently leaving Pa to fend for himself – which won’t be hard to do, since the only person who knew the location of the hideout was the late Mr. Clark.

Steve has gotten a pretty good look at the plane, and back at the office he works with an artist to put together a sketch. The drawing, plus the X (for “experimental”) that he’d seen in the plane’s serial number, leads them to the Carston Aircraft Corporation, where they learn that it’s a new model that’s still being tested in hopes of landing a government contract. Carston assures them that they couldn’t have seen one of his planes, though, as one has crashed and only three other unflown prototypes exist. One of those is about to be taken up for a shakedown, and he invites Tracy and Steve to observe. Tracy, ever on the lookout for new ways to put himself in needless danger, decides to stow away.

So it’s off into the wild blue yonder, but not for long. The plane sets down at a makeshift landing strip in the countryside, where pilot Brand is met by Pa Stark and a handful of flunkies. Brand climbs into a plane that’s been detailed to resemble the experimental job and takes off. Before driving away, Pa instructs flunky Pete (Charles Sullivan) to fly the real plane to a location where it will be disassembled and hauled away. As Pete climbs into the cockpit, Tracy makes his move – but he’s outnumbered by Pete and the other two flunkies. Pete gets the plane into the air and Tracy’s left sprawled in the dust.

Brand, meanwhile, following Pa’s instructions, has bailed out of the second plane and allowed it to crash – and Tracy quickly figures out that the Starks’ new scheme is stealing experimental government airplanes by crashing decoys and spiriting the genuine articles away. He takes his story to Carston, but Brand lies like a rug and even manages to blame Tracy for the latest crack-up. Carston swallows it whole, staring at the frustrated G-man like something he’d scraped off his shoe. Feeling his oats, Brand offers to take Tracy up for an official ride-along in another experimental job the next day: “Of course, two of this model have cracked up, but I’m sure you’ll be safe tomorrow.” To Brand’s surprise, Tracy takes him up on it.

Brand, by the way, is played by Eddie Cherkose (pictured in this installment’s crummy screengrab, below). A prolific songwriter and lyricist who cranked out a pile of ditties performed by Republic singing cowpokes like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Rex Allen, Cherkose was also an occasional actor, and turns in a solid job here as the two-faced pilot.

So a new day dawns and it’s wild blue yonder time again, but what Tracy doesn’t know is that Pa has come up with a new death trap for the persistent Fed. As the plane climbs toward 14,000 feet, Brand indicates that it’s time to use their oxygen tanks – which in 1938 terms means that both men stick rubber tubes into their mouths like long floppy straws at a soda fountain. But there’s no going Dutch for Brand; he’s loaded Tracy’s oxygen canister with anesthetic, and our hero is soon nodding off to fuzzy pink bunny land.

Brand snips the ripcord on Tracy’s parachute, tips the plane’s wings, and gives the G-man a shove. The last we see of Tracy is his rapidly diminishing figure as he snores his way toward the rudest of awakenings, thousands of feet below…

August 26, 2012 · Posted in Legends  

Ye gods! It’s 1938! Dick Tracy’s a G-man! His assistants are flying a witness back to finger punk mobster Kid Stark in court for shooting an agent! To save the Kid, the Stark gang’s luring the witness’s airliner into a mountainside! Tracy takes off in a small plane to lead the liner to safety, but ends up crashing his own plane! Is it curtains for the Dickster?

Naah. Seeing the mountains looming before him, Tracy thinks “Screw it,” nonchalantly shrugs into a parachute, bails out and strolls away.

As Tracy begins hoofing it back to the city, the Starks are packing up their gear. Their plan to murder the witness foiled, the gang’s hustling to make a getaway before Pa gets any crankier, and in the rush a flunky accidentally leaves a pair of pliers behind. Moments later, Tracy wanders onto the scene and finds the tool underfoot. Noting that the name “Stub” has been engraved on the handle, he whips out a plastic bag – apparently, he keeps those on hand in case he has to take sidekick Mike McGurk for a walk – and tucks the evidence into his pocket.

Back at the office, he finds a partial fingerprint on the pliers while bland assistant Steve Lockwood takes center stage for a moment to give Junior and the kids in the matinee audience a momentum-halting tutorial on what a “moniker” is (such as, for instance, “Stub”). Tracy, Steve and Gwen step into the teletype room to send the fingerprint and moniker specs to D.C., leaving Junior to make his own entertainment. Entertainment, in this case, thy name is McGurk, who’s currently earning his $10.60 a day investigating the inside of his eyelids and snoring like a ripsaw. Snatching up the regulation random loose feather that you always see lying around government offices, Junior applies it to McGurk’s nose (as seen in our latest crappy screengrab) –

and backwards goes Mike, crashing to the floor. Junior laughs his ass off at Mike’s pain and humiliation, as do Tracy, Gwen and Steve. This is what people did before they had TV.

