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Updated on November 7, 2016
John Lavernoich profile image

JOHN LAVERNOICH is the author of six published books, as well as a significant number of published short stories and articles.

Dick Tracy (complete with his two-way wrist TV), as illustrated by creator Chester Gould.
Dick Tracy (complete with his two-way wrist TV), as illustrated by creator Chester Gould.

Modern-day audiences might not be familiar with Dick Tracy, the big city police detective whose long-running newspaper comic strip debuted in 1931 -- the comic strip itself was creator Chester Gould's response to the rise of crime in the 1920's and 1930's, when real-life Prohibition and Depression-era criminals like Chicago mob boss Al Capone and John Dillinger dominated news headlines, thus inspiring the creation of one of the most famous Rogues' Galleries in pop culture history, rivaled (and in some cases, surpassed) by that belonging to Batman (and it's not surprising that author/novelist Max Allan Collins worked on both characters throughout his career). The comic strip also introduced technology -- like Tracy's two-way wrist radio (and later TV) -- which would later inspire the real-life technology that's now a part of everyday life worldwide, including present-day cell phones and computers. And like other comic strip heroes who debuted in the 1920's and 1930's, when the adventure comic strip was extremely popular (given the times they existed in), Dick Tracy would be one of the first to successfully make the leap from the printed page to other forms of mass media.

Dick Tracy on the radio

From 1934-48, there were several Dick Tracy radio programs which ran on-and-off on several networks during that media's height of popularity, starting with a 1934 version which was broadcast on those NBC radio stations in New England, with Bob Burlen becoming the first actor to play the fictional character; five more incarnations would follow over the next thirteen years on not only NBC, but also CBS, Mutual, and ABC, and certainly did as much to bolster not only the character's popularity -- but also the morale of a generation of listeners coping with both the Great Depression and World War II.

One of the more notable radio depictions of Dick Tracy during its Golden Age was far more humorous than the more serious adventures that were found in the comic strip and a good number of its mass-media incarnations -- it was also geared at a limited (but important) radio audience. The February 15, 1945 broadcast of Command Performance -- the weekly radio program produced by the U.S. Armed Forces Radio Service for those fighting overseas during World War II -- featured "Dick Tracy In B-Flat," a musical comedy starring Bing Crosby as Tracy, Bob Hope as Flattop, and Dinah Shore as Tracy's girlfriend (and later wife) Tess Trueheart, which was -- in many respects -- more entertaining than what would follow in later decades.

Dick Tracy's success on radio would also lead to several audio recordings over the next forty-plus years, starting with a two-record set that Mercury Records produced in 1947 -- and ending with several audio albums produced by the Walt Disney Company in 1990 to tie in with the live-action feature film released that same year.

Dick Tracy on film

From 1937-41, Republic Pictures -- its movie serials head-and-shoulders above those produced by other Hollywood studios -- released four Dick Tracy movie serials starring Ralph Byrd in the title role, starting with Dick Tracy (1937) and ending with Dick Tracy Vs. Crime, Inc. (1941), most notable for the fact that Tracy wasn't a police detective in all four serials, but a FBI agent working in southern California. Also notable was the fact that Tracy's later-adopted son Junior was the only other character from the comic strip to appear in the serials themselves.

In 1946-47, RKO released four Dick Tracy feature films, its overall visual feel inspired by the already-emerging film noir which would be greatly associated with the suspense and mystery films released in the post-World War II era. Morgan Conway played Tracy in the first two RKO films -- Ralph Byrd then returned to the role for the last two, including Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947), notable for the fact that the actor playing the main villain in that film got top billing over Byrd. But then, that's not surprising -- given the fact that Boris Karloff, no stranger to playing on-screen villains, played Gruesome in that particular film.

If the Dick Tracy films of the 1930's and 1940's had a common fault, it was that they didn't truly capture the visual imagery which was a hallmark of the comic strip itself -- especially when it applied to Tracy's most famous foes, including Flattop, Pruneface, and the Mole, given their cartoonish designs, something that the producers probably steered clear of at that time, if only to not totally upset movie audiences. Producing feature films based on a comic strip property's one thing -- it's trying to remain true to the strip's artistic vision which can be somewhat difficult, which wasn't uncommon for a number of comic strip (and comic book) characters who made the leap to movie screens (and later TV).

Dick Tracy on TV

In 1950, Dick Tracy became one of the first comic strip characters to appear on TV with a weekly half-hour series which aired first on ABC in 1950-51, then in syndication in 1951-52 -- with Ralph Byrd reprising the title role that he played on film in the 1930's and 1940's. The TV series was notable for featuring many of Tracy's Rogues' Gallery foes, including Flattop and the Mole, as well as the detective's fellow supporting cast, including Tess Trueheart and Sam Catchem. However, the first TV version of Dick Tracy was filmed on a low budget, partly because the TV industry as a whole was in its infancy -- and the series' hectic shooting schedule associated with said budget played a factor in Byrd's untimely death in 1952, forcing production on the TV series to cease not long after.

It wasn't until the late-1950's and 1960's when Dick Tracy made the leap to a medium befitting his comic strip origins -- in this case, animated cartoons. Starting in the late-1950's, Dick Tracy appeared in animated cartoon form in a series of TV commercials for such products as Post Cereals -- a practice that would be extended over the next few decades.

In 1960-61, Dick Tracy appeared in his own animated TV series, which aired in syndication -- character actor Everett Sloane (Citizen Kane) voiced the title character. However, Tracy only played a supporting role in the animated TV version, which consisted of several five-minute cartoon shorts per episode -- as the spotlight centered on a number of comic lawmen who clashed with many of Tracy's long-time foes; some of the lawmen were ethic and racial stereotypes, which have since become offensive in the 50-plus years since (and the main reason why the TV cartoons themselves aroused criticism when they were re-aired on TV in 1990, the same year that Warren Beatty's film version of Dick Tracy appeared in movie theaters). The Dick Tracy animated TV series was produced by UPA, the animation studio best remembered for creating Mr. Magoo -- and not surprisingly, both Magoo and Tracy would cross paths on a 1965 episode of The Famous Adventures Of Mr. Magoo on NBC.

In 1967, film and TV veteran William Dozier and 20th Century Fox co-produced a live-action Dick Tracy TV pilot for NBC, in which the police detective (played by Ray McDonnell) matched wits with a criminal mastermind and computer genius (Victor Buono) out to destroy NATO, the real-life global organization created in the post-World War II era. But the pilot never became a TV series for several reasons -- including the fact that the Nielsen ratings for the live-action Batman TV series that Dozier and Fox produced for ABC at that time were already declining, and which would lead to its cancellation in 1968. In perhaps an ironic twist of TV history, Eve Plumb, who was cast as Tracy and Tess Trueheart's daughter Bonnie Braids, didn't appear at all in the failed TV pilot (except for the opening credits) -- two years before the child actress played Jan Brady on the classic TV sitcom The Brady Bunch.

Dick Tracy's next TV appearance would come four years when he appeared on the animated TV series Archie's T.V. Funnies (as in Archie Andrews, the popular comic book teenager who debuted in 1941, a decade after that of Tracy himself), which aired as part of CBS's Saturday morning schedule in 1971, alongside other popular comic strip characters like Nancy and Broom Hilda. Though the animation on Archie's T.V. Funnies was typical of that period, there's no doubt that the Dick Tracy cartoon shorts which were a part of it were faithful to Chester Gould's original vision. After that, Dick Tracy wouldn't make another on-screen appearance for almost the next twenty years -- during that time span, Gould retired from writing and drawing the Dick Tracy comic strip in 1977, as a number of writers and artists succeeded him, including most notably writer/author Max Allan Collins, whose creation of Ms. Tree (with Terry Beatty) in the 1980's would help symbolize the rise of the independent comic book publishers which would compete with DC, Marvel, etc. for readers' attention.

The Modern Age

From the late-1970's onward, comic book and comic strip characters became the focus of feature-length film franchises determined to capitalize on the success of such hit movies as Star Wars (1977) and Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981), with Superman and Batman proving to be the most successful. It was the success of Tim Burton's Batman (1989) which helped paved the way for actor/filmmaker Warren Beatty to return Dick Tracy to the big screen (with Beatty playing the title role, as well as producing and directing it) -- which finally happened in 1990, courtesy of Touchstone Pictures, one of several film studios created by Disney in the 1980's to cater to older film audiences. Beatty pulled all the stops in terms of quality as far as his film version of Dick Tracy was concerned, including getting an all-star cast -- among them Al Pacino (as Big Boy Caprice, Tracy's first adversary in the comic strip), Dustin Hoffman (as Mumbles), and Charles Durning (as Chief Patton) -- to appear in the film. Another advantage in the film's favor was composer/songwriter Stephen Sondheim, who wrote several original songs which were performed in the film by pop star Madonna (who played Breathless Mahoney) -- one of them, "Sooner Or Later," would win one of the film's three Academy Awards. (The other two Oscars were for Best Make-Up and Best Art Direction).

Despite mixed reviews, Beatty's version of Dick Tracy was a box office success -- but the actor/director's plans to work on a sequel to the film itself never came to fruition, due to a legal battle between Beatty and Tribune Media Services (which owns the Chicago Tribune newspaper, where Tracy first debuted in 1931) which resulted in a lawsuit which would end in Beatty's favor in October 2013.

Whether or not Dick Tracy will appear on-screen again -- nobody can say. The fictional police detective's comic strip is still running in countless newspapers worldwide -- even if the adventure comic strip's popularity isn't what it once was during its heyday. Still, the comic strip -- and the best media adaptations of it -- continue to remind us of the lawman's importance to both society and its institutions, while boldly predicting today's technology that all of us should never take for granted.

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