Tracy and Steve head out to attend the Kid Stark trial, but first have to deal with a trio of Stark flunkies they catch trying to plant a bomb under the hood of Tracy’s car. They beat hell out of the bad guys, stack ‘em up like cordwood, and Tracy breezes off to court – where that witness from the airliner must have sung like a coloratura, as the next thing we see is a headline screaming “KID STARK TO DIE! Killer Sentenced to Die in Gas Chamber.”

This would be a golden opportunity for a courtroom scene in which Ned Glass struts his stuff as the punk Kid, rising up for one last blast of vicious short-man braggadocio before he melts down and gets hauled away in tears, to await his date with the executioner – but then Republic would have had to put up a courtroom set, light it, hire all those extras…Nope. Not gonna happen. We won’t be seeing Ned again.

At their hideout in the Mid-City Garage, a multi-leveled parking structure, Pa and the boys are taking the news about the Kid pretty hard. (Of course, none of the boys is suicidal enough to bring up the fact that it was actually Pa who committed the murder the Kid’s paying for.) But business is business, and they’ve got crimes to commit. Pa snarls at his loved ones to get off their worthless backsides and get back to work. Work, in this case, is a large-scale stolen car operation in a hidden section of the garage, and Pa turns out to be a demon micromanager. Moving through the chop shop, he rattles off one complicated order after another: “File off the serial numbers, take off that sedan body and make it a coupe. And paint it yellow.” “Pull it down, put in a Drake Motor, and paint it two-tone green.” Who knew Pa had such a flair for design?

As it has a way of doing in these things, fate’s about to bring our warring alpha males together again, for Tracy’s finally gotten a response from Washington: the fingerprint belongs to one James “Stub” Madison (not to be confused with James “Dockwalloper” Madison, the fourth president of the United States), whose last recorded place of employment is the Mid-City Garage.

So it’s off to the chop shop, where Tracy hitches a stealthy ride on the running board of a hot car up to the top floor. There, in a small room, he finds Pa and Slasher gloating over the half million they hijacked in the previous chapter. For a moment he has the drop on them, and even manages to get the cuffs on Pa – but then Champ arrives bearing a pipe wrench, and it’s time to play dogpile on the G-man. It’s a pretty wild and surreal donnybrook, with Tracy flailing out in all directions at the Stark boys, all of them rolling on the floor and bouncing off the walls. At the same time, Pa seems to have lost his marbles, madly whacking the nozzles off a series of wall-mounted pipes like Cheetah whooping it up while Tarzan wrestles a lion.

Pa’s not crazy, though; those pipes are part of a paint removal system that uses ether fumes, and the Starks seal a gagging and desperate Tracy in the paint room until he slumps to the floor, ready for his root canal.

Hauling Tracy’s limp form into a sedan, they give the wheel a good crank and send the car hurtling down the circular ramp to certain destruction. “That evens up for the Kid,” Pa says grimly…

And maybe it will. Looping downward through the garage in a demonstration of physics rarely seen outside a Daffy Duck cartoon, the car picks up speed, finally zipping out of the garage and into a busy street – barely missing a truck and finally flipping over, skidding on its roof, a pile of smashed and twisted metal that’s joined the heavenly fleet…

As Chapter 3 begins, we see that the wreck isn’t nearly as gruesome as it had looked before (you’d almost think they’d switched stock footage on us. Hmm.), and Tracy manages to crawl out in one piece just as Steve and a carload of G-men pull up. They all charge into the garage to nab the gang, but the Starks are already making tracks – without the half million bucks,  however, which – DUH – they’d left in that ether-filled paint room. The G-men recover the loot and the Starks’ files.

Tracy finds a slip of paper in the files with the faint impression of writing on it. With a little chemical know-how and a handy No. 2 pencil, he manages to bring out two words – “Baron Kroner,” the name of an unscrupulous weapons dealer. As Tracy and Steve are wondering what the Starks could have in common with Kroner, through the magic of clumsy segues we learn the answer:

Kroner’s hot to get his hands on an experimental remote control device the U.S. government has developed, and it’s worth big bucks to him for Pa and his brood to rip it off so he can peddle it to an unsavory (and, being pre-WWII, unnamed) foreign power. Kroner’s played by this handsome specimen –

Harrison Greene, a bit player and character actor who also appeared in the previous Tracy serial as one “Durston Cloggerstein.”

Durston, ah, Kroner informs the Starks that the device has been installed in a small Army tank for testing, and that he’s arranged for the train carrying it to be sidelined at a rural whistlestop called Perlita Junction. He assures them that the guards will be “disposed of,” and all the gang has to do is board the train and bring back the radio control doodad. He doesn’t mention why the folks responsible for disposing of the guards can’t steal the device while they’re at it but, hey, who wants to pay for all those extra actors? Not one to question the Republic bean counters, Pa promises he’ll have that remote control in the Baron’s moist fleshy hands by nightfall.

Meanwhile, Tracy’s had his staff combing through Kroner’s recent communications, and they’ve come up with a suspiciously worded telegram pointing them to Perlita Junction. Before you know it, he’s pulling up at the Perlita station in a car bulging with Feds. FYI: Throughout this serial, whenever Tracy needs more muscle than Steve and, ahem, McGurk can give him, it’s provided by Agents Rance (Reed Howes), Reynolds (Robert Terry) and Hunt (Tom Seidel). The “Lee, Rico, Youngblood” of Dick Tracy Returns, they’re as studly a bunch of guys as ever jammed their skulls into fedoras.

Discovering the station master tied up and his telegraph equipment disabled, they hoof it toward the tracks, where they discover the Starks and a crew of flunkies fueling up the little tank so they can move it into the ravine and work on it out of sight. (Out of whose sight? The combination of crooks and FBI agents on the scene looks to have tripled the population of greater metropolitan Perlita.)

It’s shootout time, and hot lead’s flying fast and furious. When Tracy manages to kill one of the gang’s flunkies, Pa Stark decides it’s time to beat it. Abandoning the tank, the gang gets the train going and rolling down the track. Steve manages to climb up the side of a freight car and gets himself pummeled senseless for his trouble. Just to rub it in, the Starks lock him to the top of the car with his own handcuffs and toss away the key. They abandon ship and leave the cars running wildly down the track, in the path of an oncoming passenger train.

While the station master struggles to get his telegraph working, Tracy hops into the tank and roars off after the runaway. Catching up, he makes a leap for the freight car as the experimental tank plows on without a driver…and, climbing to the top, he discovers Steve contemplating how long it would take him to gnaw his own arm off at the wrist.

The station master manages to get a message down the line, where the tracks are switched just in time to spare the passenger train, though it’s such a close shave that they’ll probably never get the smell out of the seats. Steve and Tracy’s runaway, however, is now headed for a ravine where the rickety trestle has collapsed to the ground. Any second now, they’ll be spread all over the landscape, as dead as Kid Stark’s chances of a triumphant return in Chapter Four…

August 18, 2012 · Posted in Legends  

Republic Pictures had a hit on their hands with the 1937 Dick Tracy serial, and the studio wasted no time in getting a sequel before the cameras. Eighteen months after Dick Tracy premiered, Chapter One of Dick Tracy Returns was unspooling on the nation’s matinee screens.

That original Tracy cliffhanger had been a bizarre and frequently goofy affair that threw the no-nonsense comic strip detective into a wild grab-bag adventure that swung eccentrically from proto-noir to science fiction to hick comedy to slam-bang crime drama with no rhyme and damned little reason. For the follow-up, Republic’s writers wisely chose not to try topping the previous insanity, and instead crafted a straightforward storyline reminiscent of the relatively more realistic procedurals that distinguished Chester Gould’s newspaper strip in the 1930s. At that time, the great grotesque villains such as Flattop and Pruneface had yet to appear, and the continuities were mostly devoted to Tracy tracking down torn-from-the-headlines-style murderers and mobsters. Dick Tracy Returns would follow Gould’s lead by pitting his hero against a family of killers inspired by the Barker gang, who had been decisively put out of business by the FBI just three years earlier.

The result was good news for the kids of all ages who followed the weekly chapterplays: a straightforward cops-and-robbers adventure with surprisingly good production values and a script that made sense – both elements worth noting for a period in which the serials’ reach frequently exceeded their grasp. And it was even better news for heroic-jawed star Ralph Byrd,

whose dynamic turn as Tracy in the first production earned him professional status that was practically unheard-of in the sound serial era: his name above the title.

As in the previous serial, Tracy has moved up from hotshot city detective to ace G-man, and Chapter One kicks off with not so much a bang as a rat-tat-tat as Tracy shows a film of tommy gun-toting rats to a class of fresh-faced FBI recruits. One of the young men particularly catches his eye – in a nice way, you understand –

and when eager and winsome Ron Merton (David Sharpe) graduates Fed school, Tracy takes the newly minted agent under his wing and has him assigned to his own office in California.

Tracy’s crew – Gwen, Steve, Mike and Junior (characters returning from the first serial but each played by different actors) – all agree that Ron’s a swell guy, so there’s little doubt that he’ll be pushing up daisies sometime in the next 15 minutes.

And having dropped all those names, here’s a quick rundown of the supporting cast so far:

Gwen Andrews, Tracy’s secretary, is played by the attractive and pleasant “B” actress Lynn Roberts. Also billed as “Mary Hart” in a handful of Roy Rogers oaters (giving Republic its own Rogers and Hart team, yuk yuk), Roberts had appeared in the studio’s Lone Ranger cliffhanger earlier that year and would work in Westerns with Gene Autry, Monte Hale and Tim Holt in between smaller parts in movies for bigger studios.

Steve Lockwood, Tracy’s chief assistant, is played by the bland and unobtrusive Michael Kent. Standing next to charisma-to-burn Ralph Byrd was a sure way to become invisible, and none of the three actors who played Lockwood in the serials managed to make much of an impression. But make no mistake; Steve’s a swell guy, too.

Mike McGurk, the comic relief, is played by Lee Ford (left). As an inept operative who’s there mostly to supply laughs, Ford replaces hayseed comic Smiley Burnette from the first serial; he’s annoying, but if you have to have McGurk around (Note: You don’t), he’s still an improvement over Burnette’s moronic original.

Tracy’s kid sidekick Junior is played by former Our Gang actor Jerry Tucker. Replacing the more effective Lee Van Atta from the first serial, Tucker spends the entire production wearing a poorly tailored uniform and getting himself kidnapped time after time. It’s never explained why he’s dressed for military school, but he’s so irritating that one can’t blame Tracy for packing him off to the cadet factory.

Returning to the short happy life of Ron Merton, that young G-man gets his first assignment when a request comes in for an agent to accompany an armored car transporting a pile of cash to a bank – a seemingly cushy gig that goes awry as the car is attacked by the infamous Stark gang.

Led by hatchet-faced Pa Stark (Charles Middleton), the main members of the gang are his five thuggish sons. Each trembles a little before Pa’s venomous wrath – and so would you if your dad was Ming the Merciless – but make no mistake: they’re hardened criminals, to a man. Here’s Pa with his four oldest boys, and just check out the mugs on these mugs:

From left are Jack Roberts as Dude, Charles Middleton as Pa, John Merton as Champ, Jack Ingram as Slasher, and Raphael Bennett as Trigger. We’ll get to know them better as the serial throws a spotlight on the individual Stark boys in upcoming chapters.

The Stark siblings pump the armored car full of lethal gas, roll it into a moving van and haul it to the city dump, where they plan to burn their way in with an acetylene torch and make off with the loot. However, Ron Merton, having snatched up a handy gas mask, isn’t quite dead yet, and gets the drop on them. Well, almost. Kid Stark, the youngest of the gang, has managed to elude the agent’s notice and he plugs Ron in the back.

Hooking up with their old man, the boys crow over their big heist, but Pa rains on their parade when he insists that Kid go back to be sure the FBI agent is dead. Kid Stark can be seen at left in the lousy screengrab below –

and if he looks familiar, it’s because he’s this guy –

Ned Glass, a beloved and versatile character actor who played the hell out of everything for over four decades, here taking his first featured role before the camera. His turn as the Kid – pugnacious, defensive and viciously resentful of being the runt of the Stark litter – is a highlight of the episode.

Kid takes a taxi back to the dump (hey, a fare’s a fare) and it’s just as well for him that he did, since Ron Merton still isn’t quite dead yet. Partly gassed and shot in the back, Ron’s staggering down the country road in search of help. Unfortunately, while he has pluck aplenty he’s short on luck, because the car he tries to flag down is the taxi carrying Kid, who whips out a revolver and plugs Ron in the front.

In the meantime, Dick Tracy (remember him?) has figured out that the armored car’s been hijacked. Tracy and Junior find Ron’s bullet-riddled body and, calling for an ambulance, Tracy takes off in hot pursuit of the taxi. With Kid waving his gun and urging more speed, the terrified cabbie finally smashes up the taxi in a fiery crack-up. Confronted by Tracy, Kid tries to bluff his way out by pretending to be an innocent bystander, but Tracy’s too savvy to fall for it and leads Kid off wearing a new pair of bracelets. The taxi driver has miraculously survived, too, and crawls away before he can get involved.

That’s his tough luck, because Tracy needs his testimony to make sure Kid Stark gets what’s coming to him. The G-men learn that the cabbie has gone underground in Salt Lake City, and Steve and McGurk are sent to fly him back.

Meanwhile, believe it or not, Ron is still hanging in there. He’s comatose now and in an iron lung, but the doctors say he has a good chance of pulling through. Pa Stark, clearly used to cleaning up his kids’ messes, slips into the hospital disguised as a janitor. Kid’s plugged young Mr. Merton over and over, but it’s Pa who seals the deal; reaching down to the electrical cord that’s keeping the iron lung working, Pa unplugs Ron…and the brief career of a swell guy with the misfortune to work for Dick Tracy comes to a merciful end.

Tracy’s not a happy man, and he whips his agents into a frenzy to locate the Stark gang. After some nicely played procedural sequences involving plaster tire casts and old-fashioned shoe leather, Tracy tracks a couple of the Stark boys to the airport’s radio building. Fisticuffs ensue – Tracy mixes it up with the brutish Champ, then barely dodges a knife hurled by Slasher (which buries itself in the heart of one of the gang’s flunkies; for Slasher’s sake, let’s hope that his accidental victim wasn’t one of the Starks’ cousins. There’d be no juice box for Slasher tonight.). Though outnumbered, the G-man is too much for the Starks, and they take it on the lam. Tracy discovers that they’ve busted up the equipment that broadcasts a radio beam to keep planes on course when visibility is low…and, of course, the fog is already thick as pea soup. And as the luck of Tracy’s subordinates would have it, the airliner bearing Steve, McGurk and that hapless cabbie is making its approach right now.

Putting two and two together, Tracy realizes that Pa and the boys smashed the equipment so they could transmit a phony beam that will end the threat to Kid’s liberty by luring the plane into the mountains. Leaping into a perky little two-seater, he takes to the air – and in a nifty display of Republic’s accomplished miniature effects, manages to warn the liner out of harm’s way. Unfortunately, Tracy can’t correct the trajectory of his own plane’s desperate maneuvers, and the chapter ends with his two-seater smashing to pieces on the mountainside.

Will the Starks get away to continue preying on decent citizens? Will Kid beat the rap, nail a sweet book deal and hit the lecture circuit? More importantly, is this the end of Dick Tracy?

Oh, c’mon…there’s a reason they didn’t call this serial “Ron Merton Returns.”

August 13, 2012 · Posted in Legends  

As recounted in our recent two-part look at the Three Mesquiteers movie series (Part 1 here and Part 2 here), that popular cowboy trio was played by a formidable posse of B Western veterans. From 1935-43, sixteen sagebrush stars moved in and out of the roles in the Republic Pictures series and its precursor, the “Barnum and Bailey of Westerns,” Powdersmoke Range.

The Mesquiteer series might have run even longer, but their success inspired so many imitators that by 1943, they’d been rendered almost commonplace by all the three-man teams that stampeded out of the Monogram and PRC studios. The Range Busters, the Rough Riders, the Trail Blazers and the Texas Rangers were the best known knockoffs of William Colt MacDonald’s trendsetting characters, and many of those groups included former Mesquiteers.

The actors who played Stony, Tucson and the gang were trailblazers, but they were also the nexus of virtually the whole wide range of Saturday matinee cowboys, nearly all of whom passed through their little corner of the West at one time or another. The number of top hands each man encountered over the course of his career is impressive; if you spread the associations out a little further, a la the old game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” the total is staggering.

For all the studios that cranked them out, the world of the B Western was a small one. Popular players like Bob Steele and Big Boy Williams worked all over the map and encountered many of the names that are listed below in connection with other actors. What follows is a simplified list, with only a sampling of the repetition of names; the multiple criss-crossing of actors in Powdersmoke Range alone accounts for more than half the famous names in the history of Western movies. For obvious reasons, the Mesquiteers have been omitted unless the two actors in question did not work together in that series. A complete accounting of the times a Mesquiteer crossed the path of other Western stars would boggle the mind.

BIG BOY WILLIAMS – Errol Flynn, Dick Foran, Buck Jones, Randolph Scott and John Wayne.

AL ST. JOHN – Rex Bell, Buster Crabbe, Lash LaRue, Lee Powell and Fred Scott.

HARRY CAREY – Buzz Barton, Buffalo Bill, Jr., William Desmond, Franklin Farnum, William Farnum, Art Mix, Buddy Roosevelt and Wally Wales…all in Powdersmoke Range!

HOOT GIBSON – Ken Maynard and Chief Thundercloud in the Trail Blazers series (which also included Bob Steele), Jack Perrin and Ray Corrigan.

SYD SAYLOR – Buster Crabbe, Ken Maynard, Kermit Maynard, Joel McCrea, George O’Brien, Tex Ritter and Randolph Scott.

RAY CORRIGAN – Rex Allen, Donald “Red” Barry, Monte Hale, Jack Holt, Tom Keene, Allan “Rocky” Lane, Dave O’Brien, Roy Rogers, John “Dusty” King and Dennis Moore (both in the Range Busters series).

BOB LIVINGSTON – Yakima Canutt, William Farnum, Rex Lease, Kermit Maynard, Art Mix, Dennis Moore, Roy Rogers, Al St. John, Chief Thundercloud and Big Boy Williams.

MAX TERHUNE – Johnny Mack Brown, Rex Lease, Dennis Moore and Dave Sharpe (the final three in the Range Busters series).

RALPH BYRD – Harry Carey, Edmund Cobb, Gary Cooper, Hoot Gibson, Tim McCoy, Fred Scott and Tom Tyler.

JOHN WAYNE – Yakima Canutt, Harry Carey, Iron Eyes Cody, Tim Holt, Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, Roy Rogers, Randolph Scott, Tom Tyler and Big Boy Williams.

RAYMOND HATTON – Rex Bell, Robert “Little Beaver” Blake, Johnny Mack Brown, Gary Cooper, Buck Jones and Tim McCoy (both in the Rough Riders series).

DUNCAN RENALDO – “Slingin’” Sammy Baugh, Harry Carey, Leo Carillo and Chief Thundercloud.

TOM TYLER – Gary Cooper, William “Wild Bill” Elliott, Errol Flynn, Russell Hayden, Tim Holt, Alan Ladd, Wayne Morris, George O’Brien, Roy Rogers, Randolph Scott, Jay Silverheels and John Wayne.

BOB STEELE – Broncho Billy Anderson, Johnny Mack Brown, Rod Cameron, Sunset Carson, Lane Chandler, Buster Crabbe, Clint Eastwood, Ben Johnson, Tom Keene, Ken Maynard, Kermit Maynard, Tim McCoy, Joel McCrea, Audie Murphy, Randolph Scott and John Wayne.

JIMMIE DODD – Rex Bell, Johnny Mack Brown, James Craig, Dick Foran, Hal Taliaferro and Big Boy Williams.

RUFE DAVIS had few Western credits outside his time with the Mesquiteers, but he deserves some kind of honorable mention for his recurring role on the TV series Petticoat Junction, which teamed him with Edgar Buchanan, Smiley Burnette, Pat Buttram and Roy Roberts in a virtual Western sidekicks’ and character actors’ reunion.

Taking the association a couple of degrees further, we can extend the Mesquiteers to just about every major cowboy star not already on the list. Three of the Mesquiteers acted with Roy Rogers, who in turn acted with Charles Starrett and Gene Autry, who both worked with Jimmy Wakeley. Tom Tyler can be connected through Russell Hayden to James Ellison  and Hopalong Cassidy himself, William Boyd, through Tim Holt to Ray Whitley, and through Jay Silverheels to Clayton Moore, TV’s Lone Ranger. Bob Steele’s co-star Sunset Carson once worked with Bill Cody. Raymond Hatton’s frequent partner Johnny Mack Brown acted with Bob Baker. And many of the Mesquiteers worked at one time or another with Gabby Hayes, who probably worked with everybody we’ve left out.

And let’s not forget the family connections. Bob Livingston’s brother Jack Randall played B Western leads at Monogram and Columbia. And Bob Steele’s father Robert Bradbury directed many movie cowboys, both famous and obscure, including William S. Hart and Tom Mix.

It’s no wonder the Three Mesquiteers rode point during the greatest of the B Western’s golden years – they had the best connections in the West.

March 15, 2011 · Posted in Legends, Western  

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